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For Rob Thomas, Age Comes Gracefully

Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas began work on his second solo album with "poppy melodies in my head and a lot of heavy (stuff) on my mind."

The sometimes deceptively buoyant tunes on his new "Cradlesong" attest both to the 37-year-old singer/songwriter's confident craftsmanship and his relative uncertainty about more pressing matters.

"Aside from the general waiting for the world to end, there was the issue of getting older," Thomas says. "Pushing 40 is much different than pushing 30. And I lost my mom a couple of years ago. Those things weigh on you. I don't think I'm conscious of their influence as I'm writing, but when I hear the record, I realize it."

The first single, "Her Diamonds," was inspired by Thomas' wife, Marisol, who in recent years has struggled with a lupus-like autoimmune disease. Her battle isn't specifically addressed, "but it's about how something like that makes you feel empathy. I like to write about universal emotions. Everything has a base emotion; it's just what triggers it that's different for everyone."

Marisol also provided backing vocals for the title track, "and she helped me arrange it, too. It was going to more upbeat, but she heard it as a ballad."

Seeking a more organic approach than he had applied on his solo debut, 2005's "½lcub¾hellip½rcub¾Something to Be," Thomas used less programming and more live percussion on "Cradlesong." But he retained "Be" producer and longtime Matchbox collaborator Matt Serletic. "He and I always try to find a way to make it feel alive without having it sound like anything I've done before, or anything else on the radio."

VH1.com and Rhapsody began streaming "Cradlesong" two weeks ago, and fans can access related digital content through iPhone's Fanbase app. Thomas also is launching a limited-edition apparel line with Bloomingdale's and Lyric Culture. "We're in a different time now, where record companies can't do the marketing alone."

Also just out is his "Live at Red Rocks" DVD, recorded in 2006, during Thomas' last (and first) solo tour. (He'll kick off a new trek Sept. 23 in Hollywood, Fla.) "There was no use putting it out with the last Matchbox record," 2007's "Exile on Mainstream," which combined hits and new material.

Thomas describes a symbiotic relationship between his solo career and his work with Matchbox. The group "is much more of a collaborative effort than it was in the past," with other members writing more frequently. "We're a good unit now, and I want to pursue that. That means I'll have these other songs that have no place to go, so I'll need my own area for them."

He employs a playful metaphor to assess his growth as a singer: "I used to do Jager(meister) shots, but now I drink wine. If you listen to the first Matchbox record, you'll hear a lot of growling. But after years of playing, you learn how to nuance your voice."

Rolling Stone associate editor Brian Hiatt predicts that Thomas' maturing instincts and self-deprecating humor will be important assets. "His music is adult-leaning, and he knows who he is and seems comfortable with it," Hiatt says. "The '80s were big on middle-aged mainstream pop artists; maybe (he) can be that for a new generation."

For Thomas' part, "I get asked if I can see myself still doing this at 50, and I think I can, because I haven't written anything I would be embarrassed about. It's about getting as many songs out there as I can. I don't want to pass away with songs in my pocket."

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