Rob Thomas on Grief, New Solo Record & 20 Years with Wife and 'Best Friend' Marisol (Exclusive)
By Leena Tailor
As he prepares to release his new solo record, Chip Tooth Smile, Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas is sharing the personal drive behind the “autobiographical” record, from his 19-year, hurdle-fraught marriage to wife Marisol, to learning to embrace ageing after facing the death of loved ones.
While grief may be a lesser-heard topic on the radio, the three-time GRAMMY winner recently became inspired following a conversation with Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz, who pointed out that the friends were officially too old to die young. However, the meaning intensified after Thomas lost several loved ones, experiences reflected in the catchy single, “One Less Day (Dying Young),” with lyrics like, “I've seen my friends fall away before their time, and I've been afraid that I may follow in their light.”
“There’s so much focus on songs about staying young forever and I have a lot of friends who are like, ‘Oh man, getting older sucks,’ and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute -- that’s like, the only good alternative,’” Thomas tells ET ahead of Chip Tooth Smile's release on Friday. “You’re born, you hope to get older, every day is a win and the alternative is really bleak. And over the last couple of years, we’ve lost some people who are really close to us, who don’t get that chance to get any older, which makes you realize how much it’s a privilege that’s not afforded to everyone. It’s not just about me and my age group, but about understanding how moving on to that next generation and that next day is a win.”
Thomas says that, like with many hard times throughout his life, it was songwriting that helped him process his grief. He also learned the importance of taking the necessary time to deal with and learn from the losses.
“You realize that, in some levels, life goes on and it’s part of a process that always works out that way,” he says. “But every ending is another beginning, so I think you need to find a healthy balance between reverence and appreciation, and a proper mourning time for the things that you lose. And not leave a piece of yourself with that loss -- move on and try and be stronger and learn from those moments.”
For Thomas, appreciating every day means cherishing every moment with Marisol, a former model, and his 20-year-old musician son, Maison, from a previous relationship. Thomas and his wife have been together for more than two decades, tying the knot in 1999 in Santa Ynez, California, and are preparing to mark their 20th wedding anniversary in October, with Thomas crediting the fact the pair are besties for the strength behind their relationship.
“The other night, my wife and I were out and we realized that after three or four hours the two of us could just sit alone and bullsh** like you do with any of your friends,” he says. “We had the same kind of fun on our own that we do if we’re around a whole bunch of our friends. At the end of the day, she is my best friend and I happen to be married to her and we were saying how if anything ever happened and we were no longer married, we would still probably wind up being best friends. Like, after we hated each other for a good couple of months, we’d probably go back to being best friends!”
The pair’s unbreakable bond is moreso #couplegoals given how they have been tested time and time again over the years. Since vowing on their wedding day to “trust what changes the future may bring,” the two have faced Marisol’s ongoing health issues, which saw her desperately searching for accurate diagnosis and treatment for more than a decade before finally being diagnosed with several tick-bourne diseases, including Lyme disease, following brain surgery in 2015.
The potentially fatal illness causes seizures, pain and visual disturbance, and in Marisol’s case, the infections are also believed to have triggered Hashimoto’s disease and Atypical Trigeminal Neuralgia, which attacks facial nerves and has been nicknamed the “suicide disease,” because it “makes you wish for death.” The couple opened up about the illness during a 2017 interview with ET, during which Marisol recounted her journey from a driven woman co-managing Thomas’ career and running the Sidewalk Angels Foundation (the couple’s non-profit, which assists animal rescue groups) to having her life “stolen” from her. Thomas, meanwhile, likened the condition to having “a weird alien inhabit my wife.”
Since the powerful interview, the couple have continued to open up about living with the illness, which Thomas says is important, given that it’s easy to take one glance at his Instagram profile and misjudge the couple’s lifestyle. While Marisol looks stunning and radiant in Thomas’ sweet posts, the “invisible” nature of illnesses like Lyme disease means many patients are frequently suffering behind their smiles and between their social media posts.
“You see a post like we did the other night and it looks like we’re living this unbelievably charmed, beautiful life and I think it’s good for people to know that, just like with everybody else, those Instagram moments are your highlight reel,” Thomas notes. “We’re showing our best times. She still struggles all the time with the way that she feels -- she was struggling that night.”
“You also really, really learn what you should do with a good time when you have one,” he adds about coping with Marisol’s illness. “When you get a little moment when you’re not in pain and you get a little moment when you can have a good evening, we really appreciate it.”
Marisol’s health battles and the years the couple faced searching for answers and navigating her diagnosis were a strong theme of Thomas’ previous solo album, The Great Unknown, particularly the powerful ballad “Pieces,” which he wrote while spending hours in the desert in Mexico while waiting for Marisol to undergo treatment.
The ongoing significance of the song was evident at a recent fundraising show for the Sidewalk Angels Foundation at Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez, California, where Thomas uncharacteristically asked the audience to take their seats before he sat down at the piano and performed the touching ballad, moving the crowd to dead silence.
Thomas says Chip Tooth Smile is just as reflective of his personal life, representing “everything that’s happening to me from when I put out that last record to now.” The album starting to take shape while Thomas was touring The Great Unknown, and he continued songwriting through Matchbox Twenty’s A Brief History of Everything tour in 2017, amassing several records worth of songs before presenting them to musician and producer Butch Walker, who has worked with Fall Out Boy, Katy Perry, Gavin DeGraw and Taylor Swift. “I had already told everybody that I was going to make a record with Butch Walker … I just never told Butch,” Thomas laughs. “It was kind of like manifest destiny.”
Thomas will hit the road with special guest Abby Anderson on his Chip Tooth Smile tour, kicking off on May 28 in New Jersey, and he confirms that, following the 46-date run, new Matchbox Twenty music is in the pipeline. The group, who started out as Tabitha’s Secret and have been together more than 20 years, last put out 2012’s North and are currently focused on solo ventures, with lead guitarist Kyle Cook currently touring his solo record, Wolves.
“I was just on the phone with Kyle the day before yesterday,” Thomas says of the group’s latest discussions. “It’s a different world out there, so if we want to go out and tour together it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go sit in a studio for six months and make a 12-song record. We could maybe just make a couple of songs that we think are really good then go out and tour. So, we’re definitely going to be doing something and there’s definitely new music involved with that, but everybody is really enjoying the stuff they’re doing [on their own] as well, so we want to do stuff that makes us happy then get back to Matchbox when that makes us super happy as well.”
In the meantime, Thomas could make one celebrity fan super happy come summer time.
Bachelor in Paradise star and loyally dedicated Thomas fanboy Jared Haibon is preparing for his wedding to Ashley Iaconetti, and after declaring that he was “passionate” about Thomas on television, he has since taken his fandom to a new level by donating 10% of proceeds from the sales of his and Iaconetti’s new children’s book, Lucy and Clark: A Story of Puppy Love, to the Sidewalk Angels Foundation. The couple even made a recent trip out to an Indio, California, charity concert for the foundation, rocking out front row and hanging with the “Timeless” singer backstage.
So, will Thomas be singing at the nuptials?
“They haven’t asked me yet,” he laughs. “I’m not really much of a wedding singer. I did the reception one time for a friend, but it’s not really a habit. Unless they just invite me ... if they just invite me and I get drunk, then you never know what’s going to happen!”
Thomas adds that he was initially wary of the guy who “kept talking Rob Thomas, Rob Thomas, Rob Thomas,” on the ABC reality series, but now thinks highly of both Jared and Ashley.
“I got to meet him and he turned out to be this very sweet, lovely guy and Ashley too -- they’re just a really real couple and very genuine people,” he said. “My first question when I met her was, ‘So, do you hate me at this point? Are you sick of me?’”
While Thomas may not have his invite to the wedding yet, Haibon tells ET that he is high on the guest list.
“Of course, he’s invited!” the reality star said while attending the launch of the Backstreet Boys: The Experienceexhibit at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles earlier this month. “He doesn’t even have to sing. On our wedding day, I just want the people who I care about most -- family, friends … and Rob Thomas! Rob Thomas has been such a big, impactful part of my life and my adolescent years leading to my adult years. I would love for him to come to my wedding, but that’s entirely up to him.”