Given Rob Thomas’s stature as one of modern music’s most compelling and commercially successful artists for well over a decade – between Matchbox Twenty, his solo work, and his various collaborations with iconic artists like Santana and Mick Jagger, his tally now stands at more than 80 million albums sold worldwide – it’s easy to let the charts and numbers overshadow the essential reason he’s come so far in the first place. As he says with typical understatement, “I’m a guy who hears songs in his head, and I have to write them down, and I have to get them out. I’m just lucky enough that I can make it my life’s work.”
Arguably the most accomplished singer/songwriter of his generation, for Rob it all comes back to the creative source. “I have to separate the idea of what I do for a living versus what I do. Songwriting is the only thing that makes sense to me. Years of doing it helps, but the truth is that the reason you do it for years is because it’s what you do. It’s the only thing that I have that kind of shorthand on… I don’t know cars, I don’t know sports, and I’m not a math whiz. This is something that I look at and it just makes sense to me.”
Making sense of his musical inspiration is what Rob Thomas does at an exceptionally high level. “It’s a two-part process – there’s inspiration and craft. The inspiration is the part that’s completely magical and you have no responsibility over. The inspiration is when you’re sitting in your car or in a room and you hear a melody. You love it, it sounds great, and then you realize that it doesn’t exist yet in the world, that it’s a melody you just came up with. That’s a process that you can’t be responsible for. The minute you start to claim ownership of it, you lose it. To paraphrase a quote from Quincy Jones, ‘the moment that success leads you to say, “I’ll take it from here, God,” that’s when God walks out of the room.’”
And as for the craft? “You have those moments when you are in full service of the feeling and you carry it as far as it takes you. And when that feeling stops, you put it away and at some point you have to go back and work on it. You say, ‘OK, this is where the inspiration took me, now what was it I was trying to say, where was it I was going? It’s this unbelievable process that when you’re done with it, every time you do it, for a second you feel like the most unbelievably creative person in the world, and then it goes away and you feel like you’re never going to do it again… and you have to start all over again. So you keep trying to get that feel, that high off of creating, that place that carries you from a blank page where nothing existed to a song that people are singing back to you at Madison Square Garden, if you’re lucky. That’s where the magic is.”
Which brings us to the latest magical collection of Thomas-crafted inspiration – his second solo album, cradlesong. It follows his 2005 multi-platinum solo debut, “…SOMETHING TO BE,” which made history as the first album by a male artist from a rock or pop group to debut at No. 1 on The Billboard 200 since the chart was launched 50 years earlier. The album earned a pair of Grammy nominations and spawned a string of hit singles, including the smash “Lonely No More” – which was #1 in 15 countries, “This Is How A Heart Breaks,” “Ever The Same,” and “Streetcorner Symphony.”
cradlesong, with Matt Serletic again in the producer’s chair, was forged in a creatively charged atmosphere. “I built a studio in my basement, so a lot of these songs started with a drum beat,” Thomas says. “Up until this point in my life, everything had been written on acoustic guitar or piano, and I’d have to wait until I got into the studio and hear musicians get on it. Now I could have a good drum groove, get some guitars going, and then from that, Matt could hear it closer to how I was hearing the song.”
“I like musical hybrids,” says Thomas about the direction of cradlesong. “Like, 'What would it sound like if we took Prince's drummer and mixed him with really amazing Nashville players?’ I like to take everyone just left of their comfort zone and record it.” One early point of reference was Paul Simon’s seminal “RHYTHM OF THE SAINTS.” “I wanted to find a new way to do something that felt like it had an urgency to the groove.”
The result is a percussive rock record that pulses with passion and energy. Vibrant guitars collide on songs such as “Fire on the Mountain” and the power pop gem “Give Me The Meltdown,” horns bolster the bouncy “Wonderful,” while electronic programming propels the dynamic “Real World ’09.” The title track is the sole ballad on an otherwise up-tempo set. “’Cradlesong’ is in there because it’s really a mellow tune,” says Thomas. “It’s kind of a ‘calm down, everything is going to be all right’ song.”
The album’s first single, the kaleidoscopic “Her Diamonds,” is the most personal song Thomas has yet committed to disc. Rob’s wife Marisol is courageously battling an autoimmune disease, and “Her Diamonds” was written “about a couple dealing with that on a day-to-day basis,” explains Thomas. “There’s an incredible amount of sadness that comes with something like that. There are moments where I think I flirted with a thinner personal line than I’ve ever done before, but, really, I’m writing a song about how people deal with hard times, and that hard time is universal, that hard time can be anything.”
That gift of turning the personal into the universal has long been a hallmark of Rob’s work. “If I can take a specific moment in my life and write about how that moment makes me feel – not about the moment, but the way the moment makes me feel, all of a sudden I’m in a territory where a lot of people can understand that. A lot of people understand that feeling; they have other things in their life that make them feel that way. If I write ‘3am’ about my mother dealing with cancer, that’s a very specific moment, but if I write about how that made me feel, then it opens up and it becomes a universal moment.”
Many of the tunes on cradlesong examine the frail and often evanescent nature of relationships. “I think that human relations, not just romantic but otherwise, are always at the heart of my songs,” says Rob. “They’re about how people interact with each other, how people treat each other at their best times and their worst times; that’s always a thread.”
In “Mockingbird,” a couple decides that happiness comes in falling apart, not staying together. The up-tempo beat belies the fact that “there’s nothing happy about that one at all,” Thomas says. Similarly, the piano-based “Someday” finds lovers hoping for a time when their tribulations cease. Rarely has doubt been encased in such a melodic, layered, and lush production.
cradlesong includes the dense, atmospheric “Fire On The Mountain,” which is built around one chord. The song draws upon Dave Eggers’s “What is the What” for its lyrical inspiration. “You know how it is when you’re in a book, you’re living in that space,” says Thomas, a voracious reader. “This is the first time I’ve ever done a song where I didn’t really write down the lyrics; I just sang them.”
cradlesong closes with “Getting Late,” a lovely, country-tinged acoustic benediction about the passage of time. With the reminder that time is fleeting, Thomas gently sends us back in the world.
It’s a world he views with boundless optimism and, despite the occasionally discouraging lyric, Thomas infuses that same spirit into cradlesong. “I’m not a mopey person; I don’t get satisfaction in heartache and despair. With the exception of a few things that start dark and stay dark, there’s usually a hopefulness at the end of each song,” he says. “There has to be; it’s the hopeful part that makes you want to share them with people. It’s the hopeful part that says you found some secret in the pain and maybe some other people will, too.”
Reflecting on the emotional impact his songs have had on countless listeners, Rob tells the story of “a woman who used to come to a lot of our shows. She was a really big fan, and she recently passed on of cancer. Her family sent me a picture of her gravestone, and in big letters all it says is ‘Ever The Same. Mother & Wife.’ The idea that a moment I had in my studio later became a song that was so personal and so important to someone… those are moments that you can’t explain and you can’t fabricate and you can’t recreate, and you’re not responsible for. I think that’s the reason why you’re drawn to writing songs in the first place, and I think it’s the reason why no matter how hard it gets, and no matter whether you have success or not, you still think it’s the greatest thing in the world… because it is. It’s not a great thing because of the material rewards you get from it; it’s great already, and the rewards are gravy on top of that.”
ROB THOMAS, IN FACT…
“The whole thing started 15 years ago because I had a bunch of songs,” says Rob of the genesis of Matchbox Twenty. Since then, he has penned a remarkable string of smashes, including their #1-charters “Push,” “3AM,” “If You’re Gone,” “Bent,” “Disease,” and “Unwell,” and other major hits like “Real World,” “Back 2 Good,” “Mad Season,” and “Bright Lights.”
In 1999, his smash collaboration with Santana, the Thomas-penned “Smooth,” earned Rob three Grammy Awards and today ranks #1 on Billboard’s “Top Hot 100 Rock Songs” chart and #2 on the magazine’s “Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs.” He has also worked with the likes of Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Marc Anthony, and Bernie Taupin.
In 2004, the Songwriters Hall of Fame presented Thomas with its premiere “Starlight Award” – created to recognize a composer in the early years of his or her career who has already made a lasting impact. He has won numerous BMI and ASCAP Awards, and has earned the Songwriter of the Year crown from both Billboard and BMI for two consecutive years.
With the 2005 release of his first solo album, the #1, multi-platinum “…SOMETHING TO BE,” Rob embarked on a major, sold-out world tour. He also appeared at the historic Live 8 multi-concert event in July 2005, performing both as a solo artist and joining Stevie Wonder for a duet version of the Wonder classic, “Higher Ground.”
In 2007, Thomas reunited with Matchbox Twenty for “EXILE ON MAINSTREAM.” Their first album in five years, the set combined a retrospective of their greatest hits with a six-track EP of new songs produced by Steve Lillywhite – including the RIAA gold single, “How Far We’ve Come.” Debuting at #3 on the Billboard 200, the RIAA gold “EXILE ON MAINSTREAM” scored the biggest first week of the year for a greatest hits collection.
Thomas landed another solo hit in 2007 with “Little Wonders,” from the soundtrack to the Disney animated feature, Meet The Robinsons. In December 2008, he performed at the 31st Annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington DC, where he paid tribute to Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey with an emotionally charged rendition of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” featuring a choir of 150 New York City policemen and firefighters.
Moving forward, Thomas will continue to toggle between his solo career and Matchbox Twenty. “Over the years, the other guys have evolved as writers,” says Rob. “Now that I have a solo outlet, we can be more creative together; we can be a band and really explore what Matchbox can become – the best of what it can be – without my ego as a songwriter getting in the way. The reason I do what I do is because I have all these songs that are always building up in my head, so it’s really cathartic to get a load of them out into the world and start over again. And the solo career is a really important way for me to do that.”