Chris Carrabba: My life in 10 songs

Dashboard Confessional visionary Chris Carrabba reflects on the 10 songs that symbolise the ever-changing landscape of his creativity…

Chris Carrabba: My life in 10 songs
Mischa Pearlman

Chris Carrabba really thought about this list. In fact, he made three different ones trying to come up with the definitive selection. And he’s still not entirely sure. “I'll reserve the right not to change your article,” he jokes over Zoom, “but just in my life to change this list at any time.” To be fair, there’s a lot to choose from. He started Dashboard Confessional in 1999 in Florida, but he was in other bands before and he’s been in other bands since. It’s all, it seems, to find himself, to find the person he’s been searching for since he started making music, and to find a sense of inner peace. After an almost-decade break, Dashboard are back and it seems like he’s as close as he’s ever been. Here, he takes us through the steps he’s taken to get there…

1Further Seems Forever – The Moon Is Down (The Moon Is Down, 2001)

Before making his name with Dashboard Confessional, Chris Carrabba fronted emo-rock outfit Further Seems Forever for their seminal first album.

“There were a lot of formative years in music that led to Dashboard. The Further Seems Forever years were not the only ones, but it was, in hindsight, the most unique assembly of people with disparate and shared gifts when it came to writing the kind of music we wanted to write. This song strikes me as the beginning of Further… really sounding like the band we were going to be, and the band we are to my ear and in my memory.”

2Dashboard Confessional – The Best Deceptions (The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most, 2001)

A heart-torn, angsty anthem from Dashboard’s second album that really defines them.

“The Swiss Army Romance and The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most were recorded in such rapid succession. But the one that stands out for me, when I understood that I wanted to write a record like this and I knew what the ‘like this’ meant, was The Best Deceptions. It has those things that make a song definitively Dashboard to me, and it was the first time I came upon it having already known it could happen. And this song stands out to me as one that let me know that this wasn’t just a moment. It wasn’t an accident. It clicked. Whereas the first record was me kind of discovering a secret door, this was the first time I knew where that door was. It was the first time I’d written a song where I couldn’t ignore the fact that the song itself had a power.”

3Dashboard Confessional – Hands Down (featuring Michael Stipe) (MTV2 Album Covers version, 2004)

Everyone knows the various versions of this trademark Dashboard anthem. But this live version is Chris’ favourite. Fair enough, really.

“This song was first on the So Impossible EP. It was more elaborate than Dashboard had been at that time in terms of recording. There’s a little bit of piano, there’s two guitars and some overdubs. Later, the song grew, and it was by virtue of the live set where the audience got so loud singing it that they couldn’t hear me playing an acoustic guitar anymore. So I started playing an electric guitar and then they couldn’t hear that, and then we added a bass, and then eventually drums, because then they could hear me. So that became another version [on 2002’s MTV Unplugged] and then on A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar. But my favourite version is this collaboration I did with Michael Stipe from R.E.M.. We were doing it for this show called Album Covers. We were there to be collaborating with Michael for the R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People, but he wanted to do one of ours. And he changed it slightly with the number of times ‘And you meant it’ is repeated at the end. So I decided that’s the way that that song goes now, and I’ve never sung it differently since.”

4Dashboard Confessional – Vindicated (Spider-Man 2 soundtrack, 2004)

Arguably Dashboard’s biggest hit, this was written specifically for the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack.

“This is an anthem that kind of changed the trajectory. It changed and solidified my career path. It meant the thing that I always wanted to do, and had been allowed to do, I was going to be able to rely on – that I will and I could be doing this now for a number of years and maybe even until I decide to stop. Why I think that’s worth explaining is because that’s really not what the song’s about. It’s really about reckoning with one’s own failings and carrying on as a better person. Also, I got to be involved with Spider-Man, and that was pretty cool, because I’ve been such a huge fan of comic books, and specifically Spider-Man, growing up.”

6Dashboard Confessional – Stolen (Dusk And Summer, 2006)

Off the back of Vindicated’s success, Dashboard’s record label wanted similar hits. Chris was unable and unwilling to comply.

“When I wrote Vindicated, it set an expectation in other people where it was like, ‘Oh, that’s it. That’s the thing we’ve been looking for from this kid. Let’s get three more of those on record and we’ll have a triple-platinum record!’ So I found myself in a place where I wasn’t just encouraged to write another Vindicated, but felt like I was only allowed to write Vindicated. I wish I’d wanted to. It would have been better for my career. But I was being told that replicating it was my only option for success and I just couldn’t rise to the occasion. It felt inauthentic. I tried, and I waited in desperate hope that some new answer was coming my way, but this was the one I found, almost at the end of that writing session. It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it can be quirky, it can not be the thing you just did.’ And I don’t mean it can be that and be the hit that the label expected from me at that time, but it can be rich and it can be rewarding.”

7Further Seems Forever – Staring Down The Sun (Penny Black, 2012)

Eight years after the last Further Seems Forever album, and 11 since Chris had sung on that first album, he stepped back into the role of lead vocalist.

“Would you be surprised to find it was with Further Seems Forever that I was able to find my way back to my deepest connection with music, which has been Dashboard? I’d moved back from New York and was living in Florida again. We were all still close friends and we were talking about doing a 10-year reunion for The Moon Is Down. They’ve had great success since with [subsequent vocalists] Jason Gleason, and then with John Bunch, who was one of my great friends. Jason had quit – or maybe they quit on Jason – and John had died. There was a point after leaving Further… that I’d wanted back in, but I wasn’t going to steamroll either Jason or John. But a long time later, after Jason had left and John had died, we did a reunion show. Then we were like, ‘What if we had written that second record? Is [2003’s] How To Start A Fire the record that would have happened after The Moon Is Down?' None of us know that answer. I’m such a fan of those two records that I’m not on and it kept me even further away from wanting to write with them again in terms of making new music. But when you’re with your closest friends and you hang out a lot, if you all play guitar then eventually somebody’s going to pick up a guitar. And so before you know it, we were working on new music and we’d made a record called Penny Black. Honestly, the reason I’ve chosen this song is because I was talking to Chad Gilbert from New Found Glory and he was telling me how much he loved this song. I never listen to my own music, but he made me listen to this song from a different place and I just felt really proud of it.”

8Twin Forks – Back To You (Twin Forks, 2014)

After 2009’s sixth album, Alter The Ending, Chris stepped away from Dashboard Confessional to try something different.

“There were more records for Dashboard after Vindicated, but I basically had to step away from Dashboard to find Dashboard again. The common trend here seems to be me finding a deep connection to this music, trying to hold onto it as long as I can until I can’t. And then desperately trying to find my way back and, once I get it, to hold on. After Alter The Ending, I started writing what would be the follow-up to it. I was self-producing it and put in a lot of man hours – and then all my hard drives and backup drives got corrupted. I wasn’t reading the tea leaves, but I couldn’t ignore it. I wasn’t like, ‘This is a sign from the heavens that I shouldn’t make this Dashboard record or another Dashboard record,’ but I was just too tired to do it all over again. So I started playing other styles of music with other friends and just allowing things to be. I started Twin Forks and I wrote this song. I can now see it’s lyrically connected a bit to the fact that I was, in fact, reading the tea leaves. It wasn’t so evident that anyone else would hear it and say, 'Oh, he’s talking about losing a record and trying to find his way back.’ But I was.”

9Dashboard Confessional – Heart Beat Here (Crooked Shadows, 2018)

Almost a decade after Alter The Ending, Chris finally felt ready to get back behind the Dashboard.

“I’d said that I wasn’t going to write Dashboard albums anymore, but it became increasingly hard to stay away from the new songs. And at first they weren’t coming, so it was easy. And then when they’re coming back, you’re like, ‘Well, I said I wasn’t going to do that anymore.’ You’re almost in defence of like the new life you’ve built for yourself after someone’s broken your heart. But making that Further Seems Forever album had led me back to Dashboard. This was a song that landed almost fully-formed. It could actually just as easily be a Twin Forks song because of the style of finger-picking, but really I think it re-established my footing within the arc of Dashboard songs.”

10Dashboard Confessional – Burning Heart (All The Truth That I Can Tell, 2022)

The stunning opening track from Dashboard’s new album, it sees Chris return to the roots of what he does, the place – perhaps – that he’s come to fear the least.

“It only took 20 years for me to find my way back to the kind of introspection I’d had for my first two records. I’d been asking these deep questions – who am I? How the hell did I become this guy? Who am I becoming? How will I become that person? Who do I want to be? Who did I think I wanted to be and why would I think that? – in my early 20s with the first couple of records, but in hindsight, I didn’t have all that much life experience to be answering them. But I had enough life experience to be asking myself them. And then you have enough life experience after that to know that I better not ask myself these questions, that I don’t want to know the answers. And then you have even more life experience and realise you have to ask them again. And so it just took that time for me. I’ve really been covetous of this place. I’ve wanted to make the follow-up to The Places… since I made The Places. It just wasn’t available to me. Patience, man. You’ve got to have it. It turns out there’s just there is no shortcut for patience, unfortunately. But this song tore the lid off that.”

Dashboard Confessional's new album All The Truth That I Can Tell is out now via AWAL.

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