For Rob Thomas, the lead singer of the rock group Matchbox Twenty, life before his successful music career was difficult.
Born on a U.S. Army base in Landstuhl, Germany, Thomas was shuttled back and forth between his mom's home in Florida and his grandmother's in South Carolina.
Thomas' already tumultuous home life only became more so when he dropped out of high school at the age of 17. Thomas spent three years homeless, drifting from place to place with only one constant in his life: music. He writes his own songs.
"I feel like the process of writing a song is kind of like turning on some sort of radio, and all of these songs are like in the frequency of the air, floating around, and every now and then if you're lucky enough, you hear one," Thomas said. "You hear this melody that hasn't been written yet or hasn't been written down yet. And you sit down and you try to turn that into something physical."
Thomas is the primary songwriter and lead singer of Matchbox Twenty. When he's not writing for the band, he's churning out hits for the likes of Carlos Santana and Willie Nelson. His band has sold more than 37 million albums worldwide. Their first album, "Yourself or Someone Like You" was an instant hit, going gold in 1996.
"When I first started, I was really fortunate to have my first record do really, really well," Thomas said. "And it gave me this opportunity after that to work with Carlos Santana," an experience Thomas said opened a lot of doors for him.
After the success of "Smooth," the single Thomas and Santana co-wrote, Thomas said he was asked to be an outside writer for other artists.
"I was kind of like an anonymous writer on other projects," said Thomas. "When I sit down to an empty page, when I sit down to write a song, my idea, my scope of what the song can be is so much bigger now than it was when all I did was write my own music."
While writing for other artists has expanded his horizons, Thomas said the songs he writes for himself hold the most meaning to him.
"I can always in some way kind of get back to that moment where it meant something to me as just a song on a piece of paper," Thomas said. "Because it's mine and it feels really personal to me, I don't think I could ever get sick of playing it live."
Thomas and Matchbox Twenty is kicking off its first North American Tour in more than four years. The cross-country tour will also feature Alanis Morissette and Mute Math. The tour will feature Matchbox Twenty's latest album "Exile on Mainstream," one that Thomas co-wrote with his band mates.
"These songs are more new to me than anything I've ever put on a record, because they were just written a couple of months ago and I had no idea what was going to come out of it until we sat down and wrote it."
While Thomas said his favorite songs differ depending on his mood, one constant for him is Willie Nelson's "I'd have to be crazy."
"When I was a kid the first album that I ever went out with my own money and bought, because I was from South Carolina, [was] a Willie Nelson record," Thomas said. "I thought it took such bravery to have an album called 'Greatest Hits (& Some that Will Be).' It's like he just knew."
Thomas said Nelson's song, "I'd Have to Be Crazy," was one that affected him like music never had before, and was one he listened to over and over again.
"I really thought about how clever these lyrics were and how great these chord changes were," Thomas said of the song. "If I have to pick the one person to me who reigns above all as just my favorite songwriter, my favorite performer, the person who means the most to me as a musical entity -- it's got to be Willie."
35-year-old Thomas, grew up when MTV was just getting its start. He remembers the first day MTV aired, and has fond memories of the songs that vividly bring him back to those moments in his childhood.
"Growing up right at the beginning of MTV ... I get really fuzzy hearing Don Henley, "Boys of Summer," Thomas said. "Every time I hear that I can immediately feel like I am that little kid sitting in front of the TV watching it."
"You feel all of the feelings that you felt when you were a kid. There's only a couple songs that can do that every time I hear it -- still at 35."
Around the holidays, Thomas is a self-described "Christmas geek." He admits to having a large collection of Christmas music on his iPod, a fact his friends tease him about. His collection includes everything from the Backstreet Boys to Mariah Carey, to Don Henley's version of "Come Home for Christmas."
"I love the Mariah Carey Christmas album," said Thomas. "Being a child of the 80s I like going back to those MTV 'That's What I Call Christmas' Christmas CDs and you got like all the greats: Darryl Hall and John Oates doing 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' ... Don Henley singing 'Come Home for Christmas' -- those things just make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. "
One song Thomas can't get out of his head is Brandi Carlile's "The Story."
"I've been walking around with it in my head so much that I just want to smack her when I see her because I can't get it out of my head," said Thomas, who claims he wears his Ipod out playing the singer/songwriter's album.
Carlile reminds Thomas of a "new, improved K.D. Lang," with "just this amazing voice and with these beautiful songs."
Thomas has expanded his playlist repertoire lately, exploring all sorts of different artists on the internet. He recently discovered songwriter Paolo Nuitin on the Web and is particularly inspired by his song "Last Request."
"I think that those are the moments that inspire you to want to write something," Thomas said. "You know you want to go out there and write something that inspires somebody else as much as that song inspired you. And it's like this cyclical process that keeps going on with artists."
"I'd Have to Be Crazy" WILLIE NELSON
"The Boys of Summer" DON HENLEY
"Please Come Home for Christmas" THE EAGLES
"The Story" BRANDI CARLILE
"Last Request" PAOLO NUTINI