Rob Thomas Talks About His Solo Career, His Band Matchbox 20, And Writing Hit Songs For Santana (“Smooth”) And Other Artists

Rob Thomas
Rob Thomas

Grammy-winning artist & songwriter Rob Thomas has had a very successful and wide-ranging career as a solo artist, as the frontman of the platinum rock band Matchbox Twenty, and as a collaborator who’s worked with Carlos Santana, Mick Jagger and other artists.

As a solo artist, Thoomas released his third album The Great Unknown (on Atlantic Records) last August (2015), which features his collaborations with pop hitmakers Ryan Tedder (of OneRepublic), Ricky Reed, Noel Zancanella and Cirkut, plus several cuts with his longtime producer, Matt Serletic. The album includes the singles “Trust You,” “Hold On Forever,” and his next single, the ballad “Pieces.” Previously, Thomas has released the albums …Something To Be (in 2005, which contained the Top 10 hit “Lonely No More”) and Cradlesong (in 2009).

As the lead singer & songwriter of Matchbox Twenty, he has written such hits as “Push,” “3 a.m.,” “Bent,” “If You’re Gone,” “Unwell,” “Disease” and “How Far We’ve Come.” The band has released four albums: Yourself or Someone Like You (1996), Mad Season (2000), More Than You Think You Are (2002), and North (2012).

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Rob Thomas, who tells how he wrote (with Itaal Shur) the Grammy-winning hit song, “Smooth,” by Santana.


The most acclaimed, famous song Thomas has co-written is the number one, worldwide hit “Smooth” (in 1999) which was a collaboration between the Latin-rock band Santana & Thomas. This song was written by Thomas and writer/producer Itaal Shur, and went on to win three Grammy awards, for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.

In addition, Thomas has collaborated with a diverse array of other artists, such as Mick Jagger, countrty stars Willie Nelson, LeAnn Rimes and Travis Tritt, rock band INXS, and gospel artist BeBe Winans.

Thomas has just announced that he will be launching a major North American tour this summer, co-headlining with the band, Counting Crows.

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Rob Thomas. He discusses his new album The Great Unknown, his songwriting and collaboration process, and how he co-wrote the acclaimed hit “Smooth.”

DK: I like your latest album, The Great Unknown. The first five songs are very upbeat and positive. Is that a reflection of how you’re feeling these days?

Rob Thomas: Yeah, every album to some degree is kind of an experiment. I was experimenting on this album with a lot more vibrant pop than I’ve had in the past. Maybe it was the closest thing to my first solo record, with “Lonely No More” and “This Is How a Heart Breaks.” I know that I’ve been writing more acoustic, instrospective things, so I felt like I wanted to really explore the pop space for a second. With this album, I got a chance to do that.

DK: You collaborated with Ryan Tedder and Ricky Reed on the album. Did you bring in these talented guys to do the more vibrant pop you’re talking about?

Thomas: Yeah, I think so. At the end of the day, I picked those two specifically because they look at music in a different way than I do—I mean, that pop is kind of their world…it comes out of them. I didn’t want to find people that were just like me. I wanted to make sure I was with someone that I can learn something from. Looking at the way Ryan or Ricky does a track, it was a learning experience.

Here’s the video of Rob Thomas’ single “Trust You,” from his album
The Great Unknown.

DK: I also like the ballads on your album like “Pieces” and “Hold On Forever.” Can you tell me about those songs?

Thomas: “Pieces” was the last song I did for the album. I had the record pretty much done, and then Julie Greenwald (Chairman/COO of Atlantic Records) told me she felt like it was missing a proper ballad, and I felt she was right. I was in Mexico at the time, and I wrote “Pieces.” It was the last song [to make the album] and it’s also the next single. Once [the album’s been released for awhile], you just let the fans start to decide the single—the song that gets the most chatter from fans.

DK: I know that with Matchbox Twenty and on your solo albums, you’ve written many of the songs on your own. So when you’re writing by yourself, what’s your writing process? Do you come up with the melody first, or the title or lyric?

Thomas: It’s always the melody for me. A melody kind of sets a tone. To me, the melody is the magic part. [I’ve always thought] that you can’t teach someone to be a songwriter. You can teach someone to be a better songwriter—they can learn the craft better. I think it’s that gift of just hearing a melody in your head that doesn’t exist yet, and being able to take that down and turn it into something. So I think the melody is like a hot girl at the bar. As a listener, the melody is what draws you over. When you go over and talk to her, you find out that she’s cool and she has a good personality, and you start to form a relationship. That’s when you really start to get into the lyric and you start to get to what it’s about. Everybody is drawn in first by a great melody. To me, melody is always key, and it’s always the hardest thing.

DK: Since you still record both solo albums and Matchbox Twenty albums, when you write a new song, how do you know whether it works better for you as a solo artist, or for the band?

Thomas: Well, Matchbox is its own personality—it’s me and the other three guys. For me as a writer, I just write all the time. I don’t really write for a specific thing. And I write whatever comes in—sometimes it sounds country or sometimes it sounds pop. So whatever’s in my head at the time, I flush it out and write it out, and I just have this collection of songs. If I’m working with Matchbox, we all kind of sit down and we pull out our demos. Then we all decide which of those songs fit us. And now that I’ve got solo records to draw from, it’s a lot easier for guys to say, “that sounds like a solo record…it doesn’t sound like us. Or this demo sounds like a solo [cut], but I think we can do it this way and make it sound more like us.” So it’s never really on a song-by-song basis. I think if you’re a writer…you write all the time. Then you just save those [songs] up, and when it’s time to put out a project of any kind, you just go through what you’ve got and see what’s appropriate for it.

DK: The most famous song you’ve written is “Smooth” (with Santana). I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but can you tell me how you hooked up with Santana and created this song?

Here’s the video of the #1 single “Smooth,” by Santana & Rob Thomas.

Thomas: It was totally just a fluke (how it happened). I was living in Soho, New York, and I’d just gotten off the road with the first Matchbox record. We were on the road for three years, so it was my first real break in a long time. My publisher, Evan Lambert, who was at EMI at the time, knew that I wanted to branch out and write songs for other people. Evan had told me about this guy, Itaal Schur, who [lived] literally a block away from me in Soho. He was working on this track for a new Santana record. At the time, I didn’t expect that this [song] would be a giant hit—this was just going to be a chance to do something with Santana. So we did the demo and I flushed it out and we sent it in (to label CEO Clive Davis). I was actually lobbying Clive Davis to get George Michael to sing it. Carlos liked my voice on the demo, and at the end of the day, he asked if I could do it.

DK: Besides working as a solo artist and with Matchbox 20, you’ve also collaborated with a wide range of people such as Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, LeAnn Rimes and INXS. How do these collaborations fit in with all your solo and Matchbox work?

Thomas: With Willie Nelson, I sat with him for two days and smoked and played music. At the end of it, he’d been taking notes and [he liked] three songs that I’d played him, and he wanted to do those. When I got together with Mick Jagger, we specifically wrote two songs which were supposed to be for his solo record. One wound up on his solo record, and the other song was “Disease,” which wound up on the third Matchbox Twenty record.

I think for me, just getting in the room with someone like Willie or Mick, and just seeing the process—seeing the people I admired so much, watching how they go about it, and seeing the differences and similarities in the way we approach an idea…the way you approach a melody. And seeing that there’s a certain way people write…there’s a confirmation that you might have been doing it right all along.

So for me it’s got to happen naturally, and something that I really want to do, and not just something that’s a career move.

DK: I noticed that two years ago, the English pop band Rixton interpolated your song “Lonely No More” for their hit single, “Me And My Broken Heart.” How did this happen?

Thomas: To be honest, I got call from (hit writer/producer) Benny Blanco. He said, “Listen, I’m working with the band Rixton—we released a single that came out overseas and we’re [putting it out in the U.S.], and we kind of realized that it’s right on top of ‘Lonely No More.’ So before your publisher calls our publisher, why don’t we just give you a percentage [of the song]?” I listened to it—the truth is, even if I hadn’t said anything. my publisher would have come after that one. For us, it was just like putting your finger in the dam, just so nothing explodes. And I like what they did with it. It not that it’s the same song, it’s just that the melody [is similar]. At the end of the day, they were real gentlemen about it. I think that they did a really good job with it.

Here’s the video of Rob Thomas’ single “Hold On Forever,” from his album
The Great Unknown.

DK: Currently, what projects will you be working on in the coming months?

Thomas: We’re getting ready to announce a summer tour. For me. I will be going out solo and supporting (the single) “Pieces.” Then I’ve got the ASCAP Expo coming up, which is always great for me, because I get to be around a bunch of other songwriters—they’re my kind of people. Some of them are performers, and some of them are behind-the-scenes writers that I’m just a big fan of. Those are the moments where you always wind up making a connection and making a friend. Things always come out of that which are just natural and fun.

DK: ASCAP Expo is a great event. Do you have any tips for young songwriters, who will be going to the Expo?

Thomas: I think obviously, it’s a different world. It’s not just a different world than it was 20 year ago, it’s exponentially changing every five years…now every year. It’s a different landscape. I think that the one thing I see, especially in the pop music world, is that there’s so much focus on the track. There’s so much focus on the sonics of the track and the current sound and quality of it. But none of those things work unless you’re still writing a song…unless you’re writing a melody. And sometimes those things are (like) candy, but I feel like the ones that really resonate are still the ones that mean something to the writer. Like somehow, there’s an energy that comes through in a song that’s about somebody’s life and it touches on something that they really care about. Then, no matter how they do it, then those songs resonate and they wind up sticking around a lot longer. So I think that writing what you know and feeling that connection to the song—at the end of the day no matter how everything changes, the three most important things are still the song, the song and the song, no matter what genre you’re working in.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima