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Text: Eryc Eyl  |  Photo Illustration: Dave Herrera

Dashboard Confessional resides in a small-but-fertile corner of the musical landscape. This land is populated by tattooed men and women who spent most of their youth in the punk scene, but who have recently discovered the simple beauty of an acoustic guitar and a few honest words. The music retains a bit of the punk edge, sometimes evident in the strum or in the voice, but without the noise and raw aggression. The lyrical content has more in common with classic American folk music and the insightful singer/songwriters of the Sixties and Seventies. Unfortunately, music critics and some fans aren't comfortable with the "cuddliness" such comparisons imply. Pensive, melancholy music made by punk-rockin' guys or girls simply can't be called "folk," for some unclear reason. And it certainly can't be called "sad." God forbid. To give it that all-important alternative "edge," and to avoid seeming like sissies, we have to call it "sadcore," or "slowcore." Some of the best contemporary folk music made by some of today's most talented singer/songwriters is being lumped into this flimsily titled category, as if "folk" or "singer/songwriter" were heresy in the indie temple.

Fortunately, Dashboard Confessional's Christopher Ender Carrabba, erstwhile frontman of the Florida emocore band, Further Seems Forever, doesn't seem to care that much about labels. Go ahead. Slap the label "sadcore" on The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, a collection of ten insightful, tuneful, and emotional pieces, and Dashboard Confessional's latest release on Santa Monica's Vagrant Records. Many have. Or call it "emofolk" (I may be the first). You can even call it "singer/songwriter." Chris remains unconcerned. Chris is more concerned with his music, with producing sincere, honest, courageous music that explores the full range of human emotion.

"I'm getting more comfortable with the singer/songwriter label," Chris told me in a recent conversation. It's a tag he has made his own, in the same way that Ani DiFranco and Bob Mould have done (the latter, incidentally, just might be considered the granddaddy of the punk-turned-folk genre). In fact, Chris's music has much in common with the more personal (and less political) of DiFranco's and Mould's work. The heart on the sleeve, the angry tear on the cheek, the tone that is at once mournful and triumphant.

In person, Chris is as sincere and candid as his music is, as if he were spared that regrettable human inclination to cloak emotions in cleverness and calumny. While many singer/songwriters in the confessional genre lament the often-mistaken assumptions listeners make about them based on their songs, Chris is quick to point out that his music is a fairly accurate reflection of who he is. Dashboard Confessional's lyrics speak his soul with fair precision, though the overall picture may be, in his words, "more dressed-up" than his life actually is. One disclaimer: "I'm not always that dismal of a failure," Chris says.

Chris, in fact, likes the fact that his fans (currently, a smaller throng than the ones that surround Mould, DiFranco, Mark Eitzel, and the others) know him through his music. The intimacy of the connection allows Chris to approach Dashboard Confessional as a collaboration between himself and his fans. Chris takes pleasure in the fact that his fans are able to take his words personally and use them to make their own meaning. The punk rock kids who constitute Dashboard Confessional's fan base relate to the honesty and catharsis of the music. And Chris is perfectly happy to display his dismal failures and considerable successes on stage for their benefit.

This collaboration is one of the main reasons Chris chose to give the project a name other than his own. Though Chris Carrabba is Dashboard Confessional de facto, he chose the name to leave possibilities open for other configurations and creative input. Sometimes Dashboard Confessional is just Chris on a stool with an acoustic, connecting with his loyal following. Other times, as on the current tour, it includes a bassist (Chris's longtime friend and collaborator, Dan Bonebrake) and drummer.

Avoiding using his own name for the project is also a mark of Chris's considerable humility. Our conversation about his music frequently turned to conversation about other musicians whom Chris admires. When we discussed one of Chris's favorite musicians, Jonah Sonz Matranga of the Sacramento band Far (and more recently of his own project, Jonah's Onelinedrawing), a man Chris says is one of the most engaging performers he has ever seen, he said, "If I had heard his music before doing Dash, I wouldn't have even bothered."

However, most folks who have heard Dashboard Confessional are very glad that he bothered. Chris's current home, Vagrant Records, seems thrilled to have him on their roster. One might expect Dashboard Confessional to languish unattended in the company of Vagrant's already-impressive cast of characters -including Rocket from the Crypt, Milwaukee's Hey Mercedes, Gotohells, emo hotshots the Get Up Kids, and GUK side project, the New Amsterdams- but Chris is consistently impressed with the enthusiasm and personal attention Dashboard Confessional receives. Quick calls made just to check in turn into marathon phone calls, Chris says, because the whole staff wants to pass the phone around to tell him what each of them has done for Dash that day. Pure indie bliss that no major could ever offer, and a clear indication that Vagrant understands the potential of a talent like Chris Carrabba.

Dashboard Confessional is currently touring the US to support The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most and having a great time. Chris informed me that, between a three-month tour last year with Further Seems Forever and touring as Dashboard Confessional, he will have been on the road 285 days out of 365 by this May. This demanding road schedule doesn't seem to impede Chris's songwriting though. Chris is an intensely disciplined songwriter who has been known not to leave his house for days while finishing a song. The first Dashboard Confessional record, Swiss Army Romance, was written in only three weeks. During a recent two-day break from touring, Chris wrote the all of the songs for an upcoming EP Dash will be splitting with the New Amsterdams.

In part, Chris attributes the considerable volume and quality of his musical output to strong role models and folks he just plain admires. Chris counts another prolific music, Brian Wilson, among his inspirations, as well as his bass player and friend, Dan Bonebrake, his mother and his older brother. His brother, in fact, might be most responsible for Chris's current career. Chris claims that almost everything he has done in his life can be attributed to wanting to be like his older brother. When they were younger, Chris and his brothers formed several imaginary bands with their Fisher-Price instruments. When his brother took up skateboarding, Chris was right behind him, hoping some of the coolness would rub off. And when his brother dropped the skateboard in favor of a guitar, Chris was there again. Lucky for us, he stuck with that one.

Chris is excited about the fact that Dashboard Confessional exposes a wider audience to his music. Longtime fans who enjoyed Chris's earlier bands, the Vacant Andys and Further Seems Forever, still come out in droves to hear Dash, but they are joined by fans of quieter, more introspective music. To these folks, Chris offers a few musical recommendations to help orient them to the context out of which Dash arose. His favorite bands of the moment, admittedly "harder" than his current music, include The Movielife, Hey Mercedes, the Weakerthans, Sunday's Best, and the as-yet-unreleased Seville. Closer to his own sound are Pedro the Lion, critical darling Bright Eyes, and Ida. A few listens to these artists before Dashboard Confessional comes to town might enhance a neophyte's appreciation for Dashboard Confessional.

And chances are pretty good that Dashboard Confessional will be coming to your town within the year. Earlier this year, Dash hit Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland with the Anniversary and Hey Mercedes. May will see them skimming down the West Coast, through Washington, Oregon, and California, before they head east through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Kansas with the Weakerthans. Whether you're partial to punk or fond of folk, you owe to it yourself to catch Dashboard Confessional in the small venues they're currently playing across the country. Propelled by the talent and energy that fill Chris Carrabba and his music, Dashboard Confessional is only going to draw bigger and more diverse crowds as time goes on, and you won't be able to get this close again.

Eryc Eyl

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