Rob Thomas is back to being Rob Thomas again.
After the platinum success of his 2005 solo debut “... Something To Be,” the singer and songwriter returned to his first job, fronting the group Matchbox Twenty, during 2007-08. Now he’s back on the solo path again with “Cradlesong,” which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 when it was released at the end of June.
“The idea was not to make it sound like my last solo record,” explains Thomas, 37, “and just really honestly pick what I thought were the best songs that I’ve written — with no pretense.
“I’m not worried about what these songs say about me or that, ‘Well, this song is more in this vibe and I need that vibe ... ’ I just go, ‘OK, I love this song and this is something I want to say, and that needs to be the record.’ It’s not that hard — it’s just hard to do.”
Thomas wasn’t wanting for choices on “Cradlesong.” He recorded 25 songs, 14 of which made it onto the album with the rest targeted as bonus tracks for various retailers or the odd movie soundtrack. Writing the material concurrent with a Matchbox Twenty project, however, helped Thomas hone in even further on the differences between his two “jobs.”
“I realized that between me and the Matchbox dynamic, I’m a pop/rock writer,” says Thomas, who worked on “Cradlesong” with longtime producer Matt Serletic. “With Matchbox, we wind up exploring more of the rock side of pop-rock, whereas whenever I’m doing solo work, it frees me up to do a little more pop. And that’s kind of like this open world. It can be whatever you want it to be.”
And Thomas’ sense of where “Cradlesong” falls in that wider realm of pop music?
“Oh, listening back to the songs that I chose for this record, it’s clear that I am a child of the ’80s,” he says with a laugh, adding that some of the new songs on Matchbox Twenty’s 2007 collection “Exile on Mainstream” were inspired by watching a video of the 1985 Live Aid concert. “You can hear it in some of the melodies and the rhythms and just the way the songs are put together and the sounds we get.
“But it wasn’t like I went in and said, ‘I want to make these ’80s songs.’ It’s more like you do it and then you listen to it and you go, ‘Oh, wow, that song sounds very ’80s. So does that one ... ’ It’s almost like you put yourself in some weird writer’s trance and just let PLEASE SEE ROB THOMAS/C-4 whatever comes out come out, and then I can look at it and be just as surprised as anyone else at the end of it.”
Thomas, of course, started charting his solo path during Matchbox Twenty’s commercial heyday. His extracurricular star rose in 1999, when he co-wrote and sang on the Santana hit “Smooth,” which has sold more than 2 million copies as a single and won three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year. That gave Thomas a standing — and perhaps a third job — as a writer-for-hire, and his résumé includes the likes of Mick Jagger and Marc Anthony.
The name recognition helped make “...Something To Be” the first solo album by a male rock group member to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Besides Serletic, Thomas says he uses his wife Marisol and Matchbox Twenty’s Paul Doucette — who he laughingly calls “my other wife” — as sounding boards for his ideas. In fact, Marisol and her battle with an auto-immune disease provided the inspiration for the first single off “Cradlesong,” “Her Diamonds.”
“She goes through good times and bad times, and we were going through a really bad time when I wrote it,” recalls Thomas, who nevertheless set out to steer that very personal impetus into a more universal direction.
“I think my job is a writer is more to write about how that moment makes me feel and not so much about that moment,” he says. “It’s not like I’m writing a song about a woman with an auto-immune disease; I’m writing a song about empathy and about you being in a situation where you are powerless and the only thing you can do is be empathetic and be sympathetic.
“My favorite kind of song is the one where, when people listen to it, they can incorporate it into their own life and make it about their life because that song is going to resonate with whatever they are going through in their lives. There’s a kind of anonymity that’s inherent in it because I’m not really writing about me; I’m writing about an emotion that I have because of something specific that I’m going through in my life.”
And, Thomas adds, he’s better able to do that in the context of his solo work than he is with Matchbox Twenty, because, he notes, “the group’s songs are always the four of us, even if I’m the one doing the lyrics. It has to represent everybody. There’s a compromise — which I don’t mind, but I’m happy I have the other outlet, too.
“And then I’m fortunate that I’ve got Matchbox, because if this (solo album) tanks miserably, I can just act like it never happened and go back and make a Matchbox record and try hard there.”
Thomas and his Matchbox mates are, in fact, talking about the next band record, possibly for next year — though Thomas expects to be on the road well into 2010 promoting “Cradlesong.” Other collaborations, however, have been on the back burner, and Thomas says he tries to mete those out for both professional and personal reasons.
“Those can only come when I have more down time,” he says. “When you’re doing something like making a record, you are so consumed by it, so it can only happen in between records, when I have a little time and I’m not working on anything specifically, so my head will be in the right place for it.
“And, really, if I do have a minute and I don’t give it to my wife, she would probably beat me over the head. I’d rather not go there.”
Rob Thomas, OneRepublic and Carolina Liar perform at 7 p.m. Monday (Nov. 2) at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave. Tickets are $40.50. Call (313) 961-5451 or visit www.livenation.com.
Send your thoughts and comments to