Prolific singer/songwriter Chris Carrabba — the poster child of the emo genre and frontman for Dashboard Confessional, Further Seems Forever and a solo project — is cozying up to a new sound with his latest roots-inspired quintet Twin Forks.
In anticipation of the band’s Tuesday, Feb. 17 stop at The Orange Peel — along with Los Angeles-based acoustic guitarist Ryan Bingham and Memphis rock troupe Lucero — Carrabba chatted with Xpress about exploring a new genre and amassing a fan base from scratch while tackling the complex art of upbeat tale-telling … all from a never-idling tour bus.
THE SWEET SOUNDS OF CUTLERY
Carrabba’s command of the guitar (backed by Kelsie Baron on mandolin and vocals, Sara Bost on tambourine and vocals, Jonathan Clark on bass and Shawn Zorn on drums) has a more intricate quality than the simpler strummings that put him on the acoustic indie map. His vocals — now decorated with delicate harmonies by Baron and Bost — provide a familiar grasping point for early fans, although the delivery has certainly undergone a revamp.
Twin Forks’ single, “Back to You,” for example, complete with percussive hand claps and a tempo fit for a cross training soundtrack, would provide the perfect accompaniment to a Blue Ridge Parkway drive at sunrise. And although Carrabba does sing, “put a posy in your hair,” his instructions come alongside double-edged imagery like, “whistle past the graveyard/even the dead deserve a song” to ward off unalloyed butterflies-and-rainbows vibes.
MANDOS IN THE MAINSTREAM
“I’ve lived my musical life well ensconced in a niche,” says Carrabba. “I thought by choosing this [Americana-inspired] instrumentation, we were really forcing ourselves even further into the niche and that by celebrating the kind of music we all grew up on, we would have a harder time finding a broad audience.”
Mandolins and banjos, however, began trickling into the mainstream during Twin Forks’ “surprisingly long gestation period,” and while the musician says that fact didn’t influence the band’s inception as a roots-influenced outfit, it certainly didn’t hurt its reception.
Referring to the instrumentation of his predecessors Mumford and Sons as “ornamentation for massively successful hit songs,” Carrabba explains that the breakthrough folk rockers could have chosen any arrangement – pop, indie, xylophone jazz – with similar, chart-topping results, simply because the band’s underlying song elements remain hits “at their bones.”
But they didn’t, and lucky for Twin Forks.
Now, Carrabba says, casual listeners who may have flinched at the slightest twang are willing to taste-test at least one mandolin-laden verse before their aural auto-pilot summons a most powerful one-word sentence: No.
“Forget more of a chance. You get a chance,” he says. “That’s what I would thank [Mumford and Sons] for.”
“I feel very, very honored and protective of that original fanbase for Dashboard Confessional, and I refuse — in spite of the fact that it would probably help us — to trade on the name and the fans that we have,” says Carrabba, although he openly and fondly recites his colorful “musical lineage” at request.
The members of Twin Forks made a collective decision to “earn a fan base that’s not borrowed” upon setting off on their first tour. In fact, they’ve requested that promoters not mention previous bands in the show bill at all.
That entrepreneurial attitude, coupled with the band’s status as the opening act has, so far, allowed Twin Forks to gain exposure as a new entity, just as they planned. Carrabba suspects (and hopes) that most audience members do judge on-the-spot regardless of feelings toward previous bands. “That’s a good spot for me to be in,” he says. “I really do like to prove myself … and I’d like very much for Twin Forks to have a career.”
LIFE AFTER EMO
As the ambassador of emo in the early 2000s, Carrabba was known among fans as equal parts sad and introspective (perhaps with a dash of hope on brighter tracks). But his personal life, he says, wasn’t the mosaic of minor chords and long sighs the public assumed. In fact, exercising that head space through music fostered quite the opposite mentality. “I don’t really walk around with those feelings,” he says, “because I have an outlet for that. I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky dude.”
In live format, Twin Forks draws on humor, good spirits, and crowd interaction — a refreshing change of pace that “paints a rounder picture” of the artist’s personality.
But nothing comes free.
“It’s really f**king hard to write a powerful song about the fact that things feel good,” says Carrabba, grappling with a corner of the emotional spectrum oft-shunned by the introspective. “There’s this period of my life where my songs were — or came off — very angsty, but how do I express myself that strongly when I’m not in that place anymore?”
Achieving the same emotional magnitude through positivity (or neutrality) has required a great deal more effort from the songwriter, who also avoids penning albums of undiluted joy. The goal is to connect, evoke, inspire — not to gloat.
“I made this rule that I wouldn’t use the words ‘love’ or ‘heart’ for two years in any song,” he says. “I found a way to be very evocative and draw a fine point on the meaning of those words without using them. And then when the two years was up, I knew the most right time to use them.”
ASHEVILLE OR BUST
In his decades as a traveling songwriter and front man, Carrabba says he hasn’t necessarily had to face the weighty choice of one project over another — partially because the Further Seems Forever crew all hold traditional, full-time jobs and the musicians in Dashboard were eager to pursue individual side projects during their indefinite hiatus.
“I remember my mom signing over a guardianship when I was 16 so that I could cross state lines touring,” recalls Carrabba. “I’m still doing it now with bands that are really rich and fulfilling to me as a person and musically. I haven’t had to choose between them, and I feel really lucky for that.”
Next up for Carrabba and Co.? Asheville.