Chris Carrabba has nothing to be sad about.
The last two years got busy for him again, with this year finding him incredibly productive. After Dashboard Confessional went on a friendly hiatus, the tattoo-sleeved emo-mainstream crossover began a new folksy Americana band called Twin Forks who put out their first full length in February of 2014. Their sound is a kind of meet-up between bands like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers but with Carrabba’s vocals, and it’s the best songwriting he’s done in years.
Carrabba’s work ethic has always demanded he be constantly writing, recording, producing, touring, and performing. This year he’s gotten back into the swing of things, still carrying on with his new band, (touring with Counting Crows and recording a new album) while getting a welcome surprise with his old one.
Last summer, Dashboard were asked to play Riot Fest’s flagship festival in Chicago, a three day concert event with a carnival atmosphere that resurrects classic punk bands and puts them alongside popular mainstays. In a lineup that boasted the Cure, the Flaming Lips and the National, Dashboard was not left out. “There was an enormous audience that came to see us,” he tells me, “and sang every word, and sang along in such a way that was almost jarring to me.”
Similar to Pitchfork or Lollapalooza, multiple performances happen simultaneously at Riot Fest, with the die-hards pushing their way to the front. They’d been touring for 10 years, 300 dates per year and had gotten burnt out. They would be asked to perform at festivals and headline certain shows and would say no. It wasn’t a difficult hiatus, as nothing about their friendship changed between Carrabba and the members of Dashboard. But playing at Riot Fest in Chicago they began to remember what they were missing. Dashboard Confessional was designed as a kind of therapy project for the singer and his audience, where they could wail all the words and feel better together, so that part wasn’t new. But something was different at this show. “It was so overwhelming and incredible that it got us thinking, maybe we should start saying yes.”
Unexpectedly, they were approached by a promoter looking to see what kind of tour they’d want to do and the option to do a package co-headlining tour with Third Eye Blind came down the pipe. “I had this vivid memory of going to see them when I was younger and really being impressed. And I watched their career with admiration as they went from this radio single kind of band, to doing much hard work building an audience beyond that when that first phase was finished. They have the kind of work ethic we have and they built up an audience in the same way we did.”
I ask him if he thinks of this as a nostalgia tour, for example will they be playing only really old stuff. “We’re playing everything,” Carrabba says. “It’s all old.” As far as new material goes, however, after discussing with the band they agreed they would rather give their audience on this tour all of their favorites rather than spend five minutes playing something they don’t know. “I guess in that regard, I’m playing to the dedicated audience. I feel they’ve earned it by granting us a welcome return.”
And if all of that wasn’t enough, the recording of the new Twin Forks album, the routing of a new summer tour, Dashboard attention was boosted from an unlikely source. In April 2015, Taylor Swift posted a series of videos on Instagram. Through a wobbly handheld yellow feed, we see Swift, standing in an intimate party setting, wearing a gown, next to friend, Abigail Anderson. The first video is titled “The Surprise – Part One”, with subsequent parts spread over the three videos, first telling the party that Abigail’s favorite band in high school was Dashboard Confessional (and still is). Then, asking the audience if there is anyone in the house named Chris Carrabba. The audience begins a shrill cheer as the face of friend Abigail goes from shock to triumph. The video cuts abruptly, edited to reveal that Chris Carrabba, singer of her all time favorite band, actually is in the house and is at this very moment making his way to the front of the room. Video three captures Carrabba and the entire party, mid-song, singing “Hands Down”, specifically the line where Carrabba wails “Hands down, this is the best date I can ever remember,” one of the happiest songs in the Dashboard repertoire.
You can find this incident reported on Time, Vulture, Buzzfeed, ET Online, MTV, USA Today, Mashable, as well as the Huffington Post. While this isn’t necessarily groundbreaking news, each of these reputable publications found a way to turn this event into content generated to click headlines and collect ad revenue, almost all concluding, as if copy and pasted from each other, “It’s good to be friends with Taylor Swift.” Certainly they are referring to how Swift surprised Abigail, a girl who she described to Oprah as her best friend since the first day of Freshman year, and has also put in a handful of music videos, but it’s working in Carrabba’s favor as well.
“It’s probably the biggest bump we’ve had in years, since we haven’t really been an active band.” This wasn’t a case of Taylor Swift, as Jezebel put it, “importing apparent novelty human and perennially brokenhearted high school loneliness oracle Chris Carrabba, of Dashboard Confessional, to sing. Sing!” Carrabba and Swift have actually been friends for five years, and in that time have tagged each other on social media on multiple occasions and welcomed one another to each other’s shows. What’s more, Carrabba says he performs at friends’ birthday parties whenever he is asked.
“She called me up and told me some funny stories about her and Abigail. I’d known she was a fan of my music and how it was important to her. And she explained in some similar detail what it meant to them together, and how much it meant to Abigail specifically who is really one of the most lovely women I know. So it was really easy, yes, you know? Would you like to come to a birthday party, and would you like to play? Yeah I do that all the time. I do that for almost all my friends birthday parties. They just aren’t in style magazine. So for me it was just a really fun night with some really great friends and I felt honored to be there and she sure gave me a boost for this upcoming tour and I think that beats a thank you note any time.” While nothing has been mentioned about a Taylor Swift/Dashboard Confessional tour besides by me, at length during this conversation, Carrabba says that if asked, he would say yes (and that you would too).
What’s noteworthy to me about the Taylor Swift/Dashboard Confessional connection (if you’ll indulge me for one moment) is that Swift’s biggest songs are largely rooted in sadness and unrequited love (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, “Style” etc). Dashboard Confessional, the solo project of Christian punk band Further Seems Forever singer Chris Carrabba, began in earnest as an outlet for these cathartic emotions. Carrabba doesn’t get enough credit for the term “confessional songwriting” when its used today, but his first two albums make the shortlist of best ever breakup albums of all time. (Note to self: make that list.)
The Swiss Army Romance, the world’s introduction to this new solo project, starts with “Screaming Infidelities” wherein Carrabba indicts the subject with: “your hair is everywhere, screaming infidelities and taking its wear” over and over. It is easy to learn, easy to remember, and easy to sing along to in a crowd of kindred spiky-haired, acne-scarred teenagers, with chain wallets and JNCO jeans, making bracelets out of duct tape and writing the names of bands on the white toes of Converse All Stars. The first introduction to this music is screaming with infidelity. I ask him to tell me more, but Carrabba is too good, he is too nice, too diplomatic to give me a tell-all. “I don’t know that the circumstances of the breakup were that unusual or cruel.”
In “The Sharp Hint of New Tears”, track two on that album, where he takes us inside his car and literally tells us it hears his confessions, he says “You’ve been asking me to bleed, it seems these kinds of questions come too easy to you now.” He goes on: “Expect me to apologize for things that you’ve done wrong while you’re inciting others; you’re owning up to nothing and I wish that I was gone, cuz you’re not going anywhere.” Are these the confessions of one side of an especially sour relationship? Or dramatized versions of actual events? I ask him if the things he thought and felt when he was this age, his early 20s (the age Swift finds herself currently) would he change anything?
“Maybe small things,” he answers. “But not much. I’m very happy with how my life turned out.” It’s easy to see why. He admits that the songs on those first two albums were not about one person, but a few, and that some family tragedy allowed him to compound the emotions that wrought alongside the breakup(s). So when he’s singing on “Again I Go Unnoticed,” “please send me anything but signals that are mixed, cuz I can’t read your rolling eyes,” this could easily be a characterization of the fraught nature of a young relationship, but could just as easily not be. The motivation is there to write a sad song about your bad relationship when you’re even more upset about some bad family shit happening. He doesn’t specify what it is, and he doesn’t have to. “You begin to infuse the root of whatever it is and just focus on the feeling that you’re in.”
It started in the punk scene in South Florida, a community Carrabba characterizes as a very creative, vibrant, thriving organism, rooted in anti-authoritarian ethos and the wherewithal to affect positive change. He recorded a tape, and that first album, and by the time he started playing shows in Georgia, the kids already knew all the words. Moving like wildfire into the Christian punk scene, thanks to the carryover from Further Seems Forever fans, and then signing to the suddenly-popular underground punk label Vagrant, Carrabba had unintentionally landed himself in a scene. Emo was the zeitgeist of the early 2000’s punk community. All the kids who had been into Blink 182 the summer before suddenly dyed their bleach blond hair black and began listening to Alkaline Trio, Saves The Day, and The Get Up Kids, all signed to Vagrant, out of California.
That was when he released his follow-up record, The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most. Titles included “Standard Lines”, “The Best Deceptions”, and “This Bitter Pill”. From beginning to end, with just an acoustic guitar (and sometimes drums), Carrabba paints a picture of what feels like a single relationship, and as you start to try to put together what happened into a cohesive narrative, it reads like some young woman cheated on him and lied about it and now he is left to cope with his new trust issues. It also featured new versions of “Again I Go Unnoticed” and “Screaming Infidelities”.
“Screaming Infidelities” became a single and a video premiered on MTV and MTV2 and found its way on TRL. Suddenly, these songs Carrabba was using as a diary, and were sung in a cathartic echo chamber between he and his audiences, were now being shared in public places. He tells me, not without sincerity, of his sympathy for the people the songs were about. Imagine being 25, dating a sensitive, sweet, tattooed boy who sings in a band, and, as almost all relationships assuredly will, it ends. For whatever reason, it ends.
“Some girl treats you badly, probably even feels bad about it, but you can’t tell that, because you’re the one that’s hurt. You write some song, she probably hears it, maybe gets a little insight into what she did, probably leading you on this path of healing and becoming friends or what have you. And then the fucking thing sells a million or something like that and the poor girl has to hear it everywhere she goes and its fucking punishment.” It is a rare position to be in, but surely we can all sympathize. “I am lucky,” he tells me, “that of these girls that have inspired these songs (some happy, some sad, some both) I am batting a thousand at trying to remain friends with them. I mean, that says something about how beautiful the power of forgiveness is, you know?”
This sentiment has its finger on the pulse of what it means to grow up. You get older, you grow as a person, come into your own a bit more, and you can start leaving behind the kinds of melodrama your youth bestowed. There will still be the same kinds of human problems; breakups, death, loss. But once you stop feeling the finite nature of life, as you realize you actually have years, decades even, you no longer feel what Carrabba calls that sense of urgency. You now have the emotional bandwidth to cope with these events. You are capable.
He explains it thusly: “I was probably particularly emotionally immature at that time, I don’t know, I don’t think I went overboard like in a John Hughes movie or something like that.” Cut to Chris Carrabba, tattooed, standing with an ipod over his head playing “Vindicated” on full blast, so loud that the tiny earbuds can be heard from the bedroom of his most recent heartbreak. “You realize things are cyclical, and all things come in time, so it’s the benefit of perspective, and you get that perspective by getting back in the game over and over again and being happy over and over …
“I think it’s assumed I was this emotional trainwreck or something like that, but that’s not quite the case I don’t think. I could be wrong, but I will admit like all of us that I made some embarrassing missteps in some relationships in certain overtures that we all make, that are silly looking back or sad looking back, but I don’t think that relates to the music of Dashboard Confessional. It wasn’t an outburst. It is designed to be the release that you might get from making a scene without actually doing it. Here’s this inventive and healthy way to get this out.” And what better way to achieve that catharsis than to have it sung back to you by a crowd of strangers? But if he had known it might have gotten as big as it did, he doesn’t know if he could have written with quite the same sincerity.
This is evident in the music that would come to follow his live album, recorded for MTV’s newly rebooted MTV Unplugged (MTV Unplugged 2.0), largely associated with bringing the brashness of the Grunge scene to a more sensitive setting. Being aware that his audience was listening and that they were in the millions, it seems Carrabba put up his guard a little bit. Gone were the days of carefully crafting these intimate narratives of his extremely personal relationship details. 2003’s A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar starts with the aforementioned “Hands Down”. It originally appeared on the So Impossible EP a four-song story about the lead-up to a date with a girl the narrator meets in a class, with “Hands Down” being the blissful climax. This version finds Carrabba expanding his sound into a full band with harmonies. So the solo project was done and he was ready to let it be something new. He was ready to grow. “As Lovers Go” would appear on the Shrek 2 soundtrack and their next album would be released on Interscope and feature “Vindicated”, peaking at #2 on the Billboard 200 Modern Rock tracks, thanks in no small part to it being the theme to the theme for Spider-Man 2.
What continued to be true in the music of Dashboard Confessional was that Carrabba and company were striving to make the most beautiful sound and then top that, crafting lush compositions with thoughtful instrumentation and studio production. But what was missing was that confessional feeling, the feeling that the hurt was true and that the audience was sharing in his pain. He sang in generalities and altruisms, to appeal to the widest possible audience, not just in the punk scene but anyone listening. I ask him how one maintains the momentum of songwriting like that, keeping in mind that as we get older and are less affected by breakups, or finding it easier to cope, there’s less of a need to write a song about it. He says the momentum doesn’t change, just the subject matter. “There was a time when I think I had a lull of new life experiences. It probably came from touring 300 days a year. So at year 10 you’ve now had the same life experiences and it stopped being new a little while ago. When you’ve had it over and over this many years. It doesn’t make it invalid, you’re still writing these songs. But for a while it didn’t seem potent to me. Maybe to somebody else? Like, oh that’s a fantastic song! But I kind of feel like I’ve been there a while, in that place. I don’t need it.”
Stepping away and having life experiences brings us to Twin Forks. Something new. Incredibly palatable poppy folk-rock, it sounds ready-made to be used in a movie or an Apple ad. Their video for “Cross My Mind“, in the year that it’s been posted, has eventually hit 600k views. This brings Carrabba into a smaller, more intimate space with his fans, with the near anonymity of being brand new. He still gets recognized, but when his sleeve tattoos are covered in Nashville, he says he looks like a guy who looks like the guy from Dashboard. “I get that in Twin Forks,” he says. “‘You know, you look a lot like that guy from Dashboard.’ And I let them off the hook. I can’t bear the thought that they figure it out later and get embarrassed. If I tell them, oh I’m that guy, and they’re like, no you look like that guy, no I am, I actually am that guy. I don’t want them to feel foolish later, you know what I mean?”
When I ask him what he’s doing when he isn’t being a perpetual motion machine, either performing, writing, or recording, he lists a few things one may or may not expect; motorcycles, sports, trail-running, bars. Things a 40-year-old American male might reasonably be into. When I ask him what’s next, I already know the answer. Twin Forks is recording, and will be touring again soon, some dates with Counting Crows (who once collaborated on a Dashboard song). Dashboard is touring with Third Eye Blind. A new Dashboard record? He says it isn’t confirmed, but “if I were to do another Dashboard record, that is how I would know it would be time to do one. It would sort of just spill out. You don’t set out to write one, the songs would just suddenly be there.” But, he says, the question keeps coming up, so while there’s nothing official, it is more likely than it has been in years, now that the project is back on the table.
It certainly sounds like he’s happy to leave it at that for now.