The Writer’s Block: Rob Thomas Still Asks “Is This Any Good?”

Songs germinate in different ways for Rob Thomas. Oftentimes, he’ll 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 through the band’s 1996 debut Yourself of Someone Like You, with hits “Push” and “3AM,” on through subsequent multi-platinum releases Mad Season in 2000 and More Than You Think You Are in 2002 and most recent North in 2012.

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Throughout his nearly 30-year career, Thomas has also expanded his solo career with four albums—even his first holiday release—and written for dozens of other artists, including Willie Nelson’s “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me),” off his 2002 album The Great Divide, “Tragedy” for Marc Anthony in 2002, and co-wrote “Visions of Paradise” off Mick Jagger’s fourth solo album Goddess in the Doorway. Jagger also co-wrote “Disease,” off Matchbox Twenty’s third album More Than You Think You Are with Thomas.

Raising the ranks in 1999, Thomas collaborated with Santana by co-writing the mega-hit “Smooth” for the guitarist’s comeback album Supernatural. In 2021, the pair reunited for “Move,” featuring American Authors, off Santana’s new album Blessings and Miracles.

In 2019, Thomas released Chip Tooth Smile and followed it up with Something About Christmas Time, in 2021, a collection of mostly original holiday tracks including “Small Town Christmas” and “A New York Christmas ’21.”

In the past 25 years, Thomas has received three Grammy awards, 13 BMI Awards, and was honored with the first-ever Starlight Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, and was christened Songwriter of the Year twice by Billboard.

Thomas spoke to American Songwriter about catching the “germ” of songwriting, why some older songs still make him cringe, and why thinking “I’m not sure” can make for some of the best songs.

“We all know that with writing,” says Thomas, “there’s no past success that guarantees any future.”

American Songwriter: Nearly three decades into songwriting, do songs still come to you in the same way?

Rob Thomas: The germ comes in the same way. You’re never really responsible for it. You’re just kind of sitting somewhere, and you hear this thing. I always think of it as a radio station that’s just above my head. Sometimes I tune into this melody and I’m like, “Oh, I like that.” And then I’m like, “what is that?” Oh, that’s me, and it’s nothing yet. I think the only trick 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’re thankful when you get it. The craft part gets trickier as I get older, because I’m more likely to not want to do something or make sure that I’m not repeating myself too often. That was easier to do when I had less songs, but 25 years later it’s more of a trick when you realize you’re ripping yourself off, 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 of the moment that even when the melodies come they feel like they’re fresh, and they’re new, because they’re coming from me today and me tomorrow and me the next day, and every day. Hopefully, every year you’re evolving.

AS: There’s alway some level of confidence in your craft that comes with time, and that never hurts.

RT: I think sometimes confidence can be important, but then sometimes it’s a killer. I feel like there’s so much that comes from that place of “I’m not sure if I’m good enough,” and “I’m not sure I understand myself,” and “I’m not sure if I understand anything.” So much music comes from that place. It’s a weird thing when you’re like, “Oh, I know how to write a song,” and then you start crafting something up. It doesn’t feel as genuine as “is this any good?” It’s a lot more of that.

Rob Thomas (Photo: Randall Slavin)

AS: When you’re writing for other artists, Matchbox, or your solo material, do you feel like you’re switching from one songwriter into another at times? 

RT: Whatever my definition of authenticity is, is key in that I want to feel like I’m writing for something that feels honest to me. They say that the best Instagram pages are the ones that have a uniform look to it, but when you look at my wall as a whole, it doesn’t really have any uniformity to it at all. 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 this sound honest to me.”

When I’m writing for other people, I want to be there to lend whatever me being in the room lends to the situation. At the same time, if I’m writing to their voice, I gotta be really careful not to put too much of me in it. If I’m writing for another artist, I’m always asking, “sing that back to me. How does that 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 it is what you would say?”

AS: It has to be hard getting into someone’s head, but whenever 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 flip side, songwriting is the same in many ways. You’re almost like a conduit to help get those stories out.

RT: Over the last year and a half during the lockdown, I’ve been doing so much more co-writing with other artists, especially a lot of young, new artists. I’ve learned so much about the process from them, because so much for me has always happened in a vacuum. It’s always just been me alone in a room writing, so hearing how someone else would do something when I know that I would do something different and then going “oh, shit, what they’re doing is way better,” that’s so much cooler than what I would have done. I remember when Chris Daughtry was first starting out and he had the song “Home,” which became one of his biggest hits. He played it for me before he made the record, and I almost fucked it up completely. I had rewritten it where is was all minor verses in the chorus and all minor chords, and he didn’t do it. 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 biggest hits.” We all all know that with writing, there’s no past success that guarantees any future.

AS: There must be this state of euphoria when it all clicks. Describe that feeling when the song comes together, solo or in a co-write.

RT: You’re really thankful when you have it, but it doesn’t make you any kind of a guru when you walk into a room. I’ve listened back to some records… I listened to The Great Unknown [2015], and it’s got some of my favorite moments on it and some my least favorite moments, where I was thinking “Why did I write that song” and “why the hell would I put it on a record?”

AS: That’s the danger in listening back when you’ve come so far. You’ll want to fix past “mistakes.”

RT: Oh, totally. One of my favorite writers of all time is Chris Trapper, who writes with The Push Stars and does his own thing. He had sent me this song, and I rewrote the chorus, and he liked my chorus better. He said that sometimes what happens—and I related to this so much—is you write a song and the verse is so fucking good that you gloss over the chorus, and vice verse. You can have this great chorus and then you just throw a verse at it. You think the chorus is so good, when you really just need to make the verse as good as you think that chorus is. Sometimes I listen back and think and it sounds lazy to me, or “oh, I got lazy on that. I would have redone this.” Of the 25 years of solo albums and Matchbox albums, I’ve probably got two really good records if you just put them all together.

AS: That’s natural for a writer to feel. Some years from now, you may even filter it down to one album. 

RT: It comes with years of perspective. I’m pretty certain with the best of my ability that whenever I made a record, I did make the best record I could make at that time with the knowledge that I had and wherever I was in my life. It’s one thing to look back on our first Matchbox record, because there are some songs that make us cringe, because they’re this angsty ’90s kind of rock, but at the time that felt genuine to us. That was who I was as a writer. Nowadays, I’m writing way more emotional shit. I’m more of a salty emotional dude.

Main Photo: Jim Trocchio / Atlantic Records

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