Chris Carrabba Doesn't Remain the Same

Unplugged again
RJ Shaughnessy

He is who you think he is. Beyond the hardcore/teen-idol exterior, Chris Carrabba—the brains and brawn behind Dashboard Confessional—really is the semi-sensitive sensation he seems. Somewhere between Mike Ness and John Mayer, Carrabba whips up songs of love, loss and all that those two emotions encompass the same way a carpenter puts together new cabinets.

Part science and part art, Carrabba certainly has enough experience honing the craft to know what his audience expects and what will chart on iTunes. The one part of his career—which, by the way, has been pretty freaking successful when you add up all the platinum and gold records—he’s had trouble with is grasping fame.

While others who have toed the same line—Fall Out Boy, Good Charlotte, etc.—have embraced the limelight and clung to also-ran starlets such as Ashley Simpson, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, Carrabba has kept his profile slightly lower. While it’s by design, though it’s not necessarily what he wants.

“It is really easy to get wide-eyed when things start coming to you more quickly than you thought possible, but I always managed to put an arm out to kind of resist the path of temptation that being a public person can bring on,” Carrabba says. “There is a part of me that is jealous of those guys who have really been able to embrace those situations and take advantage of them, but that’s just not the way I’m wired.”

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Just how Carrabba is wired is hard to deduce. Is he a pop-punk front man who’s at his best when singing in front of a full band to an audience of thousands, or is he the troubadour he first appeared to be 10 years ago, singing with just a guitar to a crowd of revival-like followers? A look at the arc of his career—troubadour to rocker and back to troubadour—doesn’t reveal a concrete answer, but it’s pretty easy to tell which he prefers.

“I love playing with my band, and I’ll always play with my band, but now that I’m back to singing alone with the guitar, I wonder why I ever stopped doing that in the first place,” he says. “Things now feel as fresh and exciting as they first did when I started doing this a decade ago. The power and the connection I get with the audience singing along is really amazing, and I know that I will never again stop doing this.”

Either way, the songs have to stand up in both settings because of his penchant for performing in multiple formats. This is where the carpenter analogy comes into play: Carrabba has the tools and the knowledge to put the nuts and bolts where they belong to create a successful song—think “Vindicated”from the Spiderman 2 soundtrack—but he has yet to write a truly enduring song. Those who cling to 2001’s decidedly acoustic hit album The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most might disagree, but those songs aren’t built for adult audiences.

After 12 years of touring and eight official releases, he has reached a tipping point in his career. At 35, Carrabba has rediscovered the joy of playing acoustically and is now primed to write the kind of songs we’ll remember. It’s not that that he needs to present a Dylan-like masterpiece; it’s just that there’s potential there that needs fulfillment. But not even a workmanlike professional such as Carrabba can just make that happen. There’s something kind of magical that has to occur.

“The whole process is really just a mystery. . . . When the inspiration comes, you have to go with it, no matter how inconvenient it may be,” he says. “Like when I wrote “Vindicated”—I was supposed to spend the afternoon surfing with this hot girl, but I had to postpone because there was a song there that needed to be finished.”

While the preceding quote may not ooze the maturity Carrabba seems to possess, it does say something about his dedication to the craft. Hopefully, that dedication will win.

Dashboard Confessional play at the House of Blues, 1530 Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; Sun., 6:30 p.m. $30. All ages.

This article appeared in print as "The Songwriter Doesn’t Remain the Same: Chris Carrabba is poised to deliver on the talent he’s always possessed—if only he wants it."

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