The solo career of Rob Thomas -- The matchbox twenty singer talks about his new album, being a rock star, and paying his dues

Rob Thomas is standing on the shore of a reservoir near his home in Bedford, N.Y., meditatively smoking a Marlboro Ultra Light 100. He squints in the bright sunlight reflecting off the water, waiting patiently for EW’s photographer to set up for an afternoon photo shoot. Taking a final drag, he extinguishes his cigarette between two fingers and stuffs the butt in the back pocket of his jeans.

He looks up sheepishly and laughs. ”Man, I can’t even just toss my cigarette on the ground,” he says. ”I am so un-rock & roll.”

Now, there’s a familiar sentiment. It’s no news that, to critics and the cooler-than-thou indie/alt crowd, Thomas and his band, matchbox twenty, have long been synonymous with white-bread, danger-free corporate rock. Next to them, Creed look like badasses, with Thomas a latter-day Pat Boone — a pernicious, smiley-faced anti-Elvis out to deliberately subvert and trivialize the legacies of real rock with his bland, middle-of-the-road, multi-multi-multiplatinum band.

But hold on a sec. In a weird inverted echo of the title of matchbox twenty’s 1996 debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, the 2005-model Thomas has turned into someone totally unlike his old self. Two months ago, the singer released his solo debut, the refreshingly diverse . . .Something to Be, which he says was a deliberate attempt to experiment with new styles and move beyond the matchbox sound into funkier, more rhythmic territory. And as the R&B-tinged first single, ”Lonely No More,” reveals, the resulting album is not only a huge shift from matchbox twenty’s earnestly innocuous pop, it spotlights a markedly more charismatic Thomas. Furthermore, fans dug the album (which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart) and so, for once, did some critics. ”Maybe, just maybe, I have attained a higher level of acceptance,” he says. ”People are finally saying, ‘You know, he’s not so bad. He does write some good songs.”’

Thomas’ unlikely makeover really began back in 1999, when he co-wrote and sang the Santana smash ”Smooth.” His performance was so dead-on that even cynics grudgingly admitted the kid had nailed it. ”After that,” he says, ”the bad reviews started getting a little less caustic.” And the man himself got a little love — primarily because they got to know him: funny, personable, and a charming mix of superstar and underdog. Thomas’ most appealing trait is that he’s hip to the fact he’ll never be hip — and totally okay with that.

And he’s finally okay with emerging from his self-imposed shell. In the wake of the amazing success of ”Smooth,” Thomas started reevaluating the keep-a-low-profile attitude he’d adopted from the early days of matchbox twenty, mostly thanks to those blistering first reviews. He jokingly refers to this strategy as the Tao of Rob; its primary Zen-like edict: Embrace facelessness. ”We had sold so many records and nobody had any idea what we looked like,” he says. ”Our music was much more famous than we were. We never saw the problem with that. We created an air of mystery even when people didn’t give a f— about us.” He grins. ”That takes work, to be that f—in’ anonymous. We knew there were gonna be people that didn’t like us, and we decided to just shut up about it and keep our heads down. We’d get offers to do TV appearances, The Jenny McCarthy Show, this, that, the other, and our answer was always ‘No, no, no!”’