Thinking outside the 'box; Rob Thomas felt time was right a non-Matchbox Twenty album

Rob Thomas is the lead singer for a very successful rock band, Matchbox Twenty, so you wonder why he needs to make a solo album.

On the other hand, you wonder what took him so long.

Thomas, after all, has become much more than simply Matchbox Twenty's singer. Since co-writing and singing with Santana on the Grammy-winning smash Smooth (1999), Thomas has become first among equals in his own band and a star in his own right. He's written for Mick Jagger and Marc Anthony, and has dueted with Willie Nelson.

Now Thomas has brought out Something to Be -- in stores now -- his first solo album. It's a step outside Matchbox Twenty, he says, but not away from the group.

"I've always wanted to do this," he says. "When you make a record, and even the records we're the most happy with in Matchbox, there's always a piece on it that somebody's not happy with, because there are concessions that have to be made to make five people happy. So there's always a song or production ideas on a song or some way you would have done something different.

"After 10 years all of us were at that point of 'Well, what would we sound like if we did it the way we wanted to do it?' " he says. "And we are all so solidified in our roles here in Matchbox that that just won't happen -- it's always going to be a team effort."

Therefore, Thomas says, after three multiplatinum Matchbox Twenty albums, the group members are trying to give one another that individual space. Besides Lonely No More, drummer Paul Doucette also has a solo album due later this year and guitarist Kyle Cook is working with a side band, the New Left.

Matchbox Twenty's guitarist, Adam Gaynor, left earlier this year and is working on his own material, but Cook says in a separate interview that the remaining members are definitely still together.

"For sure we'll get back together to make another record," Cook says. "It's just time now for everybody to do their own thing. I'm sure a lot of people will be waiting to see what Rob does, obviously."

Thomas and Matchbox Twenty producer Matt Serletic have made Something to Be a 12-song collection that's a credible solo album -- in other words, it's not merely a Matchbox Twenty rehash with different players. There are similarities, of course, in Thomas' voice and his melodic sensibilities as a songwriter, but the album veers in some different directions, such as the loping groove of Fallin' to Pieces and the muscular blues/funk of I Am an Illusion.

"It doesn't sound like one piece of anything, you know?" the 33-year-old Thomas says. "It doesn't sound so much like one cohesive thing as it sounds like a real album that takes you on a journey from the beginning to the end."

It's also the culmination of Thomas' journey to this point.

He was a Valentine's Day baby, born on a military base in Germany where his father was stationed. Thomas' parents divorced when he was young, and he returned home to spend his childhood hopping between his mother's home in Florida and his grandmother's in South Carolina.

"I was raised by women," Thomas says. "I think that made a big difference. I was taught a different sensibility that I think translated into everything from my personality to my songwriting."

He met Doucette and bassist Brian Yale in Florida, and the three formed the group Tabitha's Secret, which morphed into Matchbox Twenty after Serletic signed on and helped recruit Cook and Gaynor. The group's debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You (1996), got off to a slow start, but eventually sold 10 million copies thanks to such hits as Back to Good, Push, Real World and 3 a.m.

Matchbox Twenty maintained its hit-making touch on its subsequent two albums, so it's understandable that Thomas would stick with Serletic to produce his solo debut.

"Matt and I actually talked about whether I should use someone else," Thomas acknowledges. "At the end of the day I decided that, if I wanted to show how much I had grown, it was important for me to use the same producer that I was used to.

"Basically it's all ego," he adds with a laugh. "I didn't want anybody else to get the credit for my growth."

Thomas and Serletic had no trouble getting started on Something to Be: Tracks such as I Am an Illusion and Problem Girl previously had been passed on by the other members of Matchbox Twenty. The rest, including the first single, Lonely No More, were written specifically for the album.

Thomas hastens to add that the downbeat tone of that particular tune is not autobiographical.

"It's just a song that was written for the idea of writing a song," he says. "The lyrics aren't really about me. I don't have personal attachment to it."

If anything, Thomas is more invested in the song's title, borrowed from a book title.

"I got it from a Kurt Vonnegut novel," Thomas says. "One of my favourite of his novels is (1999's Slapstick: Or Lonely No More). In his books he likes to draw little pictures of what he's talking about, and there was a big pin he had drawn that said 'lonely no more.' So that was kind of my starting point for what the song was going to be about."

Something to Be also gave Thomas a chance to work with new musicians, including high-profile guests such as John Mayer, Robert Randolph and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers. He also relished the chance to hit the road solo, though he acknowledges that it was hard to work out a song mix that balanced his identities as solo artist and as the singer for Matchbox Twenty.

"You can figure 'Well, I wrote the songs, so I should be able to do them wherever I want,' " Thomas says. "On the other hand, some of the things that make those songs what they are, like the countermelodies and things, those aren't mine, those are Kyle's or Paul's.

"I've cut down the middle and tried to find ways to rework the old songs so that I can retain the melody and the lyric -- the part that I wrote -- and the chord progression," Thomas says, "then have my new band write new parts for them so that they have their own vibe, even if they're familiar songs. That seems like the right way to do it."