Nostalgia is a tricky proposition for Chris Carrabba.
On one hand, he revels in it: “Let’s enjoy this thing we once enjoyed together so well,” said the Dashboard Confessional singer, who is in the midst of an anniversary tour celebrating 20 years as a band. On select nights, he’ll be playing his two best-known albums in their entirety, 2001’s “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most” and 2003’s “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar.”
In January, he also unveiled “The Best Ones of the Best Ones,” Dashboard’s first-ever career-spanning compilation album. But talk to the soft-spoken singer long enough, as we did when he called one recent morning, and it becomes readily apparent that despite his appreciation for a nostalgic moment, in reality he has always viewed Dashboard Confessional as a living, breathing entity, forever subject to change.
“One thing about my live performances,” said Carrabba, who, over time, has become one of the most successful acts to emerge from the early-aughts emo-rock scene, “is I do allow myself to be affected by the song I’m singing right then and there. It’s not like musical theater, where you’re just delivering something on a nightly basis with the same intention. My songs just don’t lend themselves to that. My songs live with chaos and unpredictability.”
It’s this raw, unfiltered emotion that’s long resided at the core of Dashboard songs and what has long made Carrabba such a compelling — if not occasionally melodramatic — live act.
To hear the singer-songwriter tell it, he has always viewed his studio albums as simply the starting point for each song’s narrative. Seeing as he almost never listens back to the recorded version of his songs, to play it live and watch it evolve over the years is to see each song blossom into its full potential.
“Because songs are not like printed poetry that just live forever to be interpreted,” Carrabba said. “If you play it live, they are really malleable and they continue to evolve. The song is never done. It just lives. For some people, the studio recording becomes a really important moment. For me, it’s all about right now.”
In preparing to play two of his most adored albums, Carrabba said he has also found it’s not necessarily wise to perform the songs in the order they appeared on the album.
“You have to allow yourself to step back,” he said, and what he’s found is that you have to “up the ante” for a live show and not simply expect the track listing to provide the most exciting experience for fans.
“Certainly, the audience has listened to the songs in that order, but does it really work live? Invariably the answer, unfortunately, is not really,” Carrabba said. “So you have to make an agreement with yourself right away to compromise a little bit if you want to deliver the songs in the best way you can.”
Still, even Carrabba has his limits for how far he’s willing to push things. Where certain artists like Bob Dylan or the Counting Crows’ Adam Durtiz are known to transform a song so drastically in their live set it barely resembles the original version, Carrabba feels he’d be doing a disservice to fan if he were to do the same.
“My feeling is to safeguard the song as much as possible,” he said. “You’re allowing things to change, but also trying hard to not lose the original melody. Sure, a song is going to change and drift, but I’m more concerned with the music around it evolving, and that’s where I find I can change the songs a bit.”
A song’s melody, he noted, is the one element of a song fans can grip tightest.
“And so you don’t want to take that piece, which I believe is the most precious, away from them,” Carrabba said. “Fans aren’t out there with drumsticks or guitars; they’re out there with their voice. So for me to change that too much would be robbing them of the song. That collective moment of us singing together is so paramount to me and my audience.”
Carrabba is decidedly humble in conversation, often downplaying his influence. When it’s explained to him that his music has been cited as highly influential by artists of all genres, ranging from rock to hip-hop, he said, “of course I’m surprised to hear that.”
Though, in thinking about it a bit more, he said the artists who influenced him growing up were certainly varied. Having been raised on a diet of equal parts hip-hop, metal, goth and college rock, “for me to draw from Sick of It All and Quicksand, the Cure, Wu-Tang Clan and maybe even Lindsey Buckingham — none of it was out of bounds,” Carrabba explained. “What I realized is the common thread within it all was that it drew an emotion out of me, and it supercharged my own songs with emotions.”
He paused and added, “And then I went on my own trip.”
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