Writer’s block: Rob Thomas always asks “Is it good?”
Songs germinate in different ways for Rob Thomas. Often he will hear a melody, like a radio broadcast in his head, before finding the right words. Thomas has been writing since forming Matchbox Twenty in the early 90s until the band’s debut in 1996 yourself from someone like youwith the “Push” and “3AM” tubes, on the following multi-platinum versions crazy seasonn in 2000 and More than you think in 2002 and the most recent North in 2012.
Throughout his nearly 30-year career, Thomas has also expanded his solo career with four albums – even his first holiday release – and has written for dozens of other artists, including “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me )” by Willie Nelson, on his 2002 album. album The big share‘Tragedy’ for Marc Anthony in 2002, and co-wrote ‘Visions of Paradise’ from Mick Jagger’s fourth solo album Goddess in the Doorway. Jagger also co-wrote “Disease“, on Matchbox Twenty’s third album More than you think with Thomas.
Rising through the ranks in 1999, Thomas collaborated with Santana co-writing the mega-hit “Smooth” for the guitarist’s comeback album. Supernatural. In 2021, the pair reunited for “Move,” featuring American songwriters, on Santana’s new album Blessings and Miracles.
In 2019, Thomas published Flea tooth smile and followed him with something about christmasin 2021, a collection of mostly original holiday tunes including “Christmas in a small townand “A Christmas in New York 21”.
Over the past 25 years, Thomas has received three Grammy Awards, 13 BMI Awards and received the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s first-ever Starlight Award in 2004, and was twice named Songwriter of the Year by Billboard.
Thomas spoke to the American songwriter about catching the songwriting “germ”, why some older songs still make him cringe, and why thinking “I’m not sure” can be among the best songs.
“We all know that with writing,” Thomas says, “there is no past success that guarantees a future.”
American Songwriter: After nearly three decades of writing songs, do the songs still come to you the same way?
Rob Thomas: The germ comes the same way. You are never really responsible for it. You’re kind of sitting somewhere, and you hear this thing. I still consider it a radio station right above my head. Sometimes I tune into that melody and I’m like, “Oh, I like that.” And then I’m like, “what is this?” Oh, it’s me, and it’s still nothing. I think the only thing is inspiration. It’s always part inspiration, part craft. So the inspiration part is the same, and you’re lucky when you have it. You are grateful when you get it. The DIY part gets trickier as I get older because I’m more likely to not want to do something or make sure I don’t repeat myself too often. It was easier to do when I had fewer songs, but 25 years later it’s more of a thing when you realize you’re cheating yourself thinking “I know that song” because I released it Four years ago. I try not to do that, but at the same time the inspiration itself is so momentous that even when the melodies come in, they feel fresh, and they’re new, because they come of me today and of me tomorrow and me the next day, and every day. Hopefully every year you grow.
AS: There’s always a certain level of confidence in your craft that comes with time, and that never hurts.
RT: I think sometimes confidence can be important, but sometimes it’s a killer. I feel like there’s so much coming out of this place of “I’m not sure I’m good enough” and “I’m not sure I understand myself” and “I’m not sure to understand anything. “So much music comes from this place. It’s a weird thing when you’re like, “Oh, I know how to write a song,” and then you start creating something. It doesn’t sound as authentic as “is it good?” It’s much more than that.
AS: When you write for other artists, Matchbox or your solo material, do you sometimes feel like you’re going from one songwriter to another?
RT: Regardless of my definition of authenticity, it’s essential that I want to feel like I’m writing for something that feels honest to me. They say the best Instagram pages are the ones that have a uniform look, but when you look at my wall as a whole, there really isn’t any consistency. It’s all over the place, in all different genres, because I listen to all kinds of different genres, so the only thing for me is “does it sound honest to me”.
When I write for other people, I want to be there to bring whatever my presence in the room brings to the situation. At the same time, if I write in their voice, I have to be very careful not to get too into it. If I write for another artist, I always ask: “Sing me that. How does it sound when you sing it? or “how would you phrase this line, because I did this and it sounds like something I would say, but that’s what you would say?”
AS: It must be hard to get inside someone’s head, but every time we hear a song or read a book, and it touches us and stays with us, we know what that writer is saying and feeling. That’s the end result, but on the other hand, the songwriting is the same in many ways. You are almost like a conduit to help spread these stories.
RT: Over the past year and a half during lockdown, I’ve co-written a lot more with other artists, especially a lot of young new artists. I learned so much from them about the process, because for me so much has always happened in a vacuum. I’ve always been alone in a room writing so hearing how someone else would do something when I know I’d do something different and then say “oh shit, what they do is much better”, it’s so much cooler than what I would have done. I remember when Chris Daughtry debuted and he had the song “Home”, which became one of his biggest hits. He played it to me before he made the record, and I almost screwed it up. I had it rewritten where there were only minor verses in the chorus and all the minor chords, and he didn’t. Every time we talk about it, I’m like, “Man, you’re so lucky you didn’t listen to me. You would have lost one of your greatest hits. We all know that with writing, there is no past success that guarantees a future.
AS: There must be this state of euphoria when everything clicks into place. Describe that feeling when the song comes together, solo or co-writing.
RT: You’re really grateful when you have it, but that doesn’t make you a guru when you walk into a room. I listened to a few records again… I listened The great unknown and it has some of my favorite moments and some of my least favorite moments in it, where I was like, “Why did I write that song” and “Why the hell would I put it on a record?”
AS: That’s the danger of listening when you’ve gone this far. You will want to fix past “mistakes”.
RT: Oh, absolutely. One of my favorite writers of all time is Chris Trapper, who writes with The Push Stars and does his own thing. He sent me this song, and I rewrote the chorus, and he preferred my chorus. He said that sometimes what happens – and I relate to it so much – is that you write a song and the verse is so good that you forget the chorus, and vice versa. You can have this big chorus and then you just throw a verse at it. You think the chorus is so good, when you really need to make the verse as good as you think the chorus is. Sometimes I listen and I think and it feels lazy, or “oh, I got lazy on this. I would have done that again. Out of the 25 years of solo albums and Matchbox albums, I probably have two really good records if you put them all together.
AS: It’s natural for a writer to feel. In a few years, you might even be able to filter it down to a single album.
RT: It comes with years of perspective. I’m pretty sure that with the best of my ability, every time I made a record, I made the best record I could make at that time with the knowledge I had and where that I am in my life. It’s one thing to go back to our first album Matchbox, because there are songs that make us cringe, because they are this kind of nerve-wracking 90s rock, but at the time, it felt authentic to us. . It was who I was as a writer. These days I write a lot more emotional shit. I’m more of a salty emotional guy.
Main photo: Jim Trocchio / Atlantic Records