Dashboard Confessional releases ’All The Truth That I Could Tell’–interview
During the conversation, Carrabba explained the process and the inspiration that led to the new project. The new album is one that is shaped by Carrabba's continually evolving perspective, even as it continues to build on the expansive, guitar-driven sound and painstaking introspection that is the hallmark of Dashboard Confessional. He also revealed how the project challenged him to reach new levels of honesty and confront the degree to which he reveals the truths of his experience.
Ultimately, the new Dashboard album is complex and steeped in layers of meaning. It’s uniquely honest in a catalog full of honest material, and it constructs a vivid sonic world from Carrabba’s elegantly simple instrumentals. The end result is a project that is as emotionally rich as it is vital with details, as open to possibility as it is infused with personal truth.
What were you thinking about in making All The Truth That I Can Tell, conceptually and musically?
Conceptually, when I was starting to feel a little bit inspired, I recognized early that I was getting to this place that I'm very fond of but don't always get a chance to get back to. It's like it’s either there or it's not. That's where the songs can live just as strongly without the benefit of extensive production or even instrumentation. I could sense that there was a chance here to keep it bare and that it might be effective. I kind of ran with it once that inspiration hit.
Despite that fact, what I find really unique about the record is how you create a sense of a rich ensemble, at times from a single instrument. Did you think directly about crafting the album that way, or is it more of your instincts as a songwriter?
It's interesting that you ask it that way. I hadn't really considered that. I suppose because it's something I lean into, that must be instinct on some level. But in terms of the crafting, it's my decision. I feel like I have an edge where I'm adept at understanding how to imply the presence of a band with very limited instrumentation. Sometimes it's even as limited as [to] how I'll use my strumming hand or picking hand to imply a rhythm section, which is different than just rhythm guitar.
In addition to the internal details of each song, I also hear the differences between each song, which craft a narrative for me. Did you think about the album as a collection, an arc of material?
I wrote them as a batch. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a concept record, but I will say I was trying to condense the timeline of writing what would become the album. I could feel it was a record, not just a song or a few songs as I began writing them. Once I was aware of that, I think I was crafting what would be complementary to this song. You're writing this song and you've completed it. There is a sense of completion, and you've told the entirety of a story. But maybe you haven't really exhausted [it].
You've explored a good amount of the story and in and of itself could live alone. But it continually piqued my interest: What would compliment this song now? After it became three then five and even more, you start understanding it as an album arc, and I got pretty intentional about that.
Does that lead you to think of certain themes or unifying ideas?
I recognized I was in this place that I don't often get to, where I'm homed in on the most naked presentation. I was aware that it's really been since The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most that I have really been all the way in that place. I thought to myself, “I am that guy. I am the same guy. I am the same guy all these years later. But if I had never made that record, how would I make that record now?” It wasn't trying to be an analog to that. It was taking that as if it was not an influencing factor and wondering if I could match it. I thought by taking it away, I wouldn't be replicating it. I would maybe be continuing it.
Thinking of that parallel to the past, you’ve said that you were being more honest with this new album. I’m assuming that not because you weren’t being honest in the past — since I think of Dashboard Confessional as immensely honest. But I’m wondering if something changed on this project?
No, I don't think it would be fair to say I haven't been honest. I would say even in a body of work that is honest, the record stands out as uniquely honest. I'm not really sure if I can draw such a bead on it for you, but that's how it resonates with me.
I also saw you say that you struggled with whether or not you would have something to say at this point in your career.
I don't know if it's harder to get to a place of honesty, but it's easier when you haven't written many records to use that to explore pretty much any topic. Some subjects become overexplored. Often, I turn the lens inward, so then I'm the subject. I've really had a career's length of music to explore how I feel about the world, how I feel I fit in the world and the effect that the world has on me. No one likes to think that they will one day not be able to do the thing they love, but everybody that writes songs worries about it.
I was relieved to find that I had something personally important to say that was revelatory to me. That was the journey of discovery for me, and so that's the part that is probably increasingly elusive as your tenure as a songwriter increases. I'm now a couple of decades in, if not more.
You also characterized this project as an “exercise in uncertainty.” What did you mean by that?
I wonder myself what question was asked of me that brought me to that conclusion. But as I hear you quote me back to myself, I would say that art is a method by which you make sense of the world or make the world make sense to you. The art that has the most lasting effect is the art that is probably intentionally never defined by the artists themselves as what it must be perceived as. It's maybe implied, certainly imbued with the thing that the artist believed it was specifically and maybe only about. But if it doesn't have a place for interpretation, it's a bumper sticker.
This thought is interesting to me, as I think a lot about what art is for. I think there’s one common way of thinking of art as depicting or documenting the world and interior emotional states, as capturing the world with relative clarity. I think you’re saying that maybe our job isn’t always to issue those declarative statements, but maybe to pose questions?
I think that it has to have the latter, even if it has the former. If it is a declarative statement, that can be artful. Certainly, that's an artistic expression. You're well within your right as an artist to try to elicit a specific response. But it's more artistic to leave enough space or mystery to let questions form in the eye of the beholder.
That makes me wonder: to what extent do you think about the beholder? Do you imagine what the listener is hearing as you write?
No, I don't. I don't consider the listener when I'm writing. I might consider the listener, certainly sometime before the process is over. Absolutely, I do, but not during the writing. And I don't say that from a place of...
“I am the artist. This is only about me.”
Yeah, and I also don't think of it as a place of purity, like it's some kind of virtue. What I mean is I get obsessed in the moment, and I'm really not thinking about anybody or anything. You're laser-focused on what you feel in that very moment. It's a really feelings-based inspiration. I later will often wonder about what inspired me to feel that thing in the first place.
It could have been the fans. As a matter of fact, I think the presence of my audience, my relationship with my audience is even explored a little bit directly on the record. In that sense, I was thinking about the audience, but more in how they've influenced my life and that part of the life I lead. As friends are, as a family are.
Given that you want to let mystery and interpretation be a part of your music, I also notice how many details jump out on your songs. This record has a lot of detail. Even if it’s not meant to be a crystal-clear narrative, you use precise imagery to create a very detailed map of associations. Do you start from those details or do you use them to illustrate more abstract feelings?
I don't really know. That's a good question because you have a feeling; it's indefinable. This is for me, I'll speak for myself. I have some kind of feeling that is derived, in maybe the chord progression or maybe the melodic phrase on the guitar. I'll start down a road with writing. Sometimes I know exactly the thing I would like to write about, but very often I don't really know at first. I'll write lines that seem to come out in more than one song. Eventually, a line, usually it's a new line, will crystallize what that feeling is and I'm wondering what the story is behind that line. I'll sit with it for a bit and just try to decode the meaning of that.
It's a strange process to sit with one line and just stare at it and think about it. In that moment of real intention of trying to understand, why this one? I think of a million details that might express what that line is. Once I'm in that place of allowing the details to be integral ones, that seems to further decorate the language of the song. I say decorate it because the amount of details bring a realism, a real-world-ness to the fancy bit of poetry that I enjoy when I hear other people doing. For myself, any kind of fancy poetry stuff begins to feel invented and lacks a little realism until I've grounded it.
That’s the real challenge of creating art that feels organic. It’s easier to write a good chord progression or a nice lyric, but it’s harder to make it feel like everything really fits at every level.
I think it requires a lot of reciprocity in thinking on different scales at once. That's particularly true of writing an album where you have to be thinking about the individual verses or chord progressions and then also be thinking about what it's going to sound like when it's played together on a record. There's a bit of freedom in the simplicity of doing it [with] limited instrumentation. Acoustic in my case. You've not decorated it in such a way that you can't tell you've used that thing already. If you're using it again, it's because it directly complements the thing you've used in the first place, or you can't use it.
A number of songs really stood out for me on the project. “Here’s To Moving On” really stood out to me. It’s a pretty powerful statement, at least to my ears.
It's a good one to pick to talk about first because it is probably the most declarative song on the record. It's strange, it's more declarative than I'm used to being. I wrote the song about midway through the record. As I began writing the record, it's is therapeutic writing a record because you're forced to say to yourself, "What am I feeling? What am I feeling? What am I feeling?" Which is a tenet of therapy. "How are these feelings making me behave?" In this case, I mean to behave as a songwriter. I thought maybe I was coming to the close of a chapter. I thought maybe that was it. Maybe it was all the way through and it felt like I'd explored some difficult subject matter.
The exploration had led me to a place of feeling like I had some power. All songs are about many things. But it was also about the songs, the songwriting. It was also from the process that led to the song before it. I think it sounds so definitive because I thought, "OK, here's a period on the sentence." It turned out not to be the case. Even so much as that day very day. I found myself, "Oh, wait, there's another song here to find." I wonder sometimes, would I have written a song with such definitive, declarative statements in if I had known there [were] more mysterious waters to wade through still.
The other song that really spoke to me was the title track, “All The Truth That I Can Tell.” It’s musically interesting as a closer, almost this understated kind of chorale. It also seems to connect to some of the things we discussed about honesty before.
In the process of making this record, I decided I was going to talk about some subject matter, directly or indirectly, that I had not allowed myself to do so to do before. Those were rewarding moments. Not without their own challenges. Some of those things I had really at one point thought to myself, “I will never speak publicly about this thing or that thing, it's not territory I'm willing to explore.” Until I was willing to explore it and I did. All the truth that I can tell is the last song on the record because it was the last song that I wrote for the record. I knew it. I knew it even as I played that progression. The first time I thought, “Oh, this is it, this is the last one.”
Mirroring the case of here's to moving on, about halfway through, I thought, “OK, I can maybe put a button on this and maybe I can write about not just about this, but I can also just talk about how it felt to explore this territory,” and so I also knew that I didn't explore every bit of territory that I once swore myself not to, maybe I still do. I also hadn't explored all the territory that I thought I was ready to. It didn't happen in some cases. The lyric says, “I believe I have some stories I that I would like to tell/but I have sworn myself to secrecy,” and here it was. This is all the truth that I can tell. All of it is truth. But this is all the truth that I can tell.
It’s very interesting, especially in light of what you said earlier about the meanings of art. It feels brutally honest, but at the same time, very ambiguous and open-ended.
We did discuss about how art should never just be about one thing. What I hope people will feel is that the whole thing is steeped in gratitude. I'm talking about the things that I've loved every minute of when I've been lucky enough to have them in my life. Those things and those people are present in that song, and I only hope that makes people feel that and understand the level of gratitude I had. Or maybe it's a song for them, that will make them feel the gratitude they have for whatever those things are to that listener. I'll leave it out there in the world for them to decide.
This interview appeared in issue #403 with cover star Dominic Fike, available here.