Rob Thomas made his name as frontman for the alt-rock band Matchbox Twenty, which found fame in the mid-'90s with radio-friendly tunes including "Push," "Bent" and "How Far We've Come." But the singer is so prolific a songwriter he forged a solo career as well, earning four Grammy Awards in 1999 for "Smooth," his No. 1 hit collaboration with Santana. Thomas, who has also teamed up with Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Marc Anthony and Daughtry, was the first recipient of the Songwriters Hall of Fame's first Starlight Award, which honors young artists who have already made a major musical impact. He talked to us about his upcoming solo tour, which kicks off Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood.
Will you be performing all solo stuff, or dip into the Matchbox Twenty catalog as well?
I always do some Matchbox stuff, but I like to do acoustic versions, because I'm still in Matchbox Twenty and we're gonna tour. So I don't see a reason to have my solo band play the guys' parts in the Matchbox stuff. And I can't play "Smooth" with Matchbox, but I can play it solo, and "Little Wonders" and the song I wrote with Mick Jagger - me and my band can so those songs.
So after this solo tour, you're hitting the road with Matchbox?
Yeah, after this our next plan is to make another record and we'll tour that show. If we weren't a band anymore, I'd probably play Matchbox stuff, too, but there's a reason why there's a separation.
What led you to go solo?
I'm just not good with free time, I think. Whenever we're on a break ... I just need an outlet for all the stuff I'm writing, to have a place to put it, and move on. And then when I'm back with Matchbox, I don't feel like I have all these songs that aren't getting heard.
When did you first start writing songs?
Probably when I was about 14. Everything sounded like bad Lionel Richie songs, because I was just trying to get laid in high school. I grew up in Central Florida, and didn't know anything about sports or cars, you know what I mean? The only thing I had was music, so that was my first foray in being able to meet girls.
As a songwriter, why do you think your styles are so diverse?
I think maybe part of it has to do with the fact that I don't have this image and then have to make this music that adheres to this image. I just write songs. If I feel like I can write a country song, I write a country song, or a pop song. It kind of frees me up, to where I really only exist through the songs. If I was Good Charlotte, it's a whole look, and my music would match what I'm doing. Like if Metallica wanted to do a ballad and everybody freaks out: "You're Metallica - you can't do a ballad!" The pop-rock genre is pretty wide, so I'm free to do what I want. And I work with a lot of people, too, country guys, Latin guys and hip-hop guys, and so that way, when I'm writing my own stuff, it kind of keeps it fresh.
How do you choose who to collaborate with?
Usually I get a call from a publisher saying so-and-so's working on a record and they wanna know if you want to get together and write.
Have you ever turned anyone down?
Yeah, but usually it's for timing purposes, scheduling problems. I don't think I've ever felt too precious about it, like, "Oh, I don't want to work with them."
How did it feel to be the first recipient of the Starlight Award?
To me, every award kind of means only what it means in the context of that award, but anything that has to do with songwriting is always a special thing, because that's the part of the job that I'm the most mystified by myself - like, you never know where songs come from or if another one's gonna pop up. I feel most comfortable around songwriters, much more so than around quote-unquote "music celebrities." I like the idea of other songwriters recognizing me as a songwriter - that's always a good feeling.
What would you say is the highlight of your career so far?
Probably writing with Willie Nelson. We got together to write, and after a couple days of just hanging out and playing music for each other, he wound up recording three songs that I had written on his record [2002's "The Great Divide"]. For me, Willie Nelson is like my all-time ultimate hero, so for him to sing three of my songs, it was probably the greatest. If I had to quit then, I would have felt like I accomplished something.