Colin Carbonera named his one-year-old son Llewyn after the title character of Inside Llewyn Davis — a movie about a talented 1960s folk singer looking for a break, stumbling from one disappointment to another. Though Carbonera says he was drawn to the name for its meaning — lion — he also admits his son’s namesake reflects his own psyche in some ways.

It’s about “an everyday man who just has a big dream,” he says.Carbonera has big dreams too. After a long musical odyssey beginning in his early childhood, Carbonera started his band Rabino in 2018. Through it, he seeks to explore the deeper meanings of life. But, despite some success, including Spotify notoriety, his quest has not been without its challenges and is far from complete.

Musical Evolution

Carbonera is sitting in a hipster coffee shop, a fisherman beanie resting just above the ears. His short-cropped pink hair just barely peeks out from underneath. Black nail polished fingers hold a tin coffee mug. Despite his artistic nature, he didn’t come from a particularly musical family.

His parents, Filipino immigrants, were not afforded the luxury of playing music during their childhood years. Nevertheless, they decided to instill musical learning in Carbonera at a young age. He recalls playing an electronic keyboard as a toddler. Chuckling at what he characterizes as the “classic Asian stereotype,” he was then enrolled in piano lessons at six-years-old, with his mom thinking, “Maybe he’ll be a prodigy or something.” 

Carbonera excelled in his lessons. To this day, Carbonera still composes his music on a piano during the early stages of production. But it wasn’t until years later, when he learned to play guitar at age 13, that he developed a true passion for music. Carbonera says he began recording songs on an old camera and posting the finished products on YouTube. Then, with a slight groan, he immediately regrets this disclosure, advising aspiring musicians to only put quality music online.

“I just think back to when I was 13 and putting things out…and then wondering why no one really listened to it.” Whatever the quality of his creations at the time, a love for music had begun to form. Having seen his interest in recording, Carbonera’s parents got him the Shure sm58, a standard vocal microphone. He began recording vocals, guitar and any other musical elements. But the young Carbonera struggled to keep the household quiet enough to record.“

I tried to take advantage of every moment my parents weren’t at the house,” he says. He also continued to advance in piano until high school when, with many other commitments, he decided to stop taking lessons. Instead, he joined a band called Disharmony which played what Carbonera calls a mixture of alternative rock and blues. 

Another groan.

“I’m not even really sure what it was.”

Carbonera was also in musical theatre, choir and had begun experimenting with acoustic folk-pop at the time.

“There was this whole range of influences that was seeping into my music creation,” he says.After graduation, he moved towards acoustic folk and singer/songwriter music before exploring R&B.

Rabino – “It’s lit and it’s literature”

Then, in 2018, Carbonera started Rabino, a four-piece alternative pop band with elements of R&B and classic 80s music. Rabino is Carbonera’s mother’s maiden name: the “spicy Filipino touch” in the band’s moniker that reflects his heritage.

But that name also has another profound, if accidental, meaning. Carbonera learned the word means teacher, or rabbi, in Spanish. But he only found that out when several rabbis began liking his pictures online. Amused, Carbonera embraced this unexpected interpretation because it already aligned with his goals of “teaching” his listeners with thought-provoking music.

“People are so used to pop music being bubblegum or super shallow, but I’d like to explore the deeper mysteries of pop.”

He lists the popular dance-influenced pop-rock bands like The 1975 and Maggie Rogers as key musical influences, appreciating the philosophical depth of their lyrics. Rabino’s new single, “U Ain’t” is a microcosm of this approach. The song is a critique of party culture. Sung in Carbonera’s self-described “really warm blanket and a fire” voice, one of the second verse lyrics, “you can be cruel when you’re lonely,” explores this theme. Then, the song erupts into a full scale 80s-esque guitar solo – something Carbonera describes as a sonic portrayal of the main character’s feelings. He hopes this sort of raw exploration of culture through music appeals to his audiences.

Colin Carbonera and drummer Riley Clark record drums for an upcoming single in their Calgary studio 

Pop in Calgary?

Yet, despite these aspirations, Rabino and it’s pop sound have struggled to find a place in Calgary.

“As a prairie city, Calgary has always been focused more on roots, singer/songwriter, folk, rock, country, those genres,” he says, leaving him to wonder what sort of venues his style might appeal to. While the band has been able to grow a small fan base, reaching the next level has proven difficult.

For now, Carbonera submits his music to every streaming platform he can find, hoping for the broadest possible exposure.

“Even if 900 of these don’t reply, or don’t post, or whatever if one does it could be amazing. It could be the thing that changes everything.”

Rabino has already had a small taste of this success. Carbonera’s first single, Crocodile, made it onto two of Spotify’s editorial playlists. “One day I just saw my streams hit 20k and I was like, that doesn’t make sense. And the next week it was 50k, the next week it was 90k and then finally it hit 100k.”

The song has now been played over 117,000 times. And perhaps it’s this sort of phenomenon that introduces the most daunting challenge for Carbonera — a more philosophical one by nature — namely, what actually awaits on the other side of fame.

“What would happen if this label took me on? How would my lifestyle change? Do I sell my soul for the money?” 

Carbonera pauses. Then he bursts into laughter. For now, he says his family grounds him and keeps him humble. He expects no different should a label come calling.

Davis or Dylan?

But, in a sea of musicians, not all become famous.  At the end of Llewyn Davis, Davis walks out of the bar as another artist begins to play. The new artist is Bob Dylan, the iconic singer/songwriter who revolutionized the world of music. This is obviously a fatal blow to Davis’ career, who was aspiring to popularize the same kind of music.

“It’s super bittersweet,” says Carbonera. And maybe it reveals yet another meaning of the opening line of “U Ain’t.” Suddenly the anthem of every musical hopeful throughout history, from the fictional Llewyn Davis to Colin Carbonera himself, the line reads, “You never talk to me at the party, you never even look my way.”But if the symbolism means anything, Rabino’s new single — the very one from which the lyrics come from — is playing in the coffee shop as Carbonera finishes his drink.

Editor: Brian Wells | bwells@cjournal.ca