Photography by Phil Mansfield
Rock star Rob Thomas—the man who wrote (and sang) one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time, the man who has spawned 19(!) Top Ten singles, the man has who won three Grammy awards—is nervous. I know it ’cause he tweeted so: “doing an interview today with westchester magazine. been awhile since I had to talk about myself. never easy to get used to…”
Thomas, wearing a stylish dark-blue blazer and a crisp button-down shirt, is sitting alone at a corner table at his favorite local eatery, Le Jardin du Roi in Chappaqua, sipping a cappuccino. This is the place he and his wife, former model Marisol, dine at once or twice a week. (“We come in and everyone says hello,” the Bedford resident says. “It’s like one giant Cheers.”) And this is where his tour manager said Thomas would give me 45 minutes (and no more) of his time. “So you’re nervous?” I ask as I join him.
“I don’t trust anyone who isn’t nervous talking about himself,” Thomas says. “PRing myself is odd.” Nevertheless, Thomas will spend the next three hours (sorry, Jason) chatting, laughing, lunching, regaling, posing, and charming me. He will even kiss me…twice. (Yes, I’ve told everyone, but, for the record, they were pecks on the cheek.) Rob Thomas, you see, is a nice guy—something that he says seems to surprise just about everyone. “I’m not some drug-addled, wife-cheating, hotel-smashing guy you read about in the tabloids,” he says. Nope, Thomas is a 39-year-old suburban homeowner (“My favorite spot in Westchester is my home”), who loves his wife (“She is my greatest influence”), loves his mother-in-law (“She is just cool”), and loves his work. “Being a musician is fun,” says Thomas, who for the past 18 years, has been having fun with his band, Matchbox Twenty, and on his own. “It beats working.” Though, often, being a rock star, he points out, is far from glamorous. “I’m really a well-paid salesman. I get paid to travel, to sell. This is a job”—a job he is well aware very few people get. “I’m lucky. I’ve made a career in music.”
So lucky that, given the failure rate, he considers himself among the two percent of men and women who get to make music for a living. Others, for example, Mick Jagger, with whom he has worked, are even luckier. “Mick is in the top one percent. He is a game-changer.” And, apparently (parents, you may want to share this with your kids), Jagger’s a responsible partier. “He nurses one drink all night long,” Thomas says.
Thomas has worked with many top-notch musicians, including Willie Nelson (“I couldn’t sleep the night before we got together; he is my all-time songwriting hero”) and, of course, Carlos Santana (“He has become family; he always sends flowers on my birthday”). Thomas’s mega-mega-hit, “Smooth” (the No. 2 song of all time, according to Billboard; the first is “The Twist”), was written by Thomas and recorded by Santana. Thomas admits he didn’t think that the Latin-flavored song, which appeared on Santana’s album Supernatural, was going to be such a huge success.
“My wife did. She called it immediately.” His best friend and Matchbox Twenty drummer-turned-guitarist Paul Doucette, was also a nonbeliever. Thomas recalls Doucette, “ever the ego-pumper,” telling him when radio stations weren’t playing “Smooth” much, “there are a lot of bigger stars on that album.” (Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, and Lauryn Hill also collaborated on Supernatural.) “Smooth” went on to sell 15 million copies and won Grammys for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. “It was all very surreal,” Thomas says. Still, at the Grammy Awards ceremony, he confides, “I was more taken by the fact that Bono knew my name.”
Thomas wrote “Smooth” for Marisol, who is Puerto Rican and who inspired such lines as “my muñequita, my Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa,” even though she grew up in Queens. “I took poetic license there,” he says. “My Queens Mona Lisa just doesn’t work.”
They met 13 years ago in Montreal. Marisol (who graced our May cover) was on vacation; he was on tour. “She thought I was less famous than I really was and I thought I was more famous than I really was.” He managed to get her number and, while on a one-month tour in Germany, he called her every night. “We became close friends,” he says. On their first date, he told Marisol they were going to get married. “I never felt anything like it. Before, all my relationships, everything was fodder, but this wasn’t fodder.” They’ve been married for 11 years. “Being friends is the closest thing we found for the reason we are together,” he says. Today, she co-manages his career and runs their charity, Sidewalk Angels Foundation, a nonprofit organization that partners with other charities to help poor people forgotten by the system and abused and abandoned animals.
As for children…Thomas has a near-13-year-old son from a previous relationship, who lives with his mother in Boston. “I fear being a father of a teenager,” he says. “All teenagers are horrible.” He and Marisol, who suffers with a Lupus-like autoimmune disease, would like to have children, but for now their “kids” are the two dogs the couple, huge dog lovers, rescued from a shelter. “The joy we get from those two animals is so immense. We feel bad for people who don’t get it.” Besides, he says, “If you spoil your dog, you have a spoiled dog. If you spoil your kid, you’ve got an asshole.”
He credits Marisol with changing him, grounding him. “My wife chiseled out this person I had underneath but left just enough rough edges that she still finds me sexy.” And once upon a time, there had been, apparently, many rough edges.
Thomas was born on an army base in Germany. His mother was 14 when she married her first husband, 21 when she married Thomas’s dad. Within two years, his parents divorced and he went to live with his alcoholic grandmother in Lake City, a rundown farm town in South Carolina, while his mom and older sister lived elsewhere. Grandma sold moonshine and pot. When he was 10, he, his mother, and his sister moved to Sarasota, Florida. His mom, too, was an alcoholic. His sister ran away from home at age 17 “to get away from our mom.” He pretty much took care of himself.
In high school, he had a crush on a girl, so he signed up for a chorus class “just so I can stand next to her.” He never got the girl, but he did get inspired, especially when his chorus teacher told him, “If you stick with it, I can see potential.” Throughout, music kept him company. “I always loved music, all kinds of music.” He grew up listening to Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson. Today, he says, “I have more forties bebop jazz on my iTunes than just about anything else.”
At 17, Thomas dropped out of school to join a band and for two years he lived “a Jack Kerouac” existence, sleeping on park benches, crashing on friends’ couches, and doing lots of drugs. Eventually he started a popular local band in Gainesville, Florida, which in time turned into Matchbox Twenty. The band got signed by Atlantic, and their first album, Yourself or Someone Like You, went platinum…10 times. More albums, more hits (“3 A.M.,” “Bent,” “Lonely No More”…) and many, many tours would follow.
Today the band is working on their fifth album. “We’re just finishing up the writing process.” And he’s excited—and worried. “I worry that any minute it’s going to end completely,” he says. He knows many artists who resent and put down the current crop of artists. “I want to be one of those people on the radio that other people are bitching about,” he says. “I hope to be like Jagger, still doing this in my sixties, but in an age-appropriate way; not shaking my ass too much.” A “nonstop reader,” he also hopes to one day go to college. (Thomas has a G.E.D.)
How did he and Marisol end up in Westchester? He credits Tommy Hilfiger. The couple loved living in SoHo until, he says, “a Tommy Hilfiger store moved into SoHo, bringing chains, and everything became unbearably crazy.” They started driving north, on weekends looking at neighborhoods that weren’t too far from the city. Eventually they moved, first to Briarcliff Manor, and then Bedford. “I am probably the only person who has ever said this, but Bedford felt unpretentious. With all the money here, everybody is in jeans and boots. Besides, I like not being the most famous person in my neighborhood.” Or the most affluent. “I’m ‘screw-you’ wealthy but not as wealthy as some of the people here.”
I met Thomas for the first time three years ago at the annual Blyethdale Children’s Hospital Christmas fundraiser, which, I must note, begins at the ungodly hour of 6 am. Thomas not only performs there each year but stays for hours afterwards to hang out with the kids. When I managed to get near him after the performance and tell him that I wanted to one day interview him for the magazine, he gave me a number to call. I did but got nowhere. When I told him of my frustration at the fundraiser the following year, he looked genuinely surprised, asked me to wait a minute, rushed into a dressing room, and returned with his tour manager’s email address and phone number. He then put his arm around me and posed for a photo with me.
As I said, a nice guy.