The highs and lows of Tess Dunn’s life as Santa Cruz’s most inspiring musician
Tess Dunn can blow air out of her eye balls. And thank goodness, too, because without that hidden talent I might not have anything to write about her.
Well, except that at 19 she’s already got three alt-rock albums under her belt, continues to fight a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis (CF), diabetes, and epilepsy, has a full-time class load, and still has time to put on an EP release show and birthday party at Moe’s Alley next week. She’s so damn admirable that I found myself hoping she had some deep, dark secret to unearth, like, maybe she enjoys torturing baby mice or kicking old ladies in her free time.
No dice. Calling me from the parking lot of the Stanford Medical Center, Dunn quickly broke down all conventional interview barriers and showed that she is, indeed, the inspiring, no-nonsense go-getter that so many past articles about her have glowingly heralded. But what isn’t often explored are the many layers of the person who has become a champion for her diseases. Guess what, she also gets lazy and doesn’t get out of her car when it’s too cold outside (hurrah!). And despite her incredibly positive attitude, of course the illnesses do weigh on her sometimes.
“Sometimes it does get tiring,” Dunn says. “It is a lot to handle, having these three illnesses, but my only options are to either sit around and wonder ‘why me?’ and throw pity-parties—or I can use this to empower me and push me to do great things.”
Dunn is so full of fight that it’s impossible to not get swept up in her energy—even over a phone call on a wet and dreary Tuesday night. It takes tenacity to take a small boat-load of pills at every meal, wear a respiratory therapy vest for a few hours a day to shake up the mucus in her lungs, breathe in three nebulizers, and then add some other fun IVs and hospital visits every so often. And then drive over Hwy. 17 from San Jose to band practice and drive back the same night to make it to class at Ex’Pression College.
“Go-getter” is a good description for Dunn, but she has enough sarcasm and mirth to jab back at anyone who mistakes her for the giddy cheerleader type.
This past June, Dunn released her third album, the Daydreamers EP, which she will debut at her birthday bash at Moe’s—the proceeds for which will all go to Cystic Fibrosis Research Inc. and organ donation awareness. She began writing songs at age 1, has played at six Vans Warped Tour shows, recorded with award-winning artists and producers, and performed across the golden coast. Making music for almost half her life, Dunn says her song-writing and artistry has developed greatly in a short time.
“I look back through the albums, and my perspective on things has changed so much. I feel like I’ve grown up a bit,” she says. “I’m really proud of where I am, and Daydreamers is a perfect representation of that.”
Then again, growing up with a life-threatening disease for which the median life expectancy is 41—well, that tends to put some things into perspective quickly.
“I joke with my mom that I’m middle aged,” she says. “I’ve had to make decisions for myself that will affect me later on, learn faster how to take care of myself and give up so much of my time. That forces you to look at life differently.”
In response to my mock-takedown of her image as shining hero she laughs, her retort dripping with sarcasm—“Congratulations, you’re the first interviewer that’s heard me say it gets hard for me sometimes. I’ve never said that before so, hey, feel free to put that in your article, eh?”
Even with low moments, Dunn says that being able to reach other people and raise awareness is really, truly fulfilling.
“Cystic fibrosis is a part of me,” she says, “And, while I’m not my disease, it still affects me and I feel like the only way I can negate the negative aspect of it is to be open about it and reach other people who are going through the same thing.”
Info: Tess Dunn & Band 7 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 14, Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. 479-1854. $15/20. PHOTO: Singer-songwriter Tess Dunn celebrates her 20th birthday and the release of her new EP, ‘Daydreamers,’ at Moe’s Alley on Sunday. TIM CATTERA PHOTOGRAPHY