Fronting his own band was initially an awkward experience for William Tell.
For about five years, the former guitarist for the punk-lite pop group Something Corporate had become accustomed to standing on stage in the shadows, playing his instrument and adding background vocals. But all of that has changed with the release of his solo debut, You Can Hold Me Down. For the past three months or so, the Orange County, Calif., native has been on the road, promoting the record and working through his solo jitters.
"It's still a little scary," says Tell, who plays the University of Maryland, College Park tonight and Rams Head Live on Monday night as part of the fourth Virgin College Mega Tour. "I wasn't the center of attention before. Now, I'm carrying the weight. It's a whole different thing now. I like it, though."
Tell boasts sensitive-guy good looks and a pop-friendly, emo-leaning sound. Like Something Corporate, the artist's approach wouldn't appeal to the underground crowd (his songs are much too polished) or the mainstream (they're not catchy or trendy enough). Tell falls somewhere in between, offering nothing particularly fresh on You Can Hold Me Down. But here and there, the album shows promise.
"Each song turned out different," says the soft-spoken artist, 27. "I'm always trying to write with variety. I just force myself to try different things, writing songs on different instruments - piano, bass, guitar - so that I won't get into a rut of doing the same thing."
Lyrically, Tell mostly explores the ups and downs on love's roller coaster. On "Jeannie," the surging opener and one of the CD's better tunes, the singer reassures a brokenhearted young woman that the pain will pass:
Yeah, he never meant to hurt
You can't just build your heart up
And give it all away like that.
The quirky piano-and-beatbox-led "Fairfax (You're Still the Same)" is a bouncy number about the plagues of nightclub life.
While writing songs for his debut, "I listened to NPR a lot to get a feel for telling stories," Tell says. "There's this series called This American Life on NPR. I think that series - with stories about everyday life - helped influence me in some way."
Tell grew up with a minister father, and his exposure to pop-rock was limited. Although the music on You Can Hold Me Down doesn't echo the influence, the artist's first love was gospel.
"It was music that meant something," Tell says. "I saw people in church react to it - throw their hands in the air, shout things. It showed me it could be a lot more in music, that it can inspire a sincere thought."
But when Tell entered high school, pop-rock supplanted gospel. And soon afterward, he joined Something Corporate, a band whose popularity peaked with its 2002 debut, Leaving Through the Window.
"My dad was a little skittish before when I was in Something Corporate, because there was some profanity in the songs," Tell says. "But there are some things on my record that aren't exactly Bible-study material. But my family's cool with what I do."
You Can Hold Me Down is just a taste of things to come.
"I think I grew a lot as a writer during this record," Tell says. "I feel like I can express myself more the next time around."
See William Tell tonight at 7 at Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, College Park. Tickets are $15 and $20 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com. Tickets for Monday night's show at 7:30 at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, are $27.50 for the public and $20 for college students with ID. For more information, call 410-244-8856 or visit ramsheadlive.com.
To hear clips from Tell's album, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.