‘No one understands the pressure of being labelled as a ‘hit songwriter’, then somebody puts you in a room with strangers and they’re like, ‘Hey, I need a smash!’’

MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. Here we meet Grammy-winning writer Theron Thomas who describes his journey from the Virgin Islands to the top of the charts and what he’s learned along the way. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.

Young Theron and Timothy Thomas are rehearsing in their third-floor apartment in the Oswald Harris Court housing project in St Thomas on the US Virgin Islands.

Downstairs, their friends are playing kickball in the Caribbean sun and calling them to come and join in. But the brothers know they can’t do that until their performance has impressed their father, Miguel ‘Kiebo’ Thomas, enough for him to get out of his chair.

“My Dad taught me and my brother everything,” smiles Theron Thomas, as he thinks back to those days. “He used to make us rehearse for two hours every day before we could go outside to play. We had to make him stand up. He’d be like, ‘I’m your Dad, if you’re boring to me, imagine how a stranger feels’. He was my true hero.”

Theron’s father sadly didn’t live to see it, having passed away suddenly in 2020, but his son recently brought a much bigger room to its feet.

And when Theron Thomas picked up the second-ever Songwriter Of The Year, Non-Classical Grammy in Los Angeles in February, delivering an emotional tribute to his Dad – who had predicted his son would one day win a Grammy – as he did so, it was the culmination of a long, hard journey that began thousands of miles and a whole different world away.

Indeed, when Theron was a kid, he would ask his father whether the people in the far-off, glamorous locations he saw on TV – London, New York, Paris, LA – knew anything about St Thomas and its people.

“I didn’t want to just live in the world and die and have no one know I was here,” he says. “I wanted people to know my island is here and to know that I exist.”

That Theron is close to mission accomplished on that ambitious plan is testament not just to his talent, but also his tenacity. He and his brother – who would first find success in the band R. City (aka Rock City, the local nickname for their hometown) – became well known for their music in St Thomas, but nobody expected that notoriety to extend beyond the Virgin Islands.

“Apart from my parents, there was never anybody that believed this could happen,” Theron says. “They’d say, ‘Nobody’s ever done it, so why would it be you and your brother? What makes y’all so special? This isn’t a thing that people from where we’re from accomplish’.”

Desperate to prove them wrong, the brothers moved to Miami in 2000 with $35 in their collective pocket, sleeping on floors and making connections, until a musical opportunity took them to Atlanta a year later.

At the time, artist stardom was their priority. R. City signed first to Akon’s KonLive Distribution (Akon gave them their first writing credit when he used their song The Rain on his Konvicted album) and, later, Dr Luke’s Kemosabe Records.

R. City had a Top 10 Billboard hit with Locked Away (featuring Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) in 2015. But it was the songs they wrote and produced for other people along the way that really had an impact: Sean Kingston’s Take You There, Iyaz’s Replay and, crucially, Pussycat Dolls’ When I Grow Up.

“That gave us a lot of confidence,” Theron grins. “The Pussycat Dolls won an MTV Award and I’ll never forget Nicole saying, ‘Thank you to R. City’. ‘Nicole Scherzinger said our name on MTV – oh my God, we’re going to be famous!’ That purity is something that kept us going for a long, long time.”

After that, work with the likes of Rihanna (Man Down), Justin Bieber (Runaway Love) and Miley Cyrus (We Can’t Stop) followed.

The brothers still make music together in R. City – they’re suitably huge in the Caribbean – while Theron is currently on an epic co-writing run of his own that has created smash hit singles for Latto (Big Energy), Justin Timberlake (Selfish), Ciara and Chris Brown (How We Roll), Jungkook feat. Latto (Seven) and many more.

Meanwhile, his ongoing collaboration with Lizzo has produced the likes of Juice and About Damn Time.

Published by Sony Music and managed by Ray Daniels, Thomas admits he often has no idea that he’s written a solid gold banger (“I liked Seven, but I didn’t know it was going to be the fastest song to one billion streams ever [on Spotify]. That was a surprise!”).

Similarly, he was taken aback by his Songwriter Of The Year Grammy nomination, having been told that he would need to campaign to have a chance (“I overslept, when my publicist woke me up to say I was nominated, I was completely discombobulated”).

Once he’d got the nomination, however, he was determined to win. And when he did? “I lost my mind!” he chuckles. “When you’re a kid and you say, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to do this thing’ and then you grow up and you do the thing, you’re like, ‘What the?’”

Despite all the post-Grammys attention, and the pressure that comes with being the music industry’s go-to hitmaker, Thomas has retained his Caribbean chill, just like he’s kept his accent. He may have turned down a couple of session offers straight after the ceremony so that he could return to Atlanta to show his kids his award, but he is more than happy to give the industry what it’s looking for.

“The fast-food chain Chick-fil-A is known for having great service – and I always tell people I’m the Chick-fil-A of the music business,” he grins, as he settles down at home in Atlanta to talk to MBW. “I know that when I come into a room, it’s not about me. I’m here to serve.”

Time then, for Thomas to dish up some answers to questions about TikTok, Lizzo and why songwriters are the Rolls-Royce engines of the music industry…


When I was a kid I was like, ‘I’m going to be as famous as Michael Jackson’. Then, when you get into the music business, you understand the business and the price of real fame. After a while, it was a bit scary to me – fame, not success.

“I stumbled upon songwriting and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I’m making great money, my family is living awesome, and I can walk in the mall and nobody knows me? Why didn’t I think of this sooner?'”

I didn’t know ‘songwriter’ was a job. I thought everybody wrote their own songs. I’m a kid from St Thomas, I was naïve and ignorant to a bunch of things. I would pray and be like, ‘Yo God, I want to be in the music business, I want to be famous, please, please, please. But God, if you can make it so that when I wake up every day I make music for a living, in any capacity, you wouldn’t have no complaints out of me’.

I stumbled upon songwriting and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I’m making great money, my family is living awesome, and I can walk in the mall and nobody knows me? Why didn’t I think of this sooner?’


I love the competitiveness of it. I never played sports, but I love the, ‘I’m writing a song and Max Martin is writing a song and Diane Warren and Amy Allen, all the great writers in the game are writing a song and sending it to the same person’ thing. Then they pick your song and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I won this one!’

Or they pick their song and you’re like, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to go back to the studio and do better!’ Even when somebody else gets the win, it doesn’t make me feel bad or offended, I’m like, ‘OK, now I’ve got to do something to wow the world because they just did’. I love that!


Every writer deserves a Lizzo. Every writer deserves that artist that they are truly connected with creatively, to the point where they bounce off each other so well.

We have this thing that we call ‘Lizzoisms’. Lizzo says these things like, ‘It’s bad bitch o’clock’ or ‘I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that bitch’ – she says these phrases that become these viral captions for women. So now, when we’re in the studio, we’ll be writing a song and it’ll be like, ‘It don’t have the Lizzoisms’. We’ll be diving through the lyrics, adding and subtracting.

I have an idea or she has an idea and we go back and forth until she’s happy with the end product and I’m also happy with it – but the end product is more about her than me.

For every creator, from producer to writer to engineer to mixer, having a Lizzo is a dream, because you get to create with somebody at the top of their game, and their talent and your songs get to really have a shot to see the world.


Well, you know, songwriting is weird. None of these things exist before you think of them from nowhere. So, no one understands the pressure of being labelled as a ‘hit songwriter’ and somebody puts you in a room with strangers and they’re like, ‘Hey, I need a smash!’

Some people have a direction and that is amazing. We can walk down that direction until we figure it out. But some people are like, ‘I need a hit’.

‘OK, uptempo? A ballad?’

‘I don’t know’.

‘Sad, happy?’

‘I don’t know’.

And you’re like, ‘OK… we’ll try our best!’

But I like the intensity of my sport. This is my basketball court and I love getting in the room with an artist and having a 50% chance that I’m going to win and a 50% chance that I’m going to fail. You can’t get fairer odds than that. There’s a 50% chance you’re going to write About Damn Time and there’s a 50% chance that you are going to fuck this up!


No, I give everybody the same respect. At one point, Beyoncé was the young girl in Destiny’s Child, who would have known that she would become Beyoncé? So, who am I to treat the new young girl like she’s not going to be Beyoncé one day or the new young man like he’s not going to be Drake one day? How dare I treat anybody like they’re not special because, in my mind, we all are special.

“I’m like an Uber driver; I’m always trying to figure out what you need to get you to where you’re trying to go.”

I’m like an Uber driver; I’m always trying to figure out what you need to get you to where you’re trying to go. You’ve got an address – the charts. So, with me as the Uber driver, how do I get you there the fastest and the safest? That’s literally what I’m trying to do: get artists to the charts in the fastest and best way I possibly can. It doesn’t work out that way every time, but that is the goal every time.


No. Songwriters are the side chicks of the music business – like, ‘I love this girl, but I can’t tell anybody she exists because I’m married’. We don’t want to be side girls; we want to be the main attraction. As a songwriter, we just want the same respect as everybody else.

It’s like saying, ‘Who cares about the engine on the car?’ The Rolls-Royce is a pretty car, the interior is important… I know you don’t see the engine, but you’ve got to know, without the engine, the car is not going anywhere.

And without the song, you don’t go anywhere. Mariah Carey doesn’t walk out in a gown and everybody screams like, ‘Mariah’s so stunning and beautiful, I spent $1,200 on a ticket to see her, she smiled and twirled and she went home’. Nah, bruh. You better start singing. I want to hear them lyrics. I want to hear them songs.


I’ve written big hits by myself and that’s great. But collaboration is the way of the future. With everything happening in this world – artificial intelligence is going to start writing songs, making beats, writing articles and building houses. We’re going to need to form super-people!

The Power Rangers couldn’t beat the giant by themselves, everybody had to come together to defeat it. And I believe the future of every industry, including music, is going to be collaboration.

Performing at a high level in any job is extreme pressure, but that’s why collaboration is so important. If at any time I fall short, I’m in a room with other incredible, like-minded songwriter-producers who can guide me into my next hit. Collaboration is the key to staying relevant as long as I have – and hopefully to being around even longer.

Credit: 19 STUDIO/Shutterstock

I hope both parties get to a place where it can be fair, but I don’t think I’m upset about it. TikTok dances are incredible and they’ve broken a lot of records, but [we need] artists being discovered for artistry and respected for talent and not just [because] you saw that song on TikTok.

This is what happens: you’re a poor kid, you load your song up, it gets huge. Somebody just gives you a couple of million dollars out of the blue. Now it’s time to make another song, but you don’t even understand why that one was big, you were just having fun with your friends, you’ve never been educated about writing songs.

You’re talented, but now the pressure’s on. You’re trying to do it on your own, but the label’s like ‘No, that’s not it – you should go in the studio with these people’.

Now you’re in a room with people that you’ve never worked with, in a process you’ve never been in before, feeling like, ‘I don’t want to do what this guy’s telling me to do, I have my own way’. Well, guess what, we need a hit by Friday. And now you’re frustrated at the music business because there was no education before they gave you money and said, ‘Go off into the world, good luck’. It’s dangerous.

Artist development is a real necessity. In the K-pop world, they have acts in development for four or five years before they even start to record a song. Practising, perfecting their craft, having media training and learning how to be an artist before they even get in the studio. I respect that practise so much and I wish it was something that we adopted in America.


I would make sure everybody gets paid what they deserve. Certain managers aren’t being paid, certain A&Rs, certain writers, producers… there are people in this business that are putting in the work, putting in the hours, doing what they’re supposed to do and not being compensated in the fairest way.

I’m not talking about, give everybody millions of dollars, but I’ve always believed in fair. It’s like that Mel Gibson movie, Payback. Mel goes after all of these criminals, doing all kinds of crazy stuff to get his $70,000. And everybody’s like, ‘Bro, what is wrong with you?’ And he’s like, ‘I just want what’s mine. I don’t want $100,000, I don’t want $1 million – I did a job, my portion of the earnings was $70,000 and that’s what I want’.

And for me as a songwriter, I do a job and you can compensate me in a fair way that doesn’t take you into bankruptcy and everybody will be happy. And I don’t see why that it’s such a big issue to be fair to the engine of the car!

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