Songwriter Interviews

Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty

by Amanda Flinner

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Rob Thomas doesn't want us to be lonely no more. As the world started shutting down under the threat of COVID-19, the Matchbox Twenty frontman was one of the first artists to live stream music during the quarantine. His "Social Distance Sessions," which has him singing a mix of covers and original tunes, offer a much-needed dose of music therapy to folks stuck at home during the crisis.

"I don't have a lot of other skills," he told ABC News. "I can't come over and take away a virus from you, but I can play a song for you."

Meanwhile, Matchbox Twenty - who became international alt-rock superstars with the release of their 1996 debut, Yourself Or Someone Like You - are preparing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their followup, Mad Season, with a North American summer tour alongside The Wallflowers.

A lot has changed for Thomas over the past couple decades. Once a hard-partying rock star with no attachments, he became a dad in 1998 and a husband a year later when he married Marisol Maldonado. The Puerto Rican-American model was the "Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa" he sang about on "Smooth," his monster hit with Carlos Santana. Her painful battle with autoimmune disease has also inspired much of Thomas' solo output, including "Her Diamonds" from 2009's Cradlesong, and "Can't Help Me Now" from Chip Tooth Smile in 2019.

In our interview with the singer, he talks about his songwriting process and remembers co-starring with a camel in the video for "Real World."
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): How did you come to choose Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over" to kick off your "Social Distance Sessions"?

Thomas: Honestly, I was just sitting at home with Mari and started playing it just because it's one of the greatest of all time. It was a few days later that I mentioned I should maybe play a cover song on Instagram since people couldn't go out to shows and Mari suggested I play that one. Afterwards, the lyrics even seemed to fit the moment as well.

[Neil Finn of Crowded house has been live streaming almost every day during the pandemic; he still finds comfort in "Don't Dream It's Over," including it from time to time in his sets.]

Songfacts: You also performed an original from Chip Tooth Smile. What can you tell us about "Can't Help Me Now"?

Thomas: That's a song about two people who are together and lean on each other for everything whenever there is a problem. But sometimes you can't count on that person the way you usually do. Either because sometimes the problem is the dynamic between the two of you but, also, sometimes it's just too big for anyone to do anything about it.

Songfacts: Growing up listening to country music legends like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, why did you pursue rock/pop instead of country?

Thomas: The songs I write are just what comes out of me. I could try to write a certain style but it will always just sound like me. I just think that growing up on those legends made me think more about telling stories with the imagery in the lyrics. But I went from not knowing there were any other kinds of music out there besides those artists to becoming kind of obsessed with the '80s alt wave that was happening. So I feel like every song I ever write could be a country song if you broke it down, but they always seems to have that pop sensibility.

Songfacts: How does your songwriting approach differ when you're writing for yourself versus Matchbox Twenty?

Thomas: I don't really think too much about where a song is going to go when I write. My process is just to write all the time and whenever something comes along to see what I have that I love. For Matchbox, the deciding factor is the other three members. If they don't like something, we don't do it.

Songfacts: When "Push" came out, some people got the wrong idea and thought you were condoning abuse. What is the most off-the-wall interpretation you've heard of one of your songs?

Thomas: That was up there for sure. I don't know about off the wall, but I was really proud that a lot of the LGBTQ groups saw "Someday" as a song about what they were facing and I was happy to have something that was embraced by that community.

Songfacts: When More Than You Think You Are was released, you said it was "the time we really understood our identity." Can you elaborate on that?

Thomas: When you make your first record you are doing on-the-job training. The best you can hope for is to make the best record you can, but it's all learn as you go. The second record you know a little more, but you think you know everything and we maybe went a little overboard with giant orchestras and spent a lot of money and maybe overproduced a little.

By the time we did More Than You Think You Are we were a solid live band with a sense of who we were. That said, looking back, the truth was whatever the first two albums were was who we were too.

Songfacts: That album features the track you wrote with Mick Jagger. What's the story behind "Disease"?

Thomas: I just knew that I was going to go into the studio with one of the greatest rock star/songwriters of all time and didn't want to show up empty handed so I wrote the first verse and chorus the night before. It felt so good that he liked it but I was really happy when he decided that one song we wrote together, "Visions Of Paradise," was going to be on his solo album [2002's Goddess In The Doorway] but that Matchbox should do "Disease" because he liked my voice on it.

Songfacts: The top YouTube comment for the "Real World" music video reads, "You may be cool but you'll never be Rob Thomas walking through a bowling alley with a camel cool." What are your memories of making that video?

Thomas: There is a large portion of that time that is kind of hazy and I don't remember super well. But I remember that video. The camel loved me and kept wanting to nuzzle. The zebra was kind of aggressive.

It was the first time that we had input with the director about what we wanted and it was and still is a really out there video. I don't know that it means anything at all but it still had the desired effect.

Songfacts: What is the hidden gem in Matchbox Twenty's catalog?

Thomas: That probably changes based on who you ask. I have always loved "You Won't Be Mine" and "I Will." Also a song that Paul [Doucette, drummer] wrote called "English Town." There are a few that weren't singles that have become live staples.

Songfacts: You've been interviewed to death about "Smooth" - is there anything that hasn't been revealed about the making of the song at this point?

Thomas: Actually, no. I believe the best part of the whole process is that Carlos and I have become so close that we communicate just about every day. Always sending silly messages or song ideas or pics from our day. He's been a great mentor but an even greater friend.

Santana's Supernatural album was the musical success story of 1999, and "Smooth" was the hit single that introduced it. The group had been declining in popularity since the '70s and hadn't released an album in seven years. But then Clive Davis stepped in, signing the group to Arista Records and bringing in a passel of contemporary stars to write and perform on the album.

"Smooth" started life as a song called "Room One Seven," written by Itaal Shur of Groove Collective. Thomas was brought in to rework the lyrics, which as written were about a hotel-room tryst. "They thought it was a little too sexual for Santana, so they asked me if I wanted to work with Rob Thomas," Shur told Songfacts in 2005. Together, they turned it into a sultry love song inspired by Marisol, who appears in the video.

Thomas didn't find out until later that he would also be singing the song, which was far and away the biggest hit of the year, yet still sounded distinctly Santana. The album ended up selling 15 million copies in America and winning nine Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year for "Smooth."
Songfacts: What is the story behind "Lonely No More," and why did you choose it for your debut solo single?

Thomas: I feel like "Lonely No More" stylistically represented a kind of music I liked, which was a hybrid uber-pop song with a rock tinge, but that the Matchbox guys would think, rightfully, was more pop than Matchbox probably wanted to be. It was a way to have my own unique sound and not just a Matchbox album without the band.

Songfacts: Several of the tracks from your solo albums deal with your emotions surrounding your wife's autoimmune disease. How do you take something so personal and make it universal?

Thomas: I think everyone has things happening in their lives all the time. I find that even if something I'm personally going through is just happening to me, the way those things make you feel is something most people can understand. Helpless, hopeful, angry, sad, elated, it's the residual emotion to the event that everyone is really relating to and attaching to their own lives.

Songfacts: Finally, Matchbox Twenty is planning an anniversary tour this summer. How has the band's sound evolved since its early days?

Thomas: Everything we do, we do aware that we are going to go play this live. We have become a great live band. Over time even some old songs have naturally evolved. Our favorite thing to hear is that someone enjoyed the live show more than the record.

April 15, 2020
Follow Rob on Twitter or Instagram for the latest.

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Comments: 16

  • Mary Rose from West Springfield MassachusettsCan you please play Hang , That is a song that is in my heart , my son passed away at 19 from a unnoticed heart condition him and I use to sing it together I was you he was Kyle please.
  • Mary Rose Patruski from West Springfield MassachusettsI would love to hear Hang , This song means so much to me my son and I always played it he played Kyle's part , I was you since then my son passed away not that long ago he was 19 from a unnoticed heart condition and then our grandson from Cancer , These songs like hang Hand me down , soul There is some in all of us ,Thank you
  • Angela Tomei Robinson from Long Island Music is so inspirational
    Rob Thomas's words are so meaningful
    His voice so comfortable
    His eyes with such real expression

    His concerts are overwhelming

    Thank you for the music and love you
  • Reese from Roanoke, VaI absolutely LOVE the song "SMOOTH"!!! All of the songs are great, but the first time I heard Smooth, I couldn't get enough of it!!! I still can't! I listen to it at LEAST once a day; usually more than that!
  • Mrs. Free from Alabama There has always been a special place in my heart for the music of Rob Thomas and Matchbox Twenty. Not only do you hear them but feel every word! Took my little brother to see them his first concert at 15. We had a blast and would love for them to come back to Oak Mountain Amphitheater Birmingham.
  • Lisa Brown from Buffalo NyJust love Rob And kyle solo and with MB20 we can see them live this summer and the world kicks Covid-19 but. Thanks for all the love music and entertainment thru the years
  • Dave P from Baltimore Kind of a geeky thing to say, but def have a man crush on Rob. My wife and I have been to 5 sidewalk Angel shows. Although 3 nights may not be enough, haven't been able to get tix the last 2 years.☹
  • Debbie from Winter Park Florida Love you ever since I heard Bent.
    I can’t wait for all this craziness goes away. I’m hoping to see you in concert soon in Orlando!! Stay safe Debbie
  • Debra from Northport NyFrom the very first time I heard them on the radio til now , which was push I love it all Bright lights , Mad Season to my favorite song ever UNWELL which describes me to a tee to many people, they are such an awesome band and sorry Marisol he is gorgeous! you are one lucky lady and he is from you because you inspire him nothing more beautiful! They are great live I always look forward to seeing them at Jones Beach !
  • Kristan Friend Of Rob's from Charlotte NcReally great interview!
    So looking forward to the summer 2020 tour!!
    And yes Rob, you are even better Live than on cd:)
  • Penny from Western AustraliaPlease bring your Matchbox tour back to Perth.
  • Deb Mcpartlan from Melbourne..australiaAnd when you finish your North American Tour..please please do a 21 year celebration here in Melbourne..Australia Matchbox Twenty.!!!
  • Nadine Helta from West Seneca, NyI love his songs, they have such greatvmeaning to me. I look forward to seeing Matchbox this summer hopefully, I have my tickets, but lived seeing Rob alone in Canandaiqua and Buffalo
  • Kerry (rob’s Buddy ) from New Orleans Awesome interview
  • Tim Abell from Louisville Ky.Saw you at the Palace and it was probably my most memorable concert ever. You were off the hook . Can't wait to see you again. Maybe in August in Nashville if this pandemic passes.
  • Leslie Gould from Easton, PaRob Thomas is a brilliant musician, humanitarian (his charity with his wife is Sidewalk Angels), and over all good guy. Loves his fans as much as we love him and MB20.
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