The Great Unknown

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.” Then there’s Thomas’ collaborations with iconic artists like Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, and Santana, that 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. Overall, Thomas has contributed to sales of more than 80 million records. In 2004, he was honored with 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.

Ask Thomas what accounts for his stratospheric success and his reply is earnest and thoughtful, just like his music. “I think, over the years, I’ve learned how to write a good melody, which is an easy thing to say about myself because it’s the only thing I’m good at,” he says in his typical self-deprecating way. “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 a melody. But I can say, ‘Listen, this is what I do. I’ve worked 20 years at it nonstop, 16 hours a day every day. If I’m not good at it, then I’ve wasted my entire life.’”

Bright melodies and urgent hooks fill Thomas’ latest solo album The Great Unknown, due from Atlantic Records in August. The songs were written over the past few years, in between breaks Thomas took while recording and touring in support of Matchbox Twenty’s 2012 No. 1 album North. “I’d go into the studio for a week, work a little bit, come out, think everything I wrote was genius, then hate everything for a while, then think some of the songs were okay. I’d go back and do that all over again until I had 40 or 50 songs, and then out of those, I whittled it down to the ones on the album.”

The majority of the tracks on The Great Unknown were produced by Thomas’ longtime producer Matt Serletic, but for the first time ever, Thomas wrote with outside songwriters, including Ryan Tedder (first single “Trust You”), Wallpaper’s Ricky Reed (“Absence of Affection”), Cirkut & AG (“I Think We’d Be 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,” “Things You Said”) to quieter, more reflective moments (“The Great Unknown,” 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. The album is basically one big AlkaSeltzer commercial, like, ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.’”

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. “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.”

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[July 2015]

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