Letting it be

By NEALA JOHNSON, The Advertiser

Born-again solo artist Rob Thomas lays down the law, writes NEALA JOHNSON.

ROB Thomas estimates he's spent every one of his past 10 birthdays working. As front man for Matchbox Twenty, there was always a gig or interview to be done.

Now he's entered the world of the solo artist, he's at it again. The day we speak about his first solo album, Something To Be, Thomas turns 33.

Last night, he presented a special achievement award at the Grammys.

Tonight, he'll forfeit any birthday celebrations to treat his wife, Marisol, to a Valentine's Day dinner. Tomorrow, he'll be in a shed at LA's Universal Studios shooting a video for his first solo single, Lonely No More.

But much of his 33rd birthday will be spent talking up Something to Be, chain-smoking as he goes. In fact, as he sits down, Thomas tries to relight a stubbed-out cigarette. Surely, as a rich rock star, he can afford to smoke a fresh one? Thomas laughs.

"If you start life having no money, those little things always stay with you."

But after almost 10 years of continued success - Thomas's record label estimates that as part of Matchbox Twenty and as a songwriter for hire, he has contributed to the sale of more than 75 million records - he has made some concessions to the fact his difficult youth is long behind him.

"I told my wife, 'No more coupons'," he laughs. "So she made a compromise with me." He reaches into his wallet and pulls out some plastic.

"We have the Food Emporium bonus card, so we can get the discounts."

Unlike some stars, Thomas has never put his marriage in a no-go area. But wife Marisol looms particularly large in his new solo material.

Something to Be was recorded while she was in the midst of a two-year battle with illness (naming that illness is the one thing Thomas does refrain from), and he admits it had a significant effect on the album.

"Because of everything that was going on with Mari, it was a weird time. We'd have to postpone a day or two here and there and regroup, but . . .

"It's weird to say it - I hope it comes across the right way - but while you were recording it, you didn't care as much about the outcome, you know? Those things are always touch and go - some days are great; the next day is really bad. Making plans became impossible.

"Having that distraction made me not care about what the record was gonna be; I was in the moment. In the end, I think that saved me. I'd have made an entirely different record had I been as self-absorbed as I could have been."

But for all the gravity that surrounded its creation, Something to Be is far from a gloomy record. It mixes the rock and big ballads of a Matchbox Twenty album with a host of surprises. After the almost Justin Timberlake feel of Lonely No More, it takes more unexpected twists: dark grooves, simple country, brassy horns, female backing vocals, party jams. On the title track, Thomas even gets angry, spitting: "My pain is a platinum stack" and "maybe I should try to find a downtown whore to make me look hardcore".

It's not hard to read between the lines: a bit of resentment built up between artist and record company when this album began to take shape.

"When I started to make this, everyone saw me as much more vulnerable and easier to get to 'cos I wasn't surrounded by my band any more," Thomas says.

Much of the problem was that a new regime had taken over at Atlantic, the label for whom Matchbox Twenty have been making money for years.

"Right away it was 'What are you gonna do? What are you gonna wear? You're gonna be young'," Thomas says. "I'm like, 'Dude, I'm 33 years old. That's how old I am'. And they're like, 'Maybe you should be seen out more, without your wife . . .' I really resented it.

"Like, if you wanna talk to me about my record or you don't like my song, that's your prerogative. But it shouldn't invade real time. That felt like an attack on my life and my marriage, and I really got upset. So now they've backed down."

Meet the new, hardcore Rob Thomas - and if that sales figure of 75 million records is right, you have to believe he's earned it.