As a kid, Rob Thomas always thought December 26th was the saddest day of the year. The festive season brought joy amid an at-times turbulent home life and, through the years, that love for Christmas would surface in everything from concert performances dressed as Santa, to the merry wonderland he and wife Marisol create at their Westchester, New York, home every year.
So, it’s little surprise that every December when the Matchbox Twenty frontman sits at his piano serenading loved ones with holiday favorites, he wishes he was making a Christmas album. “But by the time Christmas comes, it’s too late!” he tells Variety.
Cue: COVID-19 postponing Matchbox Twenty’s tour and freeing up Thomas’ summer. The 49-year-old Grammy-winner started writing one holiday track, then made the “good mistake” of telling Atlantic Records’ president of A&R Pete Ganbarg, who promptly responded, ‘So, we can expect a Rob Thomas Christmas record?’”
It wasn’t long before Thomas was decking out his home studio with lights, playing holiday movies and “living Christmas for the whole summer,” while recording “Something About Christmas Time,” with guests including Brad Paisley, Ingrid Michaelson, Abby Anderson and Bebe Winans.
Out today (Oct. 22), the 10-track collection is comprised of originals tracks and covers including Bryan Adams’ “Christmas Time” — a duet with Michaelson– and Dolly Parton’s “I Believe in Santa Claus,” featuring country singer Abby Anderson, who opened for Thomas during 2019’s “Chip Tooth Smile” tour.
“The covers are songs I grew up with,” he says. “It was about taking a season that means something to me and making a Christmas record that was littered with my DNA. I wanted to feel as connected to these songs as I would any other record I put out, rather than just release some collection of Christmas songs.”
Lead single, “Small Town Christmas,” perfectly captures Thomas’ essence. The jingly, jolly opening is fit for the Hallmark Christmas movies he and Marisol spend hours watching, while the lyric — “We all need some comfort right now” — reflects both the difficulty of life during a pandemic and nods to Thomas’ own journey of relishing small-town South Carolina Christmases as a child to building holiday traditions and memories in New York.
“We live in a small town with a rural feel,” says Thomas, who has also released a video for “Small Town Christmas,” directed by David “Doc” Abbott. “Once we moved here, Mari and I started our traditions. Every Christmas Eve she makes moussaka and we watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”
Those traditions won’t quite be the same this Christmas. The couple are grieving the recent loss of their precious Pomeranian, Samy, who was by Thomas’ side while making the album. The singer, who along with Marisol, founded the charity Sidewalk Angels (which raises funds for animal rescues and shelters), ended up dedicating the record to Samy (who also scores an engineering credit), and penning the poignant “Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas (Samy’s Song)” in his honor. Says Thomas: “That lyric, ‘Black house … no light … Doesn’t really feel like Christmas time,’ – I kept thinking about it, then realized why. Then the song wrote itself.”
Thomas completed the track with album producer Gregg Wattenberg, who also sang and played instruments throughout.
Elsewhere on the album, “That Spirit of Christmas” delivers Thomas’ spin on a Ray Charles classic, accompanied by the hallowing vocals of Winans.
Dialing up the fun, festive vibes, Thomas called on pal Brad Paisley for a country Christmas collab. Having previously written a track, “Santa Don’t Like Bad Little Girls,” but recognizing the title may not sit well, Thomas rewrote the tongue-in-cheek track into “Santa Don’t Come Here Anymore.”
“I was always writing it very country, so I wanted someone like Brad because the missing link was great country guitar,” Thomas says. “Having [Paisley’s] voice and his guitar was great, then we got [Shane Keister] who was Elvis’ piano player to play on it, so it’s got a traditional country, fun feel.”
While not an official single, the song will be released to country radio. Thomas’ update of his 2002 release, “A New York Christmas,” meanwhile, will appear in the upcoming Hallmark film, “A Royal Queens Christmas.”
As well as Christmas and country playlists, Thomas is hitting the airwaves with “Move,” his collaboration with Carlos Santana and American Authors, which comes 22 years after he and Santana released the chart-topping “Smooth.”
The two saw each other for the first time since the pandemic to perform “Move” at Clive Davis’ “We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert” in August.
“We talked throughout lockdown, doing FaceTimes and sending a million texts, but it wasn’t the same as seeing each other in person,” reveals Thomas, who teases that he and one of his album’s special guests will perform at another upcoming New York event. “But there’s a bittersweetness to it because there’s a physical and mental barrier between everybody now. We finished playing and he went straight to CNN, while I went to dinner, so the next time we saw each other was that night when we were back to FaceTiming again!”
“Move,” which Thomas describes as a call to “dust off, have a good time and let it all out in a physical way,” is one of many collaborations which have kept him busy throughout the pandemic. He teamed up with Ryan Shaw for “Love in Pain” last October, has had virtual writing sessions with David Ryan Harris and Kyd the Band and co-wrote Montreal native Forest Blakk’s romantic new single “Fall Into Me.”
Says Thomas: “Creatively, [COVID-19] hasn’t stopped anything, but the cycle that’s supposed to happen — you create, go share it with the world, create more, then share that. It’s like I’ve been in a factory knitting sweaters and have no one to wear them. I’ve got all these sweaters piled up in the corner.”
Those musical creations are now gradually making their way out to the world, and among the pile are tracks Matchbox Twenty fans are eagerly awaiting. The group, which recently marked 25 years since releasing its debut, “Yourself or Someone Like You,” was set to tour the U.S. and beyond when the pandemic hit. The band (comprised of Thomas, Kyle Cook, Paul Doucette and Brian Yale) will commence rescheduled dates on May 17, 2022 in Vancouver.
“With everything going on, it was important to us that we did new music, so we’re in the midst of putting out a handful of songs before we hit the road,” he says. “One of our strengths has always been that we lean into each influence. If I’ve been spending all year listening to My Morning Jacket and Paul’s been doing film scoring and Kyle comes in after listening to nothing but hip hop, we throw that all into a gumbo and see what comes out!”