By Dan Weiss
Single Again is a new column on Radio.com where Dan Weiss investigates chart hits of the past and present, their stories and what they meant and how good they really are.
For this edition of Single Again, we spoke to Emerson Hart of Tonic about “If You Could Only See,” which was rock radio’s most played song of 1997.
On April 15, he’ll release his second solo album Beauty in Disrepair.
“If You Could Only See”: blessing or curse?
Blessing. It’s a blessing in a way that I don’t ever get tired of playing that song, and I still hear it on the radio every day. That’s a testament to the song. Has nothing to do with me now, it’s all about the song.
How would you describe the song to someone born after it?
I would say that’s an honest, pop-rock song. It’s a rock song, but it’s got a pop melody. Pop is kind of a dangerous word.
Pop means popular. So I don’t know what category that song would fit into anymore because it’s still on the radio.
Was the song inspired by a real person or real events?
Yeah, every song I’ve ever written, for Tonic or for me, was inspired by a real event. I’m not the kind of writer who can just make stuff up. I can take something from a real situation and make it better, or make it worse. But I don’t like to write that way…it was definitely from a real situation that happened once or twice.
What can you tell me about the situation?
When I was 21 or 22, I was in love with somebody who my mom did not feel was a good fit. So my family disowned me for about three years. And the last conversation I had with my mother when I was home I’d said, “if you could only see the way she loves me, maybe you would understand.” I just wrote that song, after that phone call, literally in a matter of minutes.
Then obviously it turned out my mother was right, it didn’t work out. But I got a great song out of it.
Does the person know that the song is about her?
Yes. But I never saw her again.
Have you heard her reaction to it?
I haven’t. This was years and years ago. The last time I had contact with her was when we were nominated for GRAMMYs for Head on Straight, the third Tonic record. She just emailed me out of the blue and said, “Hey, I always knew you could do it, congratulations.” And that was the last I heard from her.
That’s pretty much all you could ask, really.
Do you think the song would be a hit if it was released today?
Yes. Great—well, I don’t want to say it’s great, it sounds arrogant—good songs are good songs, no matter when you release them, it’s just a matter of who does them and how you release them. A great song will always rise to the top.
Have you heard any good covers of it?
The Backstreet Boys did a cover of it one time, that was pretty interesting! I’ve heard more cover bands cover it than you could ever imagine, in bars. The Princeton a cappella group did a cover of it that was pretty astounding.
Do the bar bands ever say anything to you or do they have no idea they’re in the room with the guy who wrote the song they’re playing?
Some do, but I don’t have a goatee anymore so…[laughs]
My friend actually wanted me to ask why you shaved the goatee off.
I have a six-year-old daughter, and she said “daddy scratchy.” So for her I’d do anything.
Awesome. If you could get the world’s attention again for four minutes, what one other song of yours should the most people hear?
Hmm. There’s a song coming out on this new record Beauty in Disrepair called “You Know Who I Am.” It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve done.
My personal favorite is “Knock Down Walls,” I’m a huge fan of that weird slide riff.
Yeah, that’s an interesting song! We don’t play that live anymore, we should probably bring that back.
You should! What was the most extravagant purchase you made after “If You Could Only See” was a hit?
Man, none. I’ve never really been a big spender. I bought my first house after “Open Up Your Eyes,” my first No. 1. Probably the only impulsive purchase I’ve ever made was I bought a ’69, four-door Mercedes Black. I like classic cars. You’ve got to be smart with your money.
What was your own favorite song to hear on the radio next to yours, during the “If You Could Only See” era?
That’s a great question, I’ve got to remember. Umm…probably “Run” by Collective Soul. Ed Roland’s a dear friend of mine, I always love his songs. I think that was a few years after.
Yeah I think so. They’re really underrated for some of their guitar riffs.
I know, man.
Your upcoming album, Beauty in Disrepair. Who would it appeal to who’s not already aware of it?
I think it might tend to lean a little more female. For some reason a lot of the shows I’ve been doing for this record, a lot of the audience is female. And I know it’s not because of my good looks, that’s for s–t sure. [laughs]