It’s been done before — many times in fact. The Beatles’ Paul McCartney, Jack White of the White Stripes, and Beyoncé, once the lead singer of Destiny’s Child; all embarked on solo careers for different reasons. When Yellowcard, the pop-punk band that produced 2000s angsty anthems like “Ocean Avenue” and “Only One,” disbanded in 2017 after a 20-year run, frontman William Ryan Key was headed down a similar path. 2018 proved to be a year of new beginnings for the 39-year-old, who produced a sizeable body of work (four singles and two EPs, Thirteen and Virtue) within a year of the band’s split. Today, Key is traveling the U.S. to promote his new sound, all simple acoustic-chords, and soft-vocals. He’s starting over, and happily so, distancing himself from the name Yellowcard and everything that it means to its fans.
Hour Detroit: What has this transition, from being the frontman of Yellowcard to becoming your own solo act, been like for you?
William Ryan: After Yellowcard disbanded, I spent a decent amount of time thinking about what I wanted to do next, career-wise. Long story short, everything kind of led back to writing and recording my own music. And I’m pretty happy that I did that, you know? I thought for a while I might be producing records for other artists or getting more involved in the songwriting scene in Nashville, where I live. But none of those things really lit a fire inside of me.
In early 2018, I got an offer to open for New Found Glory on their The Sick tour. And that’s when I decided that I should write a collection of songs and see what putting together an EP would be like while I was on the road. I didn’t really want to go out and be nostalgic by playing Yellowcard songs exclusively.
You wanted to start anew.
Right! For that tour specifically, I could have gotten away with playing “Ocean Avenue.” And my debut 2018 EP, Thirteen, was not necessarily suited for New Found Glory’s audience, but it was important for me that I put myself in uncomfortable environments and just play; really trial by fire. Some Yellowcard fans came to those shows, sitting front row and seeming very engaged. But most of the crowd was waiting for this punk rock act to start, and I was onstage playing my acoustic guitar. It was a real 180 degree turn for me from where I had been the year before. I’m loving the music that I’m writing and how different it is from Yellowcard.
What is it like to start from scratch as an artist?
When it comes to songwriting, there are no rules or boundaries or expectations from anyone. For me to be able to exercise some of those influences, it’s extremely liberating. I don’t think I would’ve put out four singles and two EPs in the last year and then tour so intensively if it wasn’t deeply inspired. I’m playing for 100 to 150 people a night, which is smaller in size compared to the 2,000 fans that would come to our Yellowcard shows. But I’m still making a living playing music, and I’m creating the music that I really want to make at this stage in my career.
There must be challenges to writing music without the help of bandmates?
Yeah, there are both pros and cons to writing music collaboratively. Having people to bounce ideas off of, when you’re sort of the primary songwriter in the band, can be very helpful. But then it can be a struggle too, because you’re never going to be in a band with five people and not deal with that sort of power struggle; who’s writing what and who’s responsible for what. But at the same time, if I’m stuck somewhere and I needed help, I could always turn to them. I really wanted to differentiate my sound completely from Yellowcard.
Is that one of your biggest challenges, separating yourself from Yellowcard?
I don’t have a record company that’s putting out my music and marketing it to people. My sound is so different from Yellowcard that people who come to see me perform might not be into it. I’m going to have to keep grinding it out and building from zero like am now. With Thirteen, the album was reviewed by outlets that wouldn’t have ever reviewed Yellowcard and they expressed that they heard something new and different, which is a good feeling.
It sounds like you are making your presence known as a solo artist.
It’s not like I’m getting a million streams per song, but it was enough to say, “okay, well people are listening to this.” And I think the biggest positive is that each time I finish one chapter of this new career, someone gives me another chance to do something else. So, I’m just going to keep rolling with that until people stop letting me play.
William Ryan Key is to perform at The Crofoot. $16. Mar. 8. 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333; thecrofoot.com
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