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…
Remarkably, the ‘e’ word doesn’t come up once. You know the one. Over the course of a freewheeling, career-spanning conversation, it just doesn’t seem to merit a mention. Perhaps that’s as strong an indicator as any of how far Chris Carrabba has come in the wider public consciousness since he first emerged two decades ago, under the largely solo stage name of Dashboard Confessional.
Armed with an acoustic guitar and a clutch of spirited, angst-filled yet striving-for-better songs, he found a loving home among a generation of sensitive young men and women left feeling somewhat alienated by the brusque macho posturing of the nu-metal bands who were in vogue at the time.
He’s almost exactly how you might imagine him to be, too – even still. Softly spoken and taking tremendous care to consider the correct wording for every thing he says so as to be understood as intended, we find him at home in Nashville, Tennessee, welcoming us into his world with a painfully polite apology for not having had enough coffee today.
“I slept in my own bed last night,” he says, looking on the bright side. “I guess in my life that’s pretty rare.”
Aside from easily rectified caffeine woes, Chris is in good spirits. One of the reasons being that he’s recently shared his Now Is Then Is Now project with the world, billing it as a “special, surprise reimagination and re-recording” of three of the four Dashboard studio albums released between 2003 and 2009. It was a period of time marred by increased major label interference in his artistic output, which left him with regrets and a sour taste in the mouth, which contributed to the nine-year wait for 2018’s Crooked Shadows. But now he has versions of those songs much more in line with his original vision, and closer to the style and sound of 2000 breakthrough The Swiss Army Romance, and the campfire sonics of its MTV-conquering follow-up, The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most, one year later.
There’s a lot to unpack, looking back, for an artist (almost) at ease in his own skin again.
What were your earliest musical rites-of-passage moments?
“Like all kids, me and my brothers would play soccer, baseball and basketball, but we also pretended to be in bands and we’d pose with our tennis racquets like they were guitars. That’s my earliest musical memory. Then there was my uncle Jimmy, who I spent a lot of time with – he taught me how to skateboard and ride motorcycles – and I remember he had a guitar that I saw him play once. I don’t recall him being bad or good, I just knew it was only once I saw him pick the thing up and it was like magic to me he could make that thing do that. I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s something going on here that I don’t yet understand, but I need to.’”
Aside from your uncle, did anyone else in your family play music?
“My mother’s a phenomenal pianist. She’s a different kind of musician, though. She’s classically trained, so she doesn’t care to play if the sheet music isn’t in front of her. She just enjoys playing for herself. But that’s it. And I couldn’t get anybody else to play when I started out. It was just something that I was determined to do, and I think that was the beginning of me discovering that I was actually a bit of a loner; that I was more comfortable, sometimes, sitting with a guitar by myself.”
How did you discover new music?
“Skateboarding videos. Then I’d go to the record store and hunt down the albums, if I could. Luckily we had a super-cool indie store nearby called Uncle Sam’s. I discovered lots of music from sales clerks, flyers or from talking to other customers. I wasn’t quite part of the ‘scene’, but I was sort of invited in by these folks who shared their musical adventures with me. I was sponsored by this store down by the beach, where I’d skate all the time, but where we lived in Florida it rained at two o’clock every day in September, so I’d go back to the shop where the owner had created a hangout spot. He’d play incredible music, we’d play video games, watch skate DVDs and then at some point he threw guitars in there. I always thought that you needed lessons to play, but I was self-taught.”
The punk rock way…
“Further down the line I realised that everyone else took lessons, but they never said – they were all lying because it wasn’t punk to admit you took lessons! But the guitar, for me, felt like a tool of invention. I felt like I could be somebody different once I had that guitar in my hands. Skateboarding also gave me a new identity. I wasn’t a miscreant or anything – I mean, I got taken home by the cops, now and then – but I wasn’t a total misfit. I just didn’t fit in with anybody in school or my neighbourhood. That isn’t to say I was lonely or didn’t have friends – I did. They just didn’t quite feel like I felt, and I don’t think that was anybody else’s doing. Once I had a skateboard or a guitar in my hand, I understood my own value. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence, and like most artists I probably have less than I would like, even as a grown-up. But playing guitar and skateboarding gave me confidence. The way that I could interpret my environment with my board, or the world around me through writing songs, instilled me with confidence.”
Given how empowered you felt by those influences in your life, presumably education fell by the wayside?
“All things fell by the wayside. I finished high school, but I didn’t finish university, although I got close. Once I was in university, I was doing fine, but I was concentrating on the bands I was in. That was my focus. Then my bands became successful, locally. Then a little further on we got some national success, which was beyond my understanding. When Dashboard started to take off, it became my primary focus. So I took a risk following the less tried-and-true path.”
It paid off, though…
“Yet I still feel like this is something that could go away at any second. The whole time I’ve been doing this it’s always felt like a moment, and that moment always feels fleeting.”
When you were a kid, did you ever imagine that this is what you’d do when you grew up?
“Of course I imagined it. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my mom did have a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. My relationship with music wasn’t just through listening to it, or playing it, but also through music journalism. As I was listening to records, I’d think, ‘I would ask this’ or ‘I would want to know this about this artist.’ I tend to be a bit bookish. We all are in my family. So maybe that’s why we have a cerebral focus in everything we do. We didn’t really get an allowance, but my mom loaned me money to buy a lawnmower. I used that mower to make money for my first real guitar. She wanted to give me a way of earning it myself.”
What was it that compelled you to adopt the acoustic guitar as your weapon of choice? Back then that was very much seen as the enemy of punk…
“That memory of watching my uncle play probably planted the seed. And growing up listening to singer-songwriters. It was an anathema to the ethos of the scene, so I did that squirrelled away on my own. Luckily now there are fewer rules, which is the most punk thing possible. You’re good as long as you get to the point where you’re able to do the thing that’s truly punk – which is to express something from deep inside and share it with the world.”
You were still in Further Seems Forever when you started writing Dashboard Confessional material. How come?
“I didn’t know I was writing a Dashboard record. I knew the songs were all related and I was writing, like, a grander piece of music. But I didn’t think the presentation would be as you have heard it. I thought they would be Further Seems Forever songs, but the band kept passing on them, which was strange, because they hadn’t passed on stuff in the past. In that band nobody’s whole idea ever got used – that was part of our methodology and it was a cool way to work, to be honest. But when they didn’t take those songs, they kept saying I should write others like them, because they felt like their own thing. My friends in Further Seems Forever, to this day, are like family. So their support was huge. The fact that I had those guys in my corner, gave me this. I shouldn’t gloss over how much cooler those guys were than me!”
So that was the push you needed to pursue things on your own?
“Totally. I knew I was doing something that was going to be laughed at in the traditional hardcore scene. The acoustic guitar was for hippies – it didn’t have any teeth – but I’d come up thinking differently. I had this secret background, of not just listening to Operation Ivy, the Descendents and Quicksand, I also listened to Paul Simon and Steve Earle – and that motherfucker had teeth. So I already knew you could make an acoustic guitar punk as fuck, I’d just never heard anybody who was a punk do it. I wonder, if I’d heard Billy Bragg when I was younger whether I’d have waited so long to stand in front of people with an acoustic guitar.”
When huge success came, what was that like?
“They were happy times. I was a bit conflicted though, to be quite honest. Because I’d grown up in a scene that was protective of its own culture. So I was really careful in my choices and how I did things. The thing I felt lucky about was that I had stayed the course and not signed to a major label. So I could make the calls that I thought were in line with my ethos, and I could stay respected, with a small ‘r’, in my scene. But I did discover with every step that your world grows bigger every day, and your worldview grows wider. That certainly was the case, because there I was on MTV, playing in different countries all around the world without a major label. It was self-funded tours and very non-corporate. That’s what made it feel so wonderful. It was an anomaly that we were there in the first place. It was like, ‘How the fuck did we get into this party? I don’t know. But I’m stealing all the beer!’”
The fact that it’s sustained for so long must be quite surprising, then?
“I’ve always had an acute feeling that this does not last. The fact that we’re talking now, closing in on what next year will be Dashboard’s 20th anniversary, is crazy. By rights, I should be annoying friends with these stories after work in a bar somewhere. But no, here we are and I still can’t believe it. People know who we were, they know every word, and there’s a sea of them everywhere we go. I still feel like I felt coming up; every show is a sense of awe and opportunity. It doesn’t feel like some thing I worked for and definitely deserved. It feels like an invitation to try.”
Was it shocking to you that such personal songs could connect on a universal scale?
“Man, you want to talk about a fucking shock? You walk up onstage one day with an acoustic guitar, in a town you’ve never been to, all because you knew somebody who would let you open up a show, and then everybody starts singing your songs back to you. Before Spotify. That’s fucking shocking, man. All these things had to conspire, coalesce and take shape just in order for me to have longevity and to connect with people deeply. I don’t know how to do that on purpose. I’ve just found favour from an audience that seems to feel the same way I do. I guess I’m an aberration. I can only write what needs to come out that day. So the connection was shocking. There was so much wonderment that I didn’t allow myself to be carried away. Instead, I was like, ‘Man, whatever’s happening, this is fleeting, so pay attention to the magic because you can be fucking sure it doesn’t last forever.’ Although I’m here 20 years later, I still think it can’t last forever. Nothing does.”
What inspired Now Is Then Is Now?
“Well, at one point in my career, I did sign to a major label. And I started listening to other people for the first time. With success that input would become more frequent and less helpful. And that advice eventually broke the band. The special connection I have with my audience has always been founded on the understanding that I will always do my best, most honest work, and when I deliver it, you can trust the purity of intention. Eventually, I got a little deep in the weeds in my commitment to that. It got to a point where the meddling was so great that the relationship between demos and albums was almost unrecognisable to me. I needed to have a stronger relationship with those songs and to get rid of the sense of dissociation that had grown off that period of records.”
Is that why there was such a long gap between latter-day Dashboard releases?
“Yeah. I was fed up with the meddling. But I also felt that I myself had lost my mind. And I can’t just stand up in front of people and fake it. So I stopped. I started Twin Forks with some friends where I could write songs from a different place. And I also went back and rejoined Further Seems Forever. I seem to have this tradition of moving forwards, yet also moving backwards. But I had to walk away. I don’t have hit singles, I don’t have mystique – that isn’t what I’m about. Our connection is the relationship between audience and band. And when I was in the moment, changing songs, I didn’t realise I was corrupting something. But also, we toured an insane amount. I had invested a lot of energy. I wasn’t quite tired, but I felt it coming, and I didn’t want to get there in front of people. I think people whose job it was, like agents and managers, would call it a dumb decision. But they don’t have the same skin in the game that I do. They can look at it as business. I can’t. It was just the right thing to do. As was coming back.”
What does the future hold?
“I think about it all the time. You barely put the guitar down after writing a song without thinking, ‘That was magic, but what if that’s the last one?’ It fills you with this weird sense of dread. There’s never a sense of completion, which I don’t want anyway, but I could do without the dread! After Dashboard? I have no plans, but I’ll always write songs. I don’t know how to relate to the world otherwise. That’s how I unpack the day and make it make sense.”
That all sounds oddly pessimistic…
“Well, thankfully, I’ve got some years ahead where people are listening. And I’ve walked away before, but they kept listening. The whole thing should have come off, but the fans took possession of the songs and shared them with as many friends as they could. When I came back, I was ready to play basements again, but we’re playing for thousands of people and that’s the real shocker – more shocking than it ever happening at all. I walked away and a group of people kept this fire burning. That is their work. And I’m so grateful for that.”
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