Rob Thomas knows his way around writing a hit. Over his 22-year career with Matchbox Twenty and as a solo artist, the singer has topped the charts with songs like “3 a.m.” and “Lonely No More,” lent his chops to artists including Tom Petty and Willie Nelson, and, of course, co-wrote and sang on “Smooth,” the 1999 Santana song that Billboard deemed the second-most popular in the history of the Hot 100.
But he’s not resting on his laurels. The artist is back this week with a new single, “Trust You,” which is premiering on EW—and he’s also gearing up for The Great Unknown, his first solo album since 2009. For the record, Thomas recruited other songwriting pros to help him out. “I’d never done that before, tried to actually work with other people for my record,” Thomas tells EW on the phone, as he drives to his first rehearsal for his upcoming tour. “I usually work with other people for their records. I just wanted to do something a little different and not go back to the same well.” Among Thomas’ cast of collaborators is Ryan Tedder, the OneRepublic frontman whose writing credits include Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York,” Beyoncé’s “Halo,” and Adele’s “Rumour Has It.”
EW caught up with Thomas to talk about his new music, why he never recorded “Smooth 2,” and what’s in store for the 20th anniversary of Matchbox Twenty’s debut.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You co-wrote “Trust You” with OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, who’s also worked with Beyonce, Adele, and Kelly Clarkson. How’d you decide to work with him?
ROB THOMAS: He’s worked with everyone. He’s literally the most prolific writer I’ve ever known in my life. OneRepublic opened up for me solo one year. We’re both songwriters, we’re around the same age—he’s a little younger. We hit it off, we had a lot of the same ideals. He was kind of the only person on my list [of collaborators]. He was the first person on my list and he was really hard to get. I had to figure out a way to get out on the road and meet him, because he never stays still. He’s like a shark.
Is there a story behind “Trust You”?
We started off with this ‘Wooo-ooo-ooo-woo’ thing. We were thinking like a version of the Stones’ “Miss You.” And so we started with this beat, but then all of a sudden we came up with this line, “trust you.” Everyone I know, even the most put-together people, have that one person that calls them up and that no matter what, they know that the night is going to end with a bunch of bad decisions. They have one person who has all this power over them—everybody has that friend. So this is about that one friend that you have, that no matter how steady you think you are in life, when they call you you’re going to say yes and things are going to go horribly wrong in a really fun way.
What can you reveal about the forthcoming album—is “Trust You” a good indication of how it’ll sound?
It’s hard to say. I think it does bind together. I like to think that this record is a little bit more like the first solo record that I did, more than my second one. But because I come from the Matchbox world and I write with a lot of other people, I think that when I put together a record I still want to make it kind of diverse. I don’t want it to feel like it’s a one-trick pony for 12 songs. I like to get a little bit of as many things that I’m kind of into at that time, the different styles.
I worked with Shep [Goodman] and Aaron [Accetta] that [co-write and produce] all the American Authors stuff, which kind of gives this a whole different vibe than what I’m used to doing. I did some stuff with [electronic hip-hop artist] Wallpaper., a couple songs, and he actually came in and worked with [“Smooth” and “Lonely No More” producer] Matt Serletic on a song called “I Think We’d Feel Good Together.” It’s kind of all over the place, with a fair amount of stuff that I wrote myself but then me kind of farming out the people, just “I really like what you do, and I want to get a little piece of that magic.”
Sixteen years ago your Santana collaboration “Smooth” took over the charts. It didn’t just dominate that year—a couple years ago Billboard ranked it as the #2 song in the history of the Hot 100. Sixteen years later, what do you think of that song when you hear it?
It’s really funny. I think just like the rest of the world I went through a little period where I put a moratorium on it and didn’t listen to it for a long time, because I got so tired of hearing it. But then I went back and listened to it again not too long ago and it still holds up. I think it’s a testament to how it was recorded. It was recorded live, with that amazing Carlos band, all these guys who have played with like Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. The sound of it, it still sounds fresh—but I think I got sick of it just like everybody else.
It was just this great moment where I was coming off of the first Matchbox record that had a lot of success to it. And this was like the first thing that I had ever done. I wasn’t going to perform it, I was just going to write it and hopefully somebody else was going to do it. I was actually pushing for George Michael to sing it. I think [producer] Clive [Davis] and Carlos were just like, “Well, I like this guy’s voice. This guy’s into it.” It really opened up the door for me as a songwriter and a solo artist. I don’t know that I would’ve been able to have the success I’ve had with the solo album had I not done “Smooth.” It’s hard when you’re just “the guy from Matchbox Twenty.” I’m really, really thankful for that whole period.
Clive and a lot of them really wanted to try and recreate that when [Santana] did his next record, [2002’s Shaman]. Me and Carlos were both really against the idea, so instead I wrote a bunch of songs on that next record. I wrote a song that Mary J. Blige did and I wrote a song that Seal did, a song that Musiq Soulchild did. I wound up getting to work with Carlos without having to try and be like, “Oh, ‘Smooth 2’!”
Because “Smooth” was such a big song of summer, what song do you think might rule summer 2015?
That’s hard to say. What rules my playlist isn’t necessarily what’s ruling the radio right now, all the time. I go through these hiatuses of listening to stuff when I’m making a record so that I’m not copying too much. I’ll come out of the cave right now and then it’ll be, “Have you guys heard that new Adele record, it’s awesome!” I end up being a little behind. Right now I’m just excited about the new My Morning Jacket album. My Morning Jacket is something that’s ruling my airwaves.
Matchbox Twenty formed in 1996, and you guys haven’t put out anything since 2012’s North—are you working on anything new?
We put out North and then we toured for a year and a half all over the world. Then I spent the rest of the time working on this solo record. We never really stop. We obviously want to do something big for the 20th anniversary of our first record. And we plan to always keep making music and keep touring, just right now it’s impossible—it really takes a lot of effort to do two projects at one time. I actually just talked to Paul [Doucette] from Matchbox, who’s my best friend, trying to figure out what we’re going to do as soon as I get this ship in the water. Once this gets floating then I’ll feel a little safer to start talking about what that’s going to be. But there’s definitely going to be something on the horizon, especially for the 20th anniversary.