Rob Thomas is one of modern music’s most compelling and commercially successful artists. For 20 years, he has been the frontman and primary composer for Matchbox Twenty, leading the quintet to multiplatinum success over the course of four albums and a string of No. 1 hits that include “Push,” “3AM,” “Bent,” “If You’re Gone,” and “Unwell.” Thomas’ two solo albums, 2005’s platinum-certified No. 1 album …Something To Be and 2009’s cradlesong generated the hit singles “Lonely No More,” “This is How A Heart Breaks,” “Her Diamonds” and “Someday. Thomas made history with “…Something to Be” as having the first album by a male artist from a rock or pop group to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since the chart had debuted. With cradlesong he made history once again as the only male artist with multiple #1 hits at Adult Top 40, tieing Pink with most #1s by a solo artist in the chart’s history.
Then there’s Thomas’ collaborations with iconic artists like Mick Jagger on the #1 single “Disease”, Willie Nelson, and Santana, the latter resulting in 1999’s “Smooth” — the Latin-tinged blockbuster that earned Thomas three Grammy Awards and spent 12 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. It was also named the No. 2 Hot 100 Song of All Time and #1 of the Rock era. Overall, Thomas has contributed to sales of more than 80 million records. In 2004, he was the first-ever honoree of the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s prestigious Hal David Starlight Award, created to recognize a composer in the early years of his or her career that has already made a lasting impact. He has won numerous BMI and ASCAP Awards, and has earned the Songwriter of the Year crown from both Billboard and BMI.
Thomas is also known as an electrifying live performer, drawing fans of all ages to Matchbox Twenty’s concerts as well as to his solo shows around the globe. “After 20 years, I still get excited when I go on the road,” he says. “The sound of the bus before it pulls out. The idea of waking up in a new city every day,not knowing what the day will bring. It’s the best part of what I do. Seeing new faces every night. Sharing the music. It’s what keeps me doing it. It’s the greatest job in the world.”
When you ask Thomas what accounts for his stratospheric success, his reply is earnest and thoughtful, just like his music. “Part of me feels like it's because I am exactly like the people who listen to my music,” he says. “I’ve never written songs that speak to a particular group of disenfranchised youth. I’m not super-political. I just write songs about people and how they relate to each other. I think that's something that is universal to everybody. And I think also, over the years, I've learned how to write a good melody, which is an easy thing to say about myself because I feel like it’s the thing I'm good at. If your car breaks down and I'm with you, you're screwed. I can't fix your stereo. I'm not really that good at math. There's nothing else I do super well except for write songs. But I can say, ‘Listen, this is what I do. I've worked 20 years at it nonstop, 16 hours a day some days.’"
The majority of the tracks on The Great Unknown were produced by Thomas’ longtime producer Matt Serletic but for this album Rob also chose to work with some outside songwriters, including Ryan Tedder (first single “Trust You”), Wallpaper’s Ricky Reed (“Absence of Affection”), Cirkut & AG (“I Think We’d Feel Good Together”), and Shep Goodman and Aaron Accetta (“One Shot”). Of choosing to collaborate, Thomas says: “I figured, one, I'd never done it before, which are my favorite words to say, and two, the writers were people like Ryan Tedder, who is one of the most prolific songwriters in the world right now.”
“I also thought, ‘What if I it wasn't about trying to see what I could pull off alone or prove anything other than trying to make a great record?’” Thomas adds. “Every time you make a solo record, there's an element of trying to get something off your chest because it's just you dealing with yourself. Doing it this way, when I looked at the blank page, I wasn't looking at the same old shit. Everything wasn't going to come from the same place.”
The result is a collection of songs that range from amped-up pop (“Trust You,” “One Shot,” “I Think We’d Feel Good Together” and “Hold on Forever”) to quieter, more reflective moments (“The Great Unknown,” and the piano and string-driven ballad ”Pieces”). “If you're one of the five people left in the world who still listen to an entire record, I want you to be able to play it from start to finish and there’s a ride there,” he says. “There’s ups and there's downs. There's a little bit of everything happening, just like my CD collection. I think because Matt is such a good producer, he can shift effortlessly between all these different styles and not think twice about it. I can't throw him a curve ball that blows him away. I think that gives the album an even more diverse listening experience all the way through.”
Lyrically, Thomas found himself pondering the theme of bad decisions on The Great Unknown. “It wasn’t on purpose,” he says, “but songs like ‘Wind It Up,’ ‘Heaven Help Me,’ and ‘I Think We'd Feel Good Together,’ are in some way about being right on the precipice of making a horrible decision and being okay with it. ‘Trust You’ is about that friend everyone has, who, no matter how stable you are, will call you up, you'll go out, and it'll be four in the morning and you’ve wound up in some weird Thai bar playing Russian roulette. You don't know how you got there, but all of a sudden, you're Frank from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia down in the basement with a towel wrapped around your head.”
Thomas may be light-hearted about his propensity for revelry, but when it came time to name the album, he was inspired by one of its more emotional tracks, “The Great Unknown”. “My wife Marisol has been dealing with a lot of health problems and I was amazed at how strong and resilient she is,” he says. “I realized that I had written songs about her like, ‘Ever The Same’ and ‘Her Diamonds’ and they almost paint her in a victim light, and I didn't like that. It was important to me to write a song that shows how strong she is.” When Thomas played Marisol the song, she suggested it be the album’s title. “She said, ‘Because any endeavor you go into is the great unknown. Your motive, your intention, and your purpose are the only things you can control. Whatever is going to happen when it’s done, you have no hand in.’ It's funny, success is really only 50 percent up to you.”
Thomas will take those odds as he gears up to release The Great Unknown, his third solo album and first in six years. “I think every time I make a record, the only thing I realize about myself is that I'm so completely not finished yet,” he says. “I haven't gone, ‘Well, there you go. You’ve done it.’ I hope to God I never do."