He Writes the Songs

Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas is fast becoming one of the world's most sought-after songwriters-for-hire. Nui Te Koha reports that Rob Thomas earned $35 million last year -- without having an album by his band, Matchbox Twenty, 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, a calibre of composer who had Jagger calling as soon as the Santana record dropped.

Then, a US magazine, noting Thomas's whopping songwriting income without his duties to Matchbox Twenty, dared 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 the feeling. 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 the same 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." His songs, after his Santana and Jagger sessions, are certainly 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.

And when those eye-ballers do approach Thomas as genuine fans? "I get really surprised," he answers. "Then they think you're putting on mock surprise. But, generally speaking, I do get surprised." Bright Lights, he says, is a character invented to remind Thomas of how good his life is.

"I am a happily married man. I have to wait for a hellacious fight to go and write a song like that. With Bright Lights, I got into a place where I thought how much it would suck if my wife left me. "The scar represents the idea that, up until now, I have never had anything real in my life. A lot of love has been fabricated so I can write songs," Thomas laughs, "which basically means I've been putting myself in bad relationships just to write about them. "If I lost Marisol, it would be the first time where I would feel as if I lost something real."

It is my fifth meeting with Thomas, the second for More Than You Think You Are. The last time we spoke, in New York last November, Thomas said he was only starting to realise his songwriting style. "This is how I sound, and I couldn't get away from it, even if I tried," he said then. "I am trying to expand on that, but let me assure you, Matchbox Twenty is not mystified by me or my songwriting."

For this interview, in Singapore, drummer Paul Doucette says Thomas's songwriting gift is mystical, and one he respects. "I know how Rob writes, so there is no mystique there. But he is an extremely prolific writer, and who knows where he gets them from? Most of his songs, if not all of them, start out good and just improve. I believe Rob is writing better than ever. Quieter, with more space."

Thomas: "To me, now, space is not space. It is the sound of instruments resonating. It took me three albums to realize that. We spent so much time on the second record micing up the drums, making them sound perfect, then running it through a stereo coarse effect, then a keyboard patch . . . "I mean, what does all that mean? It didn't make it sound like the records we grew up listening to. It wasn't Tom Petty, Elton John or Fleetwood Mac. It became a case of: 'Here are your drums, guitar, bass, keyboards and microphone.' Everything we have needs to be here. No filler."

It is the way Thomas intends to take his unique brand of pop-rock into the future. "The one certain thing I know as a songwriter is to talk about myself in a universal way," Thomas says. "If I am writing a song about me and my wife having an argument, I am not writing about the argument itself. I am writing about the feeling that comes from the argument. The thing I'll always try and portray is that feeling. People don't know me or my wife, but they know that feeling. "That is the universal nature that any good song must have."

And the hitmaker's idea of the perfect pop song? Elton John's Tiny Dancer. "The verse makes you so sad, the chorus makes you so happy. That is the redemptive nature of life and the moments that we should steal. Every great song works like life and the chorus is your summing up. The verse is the moments between and an indication of where you're heading.”

"But, as I see it, there are no do's or don'ts in songwriting. It's all fair game. I mean, Put a Little Love in Your Heart is a great soul song, but do it the wrong way and it could be the cheesiest thing you ever heard.”

"Everything, in the right context, flies."

BYLINE: Nui Te Koha
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia)