Santa Cruz’s Tess Dunn Returns As Alter-Ego T3TRA

Health challenges catalyze an artistic reinvention

Tess Dunn performs at the album-release party for her new T3TRA record on Saturday, March 16.

Oscar Wilde didn’t know a thing about electro-pop music. But if he were around today, the 19th-century playwright and legendary wit would totally get Tess Dunn. It was Wilde, remember, who once said, “Give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.”

That applies to Dunn, a 24-year-old singer-songwriter who has been performing and recording since the age of 13. Not because she wears a mask on stage, but because she has taken to recording under an alter ego named T3TRA (pronounced “Tetra”). And it’s through T3TRA that she’s telling her truth.

The Santa Cruz native returns to her hometown for a performance as T3TRA at Kuumbwa Jazz Center on March 16. She’ll be showcasing a new album of original material called Lightswitch.

“It’s one of the best ideas I ever had,” she says of her on-stage persona.

Throughout her adolescence, Dunn performed and recorded under her given name. That changed once she reached her twenties. Lightswitch is now her second effort as T3TRA.

Beginning with 2009’s Darling Just Walk, the artistic persona Dunn presented under her real name was a specific thing. “She was always optimistic. She had a zest for life, wouldn’t let anything get her down,” says Dunn. “And all that was true when I was teenager.”

That changed, she says, when she began experiencing exhausting mood swings, from manic episodes of activity and creativity to shut-down periods of depression. Eventually, she was diagnosed with bipolar-1 disorder. “I wanted to write about it,” she says, “but it felt weird doing so as Tess Dunn, because I already had a reputation under that name. It didn’t feel right to write about how depressed I was. Also, at that age—19, 20—I was experiencing adult things like lust and love that I didn’t really understand at 15 or 16.” On top of that, she was wary of disappointing an audience who had come to expect a certain spirit in her music, a spirit that suddenly felt confining.

It was time for an artistic reset.

“It was really refreshing, and it’s given me a huge dose of freedom,” she says of her decision to become T3TRA. At the same time, she was beginning to be seduced by the beats and textures of electronica, and a break into a new alter ego allowed her to change up her fundamental sound from bright and buoyant power-pop to a darker, synthetic vibe.

As a result, in a Wilde-ian sense, Dunn is now telling her truth in a way that she had not dared before. The title track of new album Lightswitch is a particularly emotionally naked stab at grappling with the disorienting mood swings of bipolar. “It’s probably the most honest song I’ve ever written in my 10 years of songwriting,” she says.

Facing a bipolar disorder is burden enough for anyone, but Dunn has also been dealing with other serious health issues her entire life. Namely, cystic fibrosis (CF), a devastating chronic disease that primarily affects the lungs and demands intense day-to-day treatment. Mostly as a result of her CF condition, she’s also had to face epilepsy and diabetes. Life expectancy for those with CF is somewhere in the mid-40s, but that number has been steadily moving northward thanks to improvements in treatment.

Because she’s lived with CF her entire life, Dunn is intimately familiar with a certain live-for-today impulse. Last year, she graduated from Sonoma State University and shortly thereafter began work as a writer where she now lives in Marin County. A severe flare-up of CF symptoms sidelined her and forced her into freelancing.

“In that case, getting sick was definitely a blessing for me, because it pushed me to turn back to my music and say to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s really what I want to do with my life,” she says. “If I had continued to work as I was doing, I would have let my music sit on the back burner.”

Cystic fibrosis has given Dunn a considerable headwind in her life and career, and she’s always felt that she’s had to cram a lot in what she believes will be an abbreviated lifespan. But being involved in the CF community has allowed her to keep a valuable perspective.

“I have this weird sense of guilt,” she says. “I mean, I have friends with CF who are in the hospital every other month. And though I’m feeling bad a lot, numbers-wise I can’t complain because I’m doing so well.”

Tess Dunn performs as T3TRA at the album-release concert for ‘Lightswitch’ at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 16, at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $10 advance/$15 door. iamt3tra.com.

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