ROB THOMAS: Climbing the Ranks

While his wife checks the fan message board on his website at their home in Westchester, NY, singer/songwriter Rob Thomas enjoys a little down time. The songwriter has just returned from walking the dog, and seeing his wife checking the message board has him joking that they know more about his canine friend than he does. The board has been particularly active since April 19, when Thomas released his solo debut, Something to Be, on Atlantic Records. While his fans have had no trouble accepting this transition-from Matchbox Twenty frontman to solo performer-Thomas admits that he’s still coming to terms with the fact that he’s no longer in a band.

Describing the album, he keeps speaking in the first-person plural. Luckily, his wife chirps in from the background and reminds him that it’s “his album,” so there’s no need to speak of “we.”

You would think that three Grammys and worldwide sales of more than 25 million units is motivation enough for the songsmith to win the battle of the bed each morning. Not so. Rather, it’s the magic of the creative process and the moment when a song is born that truly inspires him.

“You walk into a room and there’s nothing there…a big, silent, empty room,” Thomas says. “Then, there’s a good chance of leaving that room with a song that never existed before that maybe other people will be singing a couple of years down the road. That’s an amazing concept to me.

“I take it all the way back to the point that ‘Rock Around the Clock’ did not exist, and one day these writers went into a room and came out with this amazing song, and now it’s a piece of history,” he continues. “It’s the one part of all of this that no matter how you try to fuck it up, you can’t. It stays pure. No matter what happens to it later, no matter where it goes, no matter how people decide to sell records or not sell records, that part doesn’t get changed.”

Selling records was never a problem for Thomas with Matchbox Twenty, and it’s proving to be a non-issue with Something to Be. The first single, “Lonely No More,” flew up the charts upon release in March, and it was the No. 1 most added track at multiple formats long before its February 14 impact date. And, on April 27, Something to Be opened at No. 1 on The Billboard 200.

There’s no doubting that Thomas is a songwriter that makes an impact; the accolades speak for themselves. In June 2004, the Songwriters Hall of Fame presented him with their first ever “Starlight Award,” created to recognize someone in the early years of his or her career that is already making a lasting impact. In addition, he has earned 13 BMI Awards, including both Songwriter and Song of the Year. He was named Billboard’s Songwriter of the Year two years in a row.

“That can carry you a long way in your head,” he says of all these accolades. “It’s a lot easier to shove off a bad criticism that you read in a magazine if Bernie Taupin is a really big fan.”

While this is Thomas’ first full album of original music working without his band, he has previously had the opportunity to play and write with several of his personal fans, who just happen to be songwriting legends. “I’ve been really fortunate with Matchbox, so any outside writing has been based on the idea, ‘Can I learn a whole lot from this’ or ‘Does this sound like something that is going to be a lot of fun?’” he explains. “So, I’ve worked with people that I’m a big fan of in some way-everybody from Mick Jagger and Willie Nelson to people like Phil Vassar and Pat Green.”

Working with the septuagenarian songwriter Nelson was a definite high for Thomas, in more ways than one. “We spent two days together, and he just wound up doing three of my songs,” he reveals. “We sat down to write something together and we never actually wrote anything. We just really got high for two days and played each other songs.
“With Mick Jagger it was a different thing all together,” Thomas continues. “We spent two days together. It would be a couple of hours writing in the afternoon and then we would go out drinking. He was such an intense writer. I didn’t expect that out of him.”

“To see him grab a guitar and run into the other room and start just beating a melody out, and even more importantly, to see him doing it the same way that I do it…being really raw and not being afraid to make noises that don’t make any sense…seeing that as a young writer and seeing one of my idols doing that, that’s a nice sense that everything is right in the world and I’m doing things the way I should be doing them.”

Another valuable career lesson that Thomas recalls came from Carlos Santana several years ago, while the pair were collaborating on what would become the Grammy-winning single “Smooth.”

“When I met Carlos we [Matchbox Twenty] had just finished coming off the road for our first record and we had sold all these records, yet we still were very secure in the knowledge that we weren’t that much better of a band than we were when we started,” he says. “But, all of a sudden we were in this arena…first off, literally in an arena…but in the arena of all these other rock stars and selling all these records that we were all of a sudden supposed to be at this level and we weren’t. And, we were standing there with our dicks in our hands going ‘What do we do now? Is this it?’ because it didn’t feel like it.

“Working with Carlos, it seemed like it had this really serendipitous perfect timing for him to come along and be like, ‘Hey listen, it’s the fucking journey man…there is no destination,’” continues Thomas. “‘If you do all this and sell all these records, then all you have done is buy yourself a chance to be a better band-to buy yourself the chance to be better musicians, better songwriters, and work on that and realize that sooner or later if you have something that tanks, that’s fine. That just becomes part of your repertoire. Ten years down the road, that might be people’s favourite song…the one that didn’t work. It’s just a matter of doing this long enough that that could come to fruition.’”

With Something to Be, Thomas continues this musical journey, realizing there is no destination and hoping that one of the tracks just might become a fan’s favourite song today or a decade from now. While he still struggles with the fact that he’s not in Matchbox Twenty anymore-and he’s out there on his own (at least for a time)-it’s something the award-winning songwriter’s always had in the back of his mind.

“Everyone kept asking me ‘What’s the difference going to be? Why do a solo record? If you write these songs and you’re the front man, what do you have to say that you are not saying?’” says Thomas. “It’s a testament to Matchbox Twenty that there’s a lot [of speculation]. Because when we do something with Matchbox, it’s a full band effort, and every sound that we put on there is like the result of an argument between five people. So, going in and being responsible for it all yourself was the difference.”

As a songwriter, being responsible for the writing has never been a problem. It comes naturally for Thomas, so in that regard, penning songs for a Matchbox record or for this new solo venture was no different. “The writing part of it always feels like the easy part,” he says. “It seems like ‘This is what I do…this is the way I was born,’ so I write all the time anyway. I’m just lucky enough that I get to do it for a living or else I would just have a lot of songs that nobody’s heard.”

For Thomas, a song’s genesis usually begins on the guitar, even though he admits he’s a lot better piano player. “A lot of times I start on the guitar, but I just kind of get stuck,” he explains. “I know what chord I want to play, but I can’t play it. So then I switch to piano, and I’m not blocked by something simple like chord progressions. The only problem is that if you start on the piano, a lot of times it seems you tend to go a lot mellower because anything that you play on the piano-and try and rock-just sounds stupid. No matter what you do, it all just sounds like ‘Crocodile Rock.’”

At the end of the day, whether in a band, in collaboration with others, or by his lonesome, composing songs is really what drives Thomas to get out of bed in the morning.

“It’s the one thing that I wouldn’t want to quit,” he concludes. “I could probably quit everything else. At the end of the day, I get a bigger reward out of writing a great song than I do out of being a pop star. That’s something that I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.”

This article originally appeared in American Songwriter.