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Rob Thomas puts music ahead of rock stardom

“I’m driving home right now from dropping my dogs off at the groomer,” says Rob Thomas, somewhere near his home in New York, where he’s back for five days before the holidays, noting just how “very rock ‘n’ roll” of an activity this must sound like for a platinum-selling rock star such as himself.

Managing such a mundane task is actually more or less what you’d expect a guy like Thomas to be doing these days when he’s not on stage or in the studio. Twenty years ago, the Matchbox Twenty frontman was maligned for not really fitting the rock star stereotype when his band was topping the charts, and so really he’s just keeping true to form here.

And good for him. While there are plenty of acts from that era who probably have much more sensational stories, there’s something to be said for making it to middle age and being known more for your music than for your excess and escapades.

“You realize after a while, like after 20 years, success is really about … you know, it’s not about the accolades, and it’s not really about sales,” Thomas muses. “It’s about staying in the game long enough to know that you’re going to continue and be able to make another record.”

In that aspect, things haven’t really changed for Thomas. When he and his bandmates first formed Matchbox Twenty, their only aspirations were to play shows in their hometown. Even later on when they landed a record deal, they just wanted to make a solid record, one that went at least gold, because they’d heard that was the threshold to be able to make another one. Obviously, Matchbox met that benchmark and much more, but at the end of the day, the measure of success remains the same for Thomas, and it’s all about making music.

“Success is like at the end of finishing a great song and my wife and my friends thinking it’s great even before I record it,” Thomas says. “You know, after so many years, the music that I listen to and some of my favorite things in the world aren’t giant pop hits and aren’t giant singles. And so, if I want to emulate the people that I really, really love, then I have to not look at it in terms of ‘Is this record going to bring me success,’ but kind of re-evaluate what success means. Success now just means making what I think is a really great record and feeling good about it.”

Thomas certainly has no shortage of experience when it comes to making great records. There was a time when just about everything he touched seemed to turn to gold — or platinum, as it were, such as “Smooth,” the hit single that he co-wrote with Santana. While he may or may not ever realize that sort of blockbuster success again as a songwriter, from the sound of his latest solo effort, “The Great Unknown,” Thomas’ streak of writing great pop songs continues, starting with “Trust You,” the album’s first single, which he co-wrote with Ryan Tedder.

If there’s a more modern equivalent to Thomas, in terms of his prolific pop prowess, it’s probably Tedder, a songsmith who, in addition to having a string of hits on his own with OneRepublic, has penned tunes for everyone from Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood to Beyonce and Adele. The fact that these two are collaborating seems completely natural.

Early on in their careers, Tedder and Thomas had similar trajectories. While the former’s stock has soared in recent years with OneRepublic, thanks to the success of its album “Native,” prior to that, his songs were arguably more recognizable than he was, not unlike Thomas during his Matchbox heyday, before “Smooth” became a smash.

That said, it makes complete sense that when the Matchbox Twenty frontman started work on his latest solo album, it was Tedder who topped his list of potential collaborators. When Tedder’s band supported Thomas on his “Cradlesong” tour, the two developed a mutual respect and admiration for one another.

“If there was a day off, he’d would be off to L.A. to work with Beyonce or something and then come back. And I was always so amazed with his work ethic and his hustle,” Thomas recalls of his time with Tedder on the road back then. “It took us 10 years to finally somehow make it happen. I think it was because when I was done with that, I went into Matchbox world, and in Matchbox, we don’t do a lot of co-writes and outside writing.

“So when I was done with that, I knew that on this solo record I wanted to kind of reach out to some other people that I really respected just to add a little bit of something to whatever it is I’m doing, and he was the first guy on my list. And then I ran into him. Somewhere in the middle, we were in a bar in New York, and I just walked in and he was there. And we sat down and we were talking, and he made a comment about me being the most ubiquitous songwriter he knew, and I took that as such a compliment coming from him.

“I look at him as just like … well, maybe that’s what I would’ve been doing had I just had Matchbox in my life. Like ‘Lonely No More’ would’ve been a song that I would’ve wound up writing for somebody else. Whenever I’m in that mindset, I probably would’ve wrote for somebody else. But instead, I wound up just taking on this different persona as a solo artist and kind of packing everything into that.”

Indeed. Like Thomas’ past releases, “The Great Unknown” offers a good amount of variety, featuring pure pop songs like “Absence of Affection” and “Things You Said” that don’t necessarily scratch the same surface as Thomas’ main band.

“I think when I go solo, a lot of times what I want is to try to make it so that my CD is as diverse as my record collection is and try to get a little bit of everything in there,” Thomas says, adding that the eventual follow-up might even deviate from that. “I also think that, like, as I … I’m heading into, like, I think, the next kind of things that I want to do are more of my, like, kind of like acoustic songwriter records. So I figured now’s the time to get out all of my pop angst that I want to get out and be as poppy as I can.

“You know, when I think acoustic, I think more like … knowing me, I know myself pretty well after 43 years, I think that what’s going to happen for me is I’m going to go for Ryan Adams, and it’s probably going to wind up more like Bruce Springsteen ‘Tunnel of Love’ period. When I think about those things, it’s always more sonically than anything else, because, I mean, writing is writing, you know, like I’ll try and throw in experiences with whatever it is I’m going through in each song.”

Whatever direction Thomas heads in from here as a solo artist (a new Matchbox Twenty record will probably follow first), you can be sure that he’ll follow his own muse and make music that moves him and the people he’s closest to first, as opposed to following any trends, because that’s when he’s at his absolute best as a songwriter and when the process is the most fulfilling.

“You realize that career isn’t so much about having to be culturally relevant to the Earth, but just about finding a group of people that you’re relevant to and continuing to try to excite them with what you’re doing,” he says. “And so I think I’ve just kind of settled into a place where I realized that I just want to write a group of good songs, and I want to put them out, and then I want to go out and share them with however many people want to listen to them.”

— Read more from Dave Herrera at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at dherrera@reviewjournal.com.

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