Santa Cruz singer/songwriter Tess Dunn captivates audiences with her music, but the 17-year-old inspires the masses in other ways. How her life-threatening adversity gives her the courage to take big risks and live life to the fullest.
At 17, Tess Dunn has knocked more off of her bucket list than most people will in their lifetime.
A three-year veteran of the Vans Warped Tour with two EPs under her belt—the most recent of which, Honesty Box, will be released on Friday, Feb. 24 at Kuumbwa Jazz—the Santa Cruz singer/songwriter is the definition of a rising star in the local music scene. Named one of the Top 11 Bay Area artists of 2011 by 99.7 FM and winner of the radio station’s Triple Ho Show 2.0 Local Video Battle, it’s easy to forget that she’s still in high school.
But when we sat down with Dunn in her living room on a Thursday afternoon at the end of January, school was the first thing on her mind.
Having just finished her last final of the fall semester at Alternative Family Education (AFE), Dunn is one step closer to college. With plans to graduate in June—one year early for her age—and acceptance letters in the mail, she is bursting with energy and anticipation for the future.
“I got my first acceptance call—not a letter—from Dominican University in San Rafael,” Dunn says, barely able to contain her excitement. “I called back assuming they wouldn’t know who I was, and the person who answered the phone was like, ‘Tess Dunn?! Congratulations on your acceptance!’ … I screamed a lot.”
Dominican University is just one of seven colleges to which Dunn has applied, including Stanford University and UC Los Angeles. She intends to major in English, with a minor in creative writing.
Attending college after high school may seem like a natural progression to many, but for Dunn, the opportunity to study at a university is a gift after 17 years of battling adversity—one that will not be taken for granted.
Born with cystic fibrosis—an incurable life-threatening disease that causes progressive damage to the lungs, pancreas, liver and intestine—epilepsy, and diabetes, Dunn’s daily life differs greatly from that of her peers.
“I take a total of 60 pills per day, including seven pills each time I eat,” says Dunn. “I wear a vest for 45 minutes to an hour twice a day that inflates and shakes to release mucus build-up—three times a day if I’m sick. I also inject insulin once a day and I use nebulizers.”
Having to deal with all of that on top of homework, boys, her budding music career, and the stresses of being a teenager, sounds nearly impossible. But Dunn manages to do it all with great aplomb.
“This is a normal life to me,” she says. “And the bright side of having epilepsy is getting to wake up late.”
Her refreshing sense of humor and optimism, despite the dismal reality of her disease, is a true testament to her character. She’s the first to admit that the median age of survival for people living with cystic fibrosis is 37, but that’s not stopping her from milking life for all it’s worth.
“Having CF is like having a clock above your head,” she explains. “I’ve been forced to grow up faster than other people. Inconsequential things, while they affect me—life is a big picture thing. Life passes by so quickly, you have to make the most of every day.”
She’s not all talk, either.
Dunn has been playing piano since age 5, songwriting since age 12, and singing since 13. Today, she rocks the piano, keytar, glockenspiel, melodica, and bass (on a good day).
During a recent trip to NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) in Anaheim, Calif., Dunn had the opportunity to see one of her idols, Stevie Wonder, perform; a month before she was invited up on stage in front of 18,000 people at HP Pavilion in San Jose for the debut of her music video “Shame to See”; and she’s been working tirelessly on her latest effort with Ari Shine and Noah Shain at White Buffalo Studios in Los Angeles.
“That was the most fun I’ve ever had in a weekend,” Dunn says of her recent trip to White Buffalo. “We went into the studio on Friday night just to listen and then we did 12 hours each day with a one-hour break for dinner. Ari and Noah know I’m capable of doing things, so they push me. They treat me like a professional. … It was magical.”
The result of her hard work is a sophomore alt-pop/rock album, called Honesty Box, on which Dunn showcases a matured sound and mindset. While 2009’s Darling Just Walk—recorded with the help of the Make-A-Wish Foundation—was an opportunity for Dunn to show off her songwriting skills, her uniquely raspy voice and vocal range on several ballads about heartbreak and boys who lie, Honesty Box kicks up the tempo, production value, and girl power.
“For my first album, it was just pure me and my piano,” she says. “There may have been some backing, but it was really just me and my songs, the way they were written.”
This time around, a newfound confidence—especially prevalent on feisty album opener “Shame to See”—sets the tone for the EP, which is brimming with dance-ready anthems a la rock outfit Paramore that showcase the talents of her bandmates: Santa Cruz locals Rory Freeman (guitar, back-up vocals), Ty Wallace (drums, percussion), Austin Corona (bass, guitar), and Will Kahn (bass).
“It’s about a guy unceremoniously dumping me,” Dunn says of “Shame to See.” “I wrote the hook for that song in the bathroom,” she laughs.
For someone who is only a senior in high school, Dunn is far from short on life experience. Asked where the inspiration for her songs comes from, she joked, “I hate boys—no, seriously. I don’t write happy songs. I write when I’m angry or sad. Actually … I did write one happy song, called ‘The Year of Discovery,’ about discovering myself and being OK with not being put together.”
When feeling discouraged about her cystic fibrosis, Dunn finds songwriting therapeutic. “It’s such a freeing way of writing emotions. I’ve had people tell me that my lyrics have helped them through something. It’s nice to hear that people feel they’re not alone, and it makes me feel like I’m not alone.”
Out of solidarity for others with the disease, Dunn participated in a Breathe Song Event in Seattle, Wash., put on by CFVoice in 2009, as a means of raising cystic fibrosis awareness and hope for a cure. Together with fellow singer/songwriters Rose Harting and Josh Mogren, the then 13-year-old Dunn participated in a remix of the late English rocker and cystic fibrosis fighter Matt Scales’ song, “Breathe.”
While none of the participating artists could be in the Seattle studio at the same time—people with cystic fibrosis have to be at least three feet apart and can’t touch the same equipment due to their weak immune system—Dunn jumped at the opportunity to lend her voice to the project.
“It was so fun—a huge tribute to people with CF,” she says of the making of the “Breathe” music video. “It’s amazing how many people have seen it. I was at the doctor’s and a woman walked by with a baby who was newly diagnosed with CF. She turned to me and said, ‘You’re the ‘Breathe’ girl—thank you.’”
Her advice for others living with cystic fibrosis? “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do anything. And don’t be afraid to go after your dreams.”
Next month, Dunn will continue to spread awareness on season two of Vans’ Pass the Bucket television series—which examines the humanitarian side of today’s most celebrated athletes, musicians, artists, and foundations to educate and promote change—on Vans’ Off the Wall TV. The film crew documented her birthday concert at Moe’s Alley in mid-December, filmed her at school, on the beach, dancing, and playing piano at home.
“It was a great experience—I’m excited to be a part of that group,” says Dunn. “I’m the Hannah Montana of Santa Cruz,” she jokes.
She may not have the name recognition or fan base of Miley Cyrus—yet—but Dunn hopes to one day load her band onto a tour bus and perform around the country, attend red carpet events with her friends, and produce more albums with White Buffalo Studios.
Encouragement to pursue her dreams recently came from a group of concert attendees at 99.7’s Triple Ho Show 2.0. “As we were leaving, these girls pointed at me, ran up, and asked to take pictures with me,” Dunn recalls, beaming. “It was one of the highlights of my career.” But, she maintains that the Warped Tour is “the best day of my life every year.”
For someone who openly admits that it’s physically painful for her to stand in a room filled with strangers—she says her 13-year-old brother is the outgoing one, though her dyed candy-apple-red hair says otherwise—a music career sounds like it should be Dunn’s worst nightmare. Yet, when it comes to sharing her craft and educating others about the health issues she faces, she’ll put on a brave face and strap on her keytar any day. “It’s been a crazy journey,” she says. “I hope to inspire a lot of people.”
That’s just one of the reasons why Dunn’s mother/manager (affectionately called “momager”) Siri Vaeth started calling her a “CF Warrior”—a title that Dunn wears with great pride.
“I can’t change anything, so I have to push through the obstacles,” Dunn says of her inner strength. “I’m not going to throw myself a pity party … except for two hours every Sunday night,” she adds with a laugh.
Instead of dwelling on her health woes, she chooses to look forward to the future. And right now, that means setting her sights on college.
“Dormitory,” track No. 4 off Honesty Box, perfectly encapsulates her feelings about the transition: “Oh darling please don’t cry/ I’m not too far away/ And don’t blame yourself/ It just became too much to take/ This town is beautiful/ Because it has you in it/ So count down the days/ Until I come visit.”
“It’s about moving away from someone,” explains Dunn. “It sucks, but things will be OK.”
Though her parents—her father is well known local writer Geoffrey Dunn—will be sad to see her go off to college, Dunn is eager to take the next step in her journey.
“I read that if you’re not scared of your dreams, they’re not big enough,” she says. “You can either live on your knees or die on your feet. You have to take a risk at some point. Everyone takes a wrong turn at some point, but it’s not the end of the world—unless, of course, it’s Dec. 21, 2012 …”
Tess Dunn and her band play at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $16/adv, $20/door. For more information, call 427-2227. For tour info, music, and more, visit tessdunn.com, facebook.com/tessdunnmusic, or twitter.com/tessdunn. For details about the Breathe Song Event, visit cfvoice.com. Concert photos: White Menace. All other photos: Anastasiya Sanchez.