As measured and thoughtful as he tends to be in conversation, the excitement in Chris Carrabba’s voice kept bubbling to the surface when talking to American Songwriter about All The Truth That I Can Tell, his latest album as the mastermind of Dashboard Confessional. Part of it was that he was happy that others were finally getting to hear and react to these songs that he’d been living with for close to four years. Another part of it was because he must have known that he had the goods, as the 11-song set brims with the immediate melodies and passionate wordplay for which he is known.
But maybe more than anything else, Carrabba knew that he was giving the faithful a side of Dashboard Confessional that he’d mostly backgrounded over the past several albums. All The Truth That I Can Tell is largely a return to Carrabba unplugged, unadorned, and unfiltered, as the vast majority of the songs feature only the singer, his acoustic guitar, and searing honesty. What surprised Carrabba as much as anything when making the record was that he found that he had a longing for that side of DC as much as the fans did.
“I will admit that I didn’t expect to miss that style of playing and writing, the confessional nature of it all,” Carrabba explains. “I had not realized just how desirous I was of it. It felt good to come back to it, even though writing those types of songs doesn’t always feel that good.”
What many fans might not realize is how close Carrabba came to walking away from the band, perhaps for a while, perhaps for good, after Crooked Shadows in 2018. As can happen to many songwriters, he found himself lacking inspiration. He eventually found it by looking back to the intense revelations and without-a-net performances found all over early triumphs like The Swiss Army Romance and The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most albums, completed more than two decades ago.
That was when Carrabba burst onto the scene as Dashboard Confessional, even though it was initially a project he did while moonlighting from the band Further Seems Forever. Discerning young fans—who were fed up with the teen pop that was ruling the airwaves—found a kindred spirit in those first two albums. They found someone with a gifted knack for expressing the same deep feelings and anguished emotions they possessed.
Carrabba added more of a full band approach for A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar in 2003, and he would go that route more often on subsequent albums. All The Truth That I Can Tell feels like a continuation of the first two records, albeit from somebody whose life experience has deepened his insight while not leavening his passion.
“It may take a number of months after making the record where I start to see the connections,” Carrabba answers when asked about the theory that All The Truth That I Can Tell is somewhat of a completion to a trilogy begun by those first two albums. “But what was readily apparent to me from the earliest stages of the writing was that I felt like the guy who wrote those early records. And I felt like the guy who wrote those early records as a more fully realized adult with a couple more decades between picking up the pen.”
While making the album turned out to be a relatively smooth process for Carrabba, cruel fate intervened after the fact with not just the global pandemic but also a serious motorcycle accident that transpired about a year after finishing the record. Whether Carrabba mines that traumatic event and his subsequent, still-in-progress recovery for material for the next DC album remains to be seen. But his positive experience going back to the sound of yore indicates that we shouldn’t be surprised if he stays in a one-man-band mode for a little bit longer.
“I found it again,” he says convincingly. “I think the whole record itself is evidence of me enjoying something that I had been missing.”
Back to Confession
Carrabba says that his doubts about the need for more Dashboard Confessional came from a feeling that there was nothing more to be done with the project. “There were so many non-specific things that you just can’t verbalize,” he says of his thought process. “Those things that make you wonder if you have more to say. But more specifically, I have once in my career taken a very long break. When I came back from that break, I landed in the full-band territory. I felt I did some good work there. It felt satisfying and it was a different kind of satisfaction, where it almost felt like completion. It no longer feels that way, but it felt that way for a while.”
But he also makes clear that his sense of a possible ending was also what brought him back to the beginning. “I would love to have felt sooner invited back to the kind of records I made in my earliest days, which were rather honest and soul-baring forays that were really under-adorned intentionally. That’s harder to just turn on, and certainly, for me anyway, it’s a hard place to get to. And I didn’t find my way back for a long time. When I had felt that sense of completion, I thought that would be the thing to bring me back, if I’m ever drawn to that former territory. One day, I found I was.”
That day happened to be right before a show in the UK in 2018, when he made the unusual move, for him anyway, of going back to an unfinished song, one he’d started in Nashville. “It was after soundcheck and before the show,” Carrabba explains. “And I wrote this really verbose song that told a story that began from where I left off there in Tennessee. I even played it that night, the thousands of words that comprise it printed in front of me on the floor. I’m sure it was pretty hairy, but it felt really good.
“Sometimes you have to wonder whether there will be more in that vein. But there was no question that I had sort of uncorked the bottle in that moment. I was aware. So much so that I think I called my manager Oliver and said, ‘We better clear the decks for this window of time, because I think I need to commit to this thing that I’ve been waiting for.’”
The song in question was “Burning Heart,” which would turn out to be the soaring opening track of All The Truth That I Can Tell. And that window of time came in 2019 when Carrabba was able to pick up with the vibe of that first song right where he left off. “It wasn’t hard,” he says of the writing. “It’s always very easy or incredibly hard. Those are the two options, it seems to me. By easy, I don’t mean that it doesn’t take work. It just means that you know the work is working. The best kind of songwriting streaks are when you just don’t have to question whether the work is working.
“It still takes the work though. And I enjoyed it. It’s a great memory, I have to tell you. It’s interesting, I don’t remember the making of all my records. But I vividly remember about a third of them. And they seem to all be those all-acoustic ones.”
To turn the tracks into a varied, vibrant album even without the presence of a band on most of them, Carrabba enlisted an old friend. “One of the things I understood is I have to go to a trusted collaborator here in order to get the most out of these songs, understanding the chosen limitations,” he explains. “That person for me is [James] Paul Wisner, a talented producer. He did my first two full-lengths and a number of EPs, and I so wanted to be back with him again. Who knows the reasons why you don’t go back to a collaborator sooner or why you do when you do? But for me, it was very obvious that he would understand the intention and how to make it the most powerful with the limitations I had invited in.”
The end result is a powerhouse of a record that finds time amidst the angst for depictions of familial love and nourishing domesticity. It closes out with the title track, with Carrabba giving pre to post-show play-by-play of a live performance, a benevolent reckoning with his art that even includes a description of Dashboard’s legendary fan sing-alongs.
“When I came back from the hiatus that we took, I found I had a different relationship with my own music and with my own audience and with my peers and my antecedents,” Carrabba says of the track. “I could feel this special through-line. When you’re new to things, you can’t really see your place in the lineage quite as well. You go on instinct when you’re new. It’s all new to you so you are the first to ever do it. I don’t mean that from a place of arrogance. I just mean that from a truly green place of naivete. I’ve just had this unique career where appreciation looms large over it even from the get-go. And then to come back to it with even more and have it be so revelatory, it warranted a song, if not a record.”
While the writing of the album was all about finding something Carrabba thought long gone, the motorcycle accident he suffered caused losses that might be harder to recapture. “Some physical ability, Carrabba says when asked about these losses. “Certainly some of the sense of adventure. I don’t feel like I lost my youthful vigor.”
At that, he paused a bit. “Maybe I fear that I’ve lost my youthful vigor. I became aware that I would have to choose to try to have it. That was something I liked about myself. And also, the way I look is different, that’s a hard thing to have to reckon with for anyone. That will take time.”
But the good news is that he is on the mend, and enough time has passed since the accident that the thankfulness he discovered upon making the record is manifesting itself once again. “My sense of appreciation was temporarily desperate,” he admits. “And now it feels as it did before to be more of the gift that it is. That sense of appreciation, that’s really given to you. It comes from within, but is also what is put in front of your life that you have no control over whatsoever.”
He’s also aware that there have been supporters clamoring for this kind of album from him for a long while. But he knows that if he went into it as an act of fan service, it wouldn’t have worked. “I’m not really considering the listener when I’m doing the writing,” Carrabba says. “That’s been true since the earliest days. Certainly, that part was more natural in the early days because you had no listeners. I do find if I ever wonder during the process how this will be received of ‘Will this affect this person?’ or ‘Will this be what they’re looking for?’ that song is almost always trashed somehow.”
Now that the record is completed, Chris Carrabba understands if a certain group of Dashboard Confessional fans think that this return to their favored type of record is about time. “I wish it had come to me sooner,” he says with a shrug. “I think that there was a period where they wanted this more than other things. I’m hopeful that if they want something from me, it’s this.”
Photo courtesy of Shorefire Media