Sometime in your life, you've been dumped. Might as well admit it: Sometime in your life, someone has made you feel stupid and ugly and dumb and left you all alone. You cried. Maybe you drank yourself stupid. And you hurt -- in fact, you knew that no one had ever hurt as badly as you were hurting right then.
No one but Dashboard Confessional.
Dashboard Confessional (for all intents and purposes, the band consists of singer/songwriter Christopher Carraba) specializes in finding that pain of rejection, digging it up and holding it up to the light so you can recognize it as your own. Armed with just an acoustic guitar (and of late, a backing band), Carraba gets onstage and bares every raw little detail of his rejections and losses, sometimes allowing his voice to come perilously close to sobbing. Why would anyone want to listen to that?
"Everybody [gets hurt], and maybe it helps just to know that someone else has been there first," says Carraba. "Nobody slits their wrists at one of our shows. People come to see us and sing along, and they leave feeling better."
Apparently it's working. Dashboard's latest full-length, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, has been gaining popularity for more than a year now, boosted mainly by word of mouth and heavy MTV2 rotation for the video "Screaming Infidelities," which won the inaugural M2 Award at MTV's Video Music Awards last month.
That word of mouth has mostly been passed through teenagers, who, like the recently dumped, are more open to the naked emotion that Carraba pours into his songs (as Bart Simpson once said of the Smashing Pumpkins, "Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel"). Teenagers are also more susceptible to a romantic, idealistic view of people that allows them to be crushed that much more thoroughly by human frailties such as betrayal.
"Maybe you're just more open to a level of purity at that age," Carraba says of his teenage fans. "That age group has such a strong passion for music, for finding music that they can relate to. They want to connect. Music just doesn't seem that important to people once they enter 'the real world.'"
The more jaded adults of the world might also be uncomfortable with the lack of subtlety in Dashboard's music. You always know what Carraba is singing about, and yes, it's that girl again (asked whether he's over the girl yet, he says, "Sometimes"). But it's the obsessive nature of the songs that reveals some of Carraba's strongest gifts: He has the scorned lover's eye for minutiae, as when, in the chorus for "Screaming Infidelities," he sings to an unfaithful lover, "Your hair/Is everywhere." Other times, Carraba goes beyond the average listener's comfort zone with his extravagant pining, such as on "Living in Your Letters": "Breathe deeply from this envelope/It smells like you/And I can't be without that scent."
Carraba realizes that his music can seem a bit dour. "But I really think there's a hopeful aspect to the songs," he says. "The earlier songs were hurt and angry, yeah. The newer songs are a bit more happy. But the harsh songs are even harsher."
Although humor doesn't find its way into Dashboard songs very often, Carraba doesn't take himself too seriously. His publishing company is called Did She Ask About Me? Music, and he's nothing but amused by seeing himself on MTV or in Teen People.
"I think levity is important. My humor is mostly self-deprecating," says Carraba. Carraba didn't wind up strumming an acoustic guitar and singing about girl troubles by way of the usual route. In fact, outside of the guitar, he's far removed from the folksy singer/songwriter cliché. With his shirtsleeve tattoos and a vintage T-shirt, he'd look more at home with a hardcore band, like the ones he used to be in before his secret passion for solo songs got the best of him. His association with the indie-rock scene usually means that Dashboard Confessional never shares a stage with anyone with a similar sound. Early on, Carraba would walk onstage alone with an acoustic guitar to open for hardcore legends H2O; the current tour has the loud and raucous Hot Rod Circuit opening for him.
Against all odds, Carraba wasn't murdered by outraged hardcore fans. Instead, he built a following among people who normally spurn ballads and softness in music. Whatever it was that led H2O fans to accept Carraba, the level of emotional commitment that his quiet songs share with aggressive hardcore is the same element of his music that's gotten Dashboard Confessional lumped into the ever-more-meaningless genre known as emo.
"I do my best not to rally against it," Carraba says of the emo label. "It's just silly. I don't see how you can fit us all into a category like that. But I don't stand on a flagpole and shout about it."
Coming up from the underground to newfound mainstream success can mean alienating old fans, who can be extremely protective of their idols. When Carraba decided to try playing with a full band instead of simply sitting on a stool alone onstage, the reaction from some fans was similar to that of the folkies when Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar.
"I don't think we've lost too many fans. As long as what I'm doing is real, our fans are going to listen," says Carraba, who considers his band's mantra to be "Our music isn't for everybody, it's for anybody."
"If someone only liked my music when I was onstage by myself, which I still do sometimes, then it's fine if they don't want to listen anymore. That's their opinion. But I'm always looking for a way to make my songs more impactful, more beautiful, and playing with a band gives the music a fuller sound.
"I make my music for myself," Carraba continues, "and if someone doesn't like what I'm doing, that's fine. It's if I tried to make my music for other people instead of myself, that would be a problem. That's the kiss of death."