Songsmith to the stars

By Nui Te Koha, The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, Australia)

Rob Thomas earned $35 million last year -- without his band Matchbox Twenty having an album in the charts.

His money-spinners were the smartly crafted pop tunes Thomas does so well, which, in the year 2001-2002, were given to Carlos Santana, Marc Anthony, Mick Jagger and Willie Nelson.

Smooth, the Grammy Award-winning Santana single that trumped the pop-listening world, took in the most cash.

But it also solidified Thomas's reputation as a master writer of pop-rock of such high quality that Jagger was on the phone as soon as the Santana record dropped.

This then prompted a US magazine, noting Thomas's whopping songwriting income outside his duties to Matchbox Twenty, to call him the new Burt Bacharach.

"I hope they meant that as a compliment," Thomas laughs, "because I am a huge Bacharach fan. When I read that comment I thought: 'How great would that be?'

"Then I started to feel the same way as I do whenever I make those 50 Most Beautiful People lists. It doesn't make me any closer to the next Burt Bacharach than before they said it.

"The truth is," Thomas says, earnestly, "I want to be the next Tom Petty."

Those following the Matchbox Twenty trajectory know he might just make it.

Since their 12 million-selling debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You (1996), Matchbox Twenty have combined the 1970s pop-arena rock of their youth and the harder-edged alterna-rock of the last decade.

Mad Season, released in 2000, was competent but unfocused.

The new album, More Than You Think You Are, is a cohesive record recognising the strength of its players and their musical and personal growth.

Thomas married Marisol Maldonado, a model with a marketing degree, three years ago. It was Maldonado who inspired Smooth.

"I've got much more of a handle on myself as a songwriter, as a person, because I am a happily married man," Thomas says.

"Being married gives you a new point of view. I feel like my head is so much more together.

"I am less scattered than I've ever been. That has so much to do with my wife being the most wonderful person, and what we give each other makes me feel like a complete human being.

"And that comes into my writing. I am not trying to be anything else.

"I am not sure if I ever was, but there is always that fear. I don't want to look back and think: 'F... That wasn't me'."

For Thomas, arguably one of the top three most sought-after pop-rock songwriters (alongside Dianne Warren and Gregg Alexander), the craft carries equal joy and pain.

"I feel like I unload and I feel like I'm going through therapy. I get to write what I feel, I connect it to a melody, then I get to go on stage and scream it out every night.

"I am not a deeply troubled, tortured person, but I feel I would be more so if I didn't write. I am the most self-examined person I know because it's my job," Thomas laughs. "I spend my life in a little room sitting by the piano thinking: 'How do I feel?' I am my own analyst."

After his Santana and Jagger sessions, his songs have become more personal.

While Thomas has described More Than You Think You Are as a hopeful record, many of the narrative set-ups are dark.

Paranoia haunts the new single, Unwell, while Bright Lights suggests full revelation with the couplet: "There is a hole in me/A scar I can talk about ..."

"There is a line in Unwell where I am talking about dodging glances on the train and everybody talking about me," he says.

"That comes from insecurity and the recognition that causes even more insecurity. I have had those feelings while riding on the train. Why are they looking at me? You never think it's because they're fans. It's like: 'F... What is it?'

"I figure if they know who I am, they don't like me. That guy hates my band: I can just see it in his eyes," he laughs.

Matchbox twenty play the Sydney Entertainment Centre on July 30.