At 17, Tess Dunn jokes that she's in 'mid-life crisis' mode. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
It’s 12:30pm, and Tess Dunn, having just woken up, is sitting on a café patio and carefully cradling a carrot cupcake, her first meal of the day.
Dunn, who was in January named the 11th-best Bay Area artist by 99.7 NOW FM, is eagerly preparing for life’s next journey: to California State University–Monterey Bay, in two weeks. Dunn says she’s “so excited” for life in college, where she’ll major in human communication—a field that includes creative writing, one of her first passions.
“I was thinking about minoring too,” Dunn says, “but that’s already enough work for someone with cystic fibrosis, epilepsy and diabetes.”
At 17, Dunn, who finished up high school a year early so she could leave Santa Cruz, has already accomplished a lot. She’s released two EPs, performed on four Warped Tours and been featured on the Vans Off the Wall Pass the Bucket show online. She’s done all this in spite of three incurable diseases. And before she leaves for CSUMB, Dunn will also be headlining Moe’s Alley on Aug. 12 for a benefit for one of those diseases, cystic fibrosis.
Dunn, who has candy-red hair and a pop-punk attitude, has made a name for herself in the face of tremendous adversity, starting with diminished hours in each day. Epilepsy requires Dunn to get more sleep than the average person (she usually sleeps until about 1:30pm), although the optimistic piano player calls the illness an “excuse” to do so.
Coping with cystic fibrosis requires that she daily use a nebulizer and wear a special vest for over an hour to shake the mucus out of her lungs. And on the green patio table between me and Dunn are two canisters of prescription medication—she must take 50 to 60 pills a day.
“Other people think it’s not much fun,” Dunn says, “but because I’ve had to deal with it my whole life, it’s just like brushing my teeth or eating breakfast—or lunch, since I don’t actually eat breakfast because I wake up so late.”
Dunn has been writing music since she was 11, when the classically trained pianist told her dad, “I’m done with this bullshit, and I want to play my own stuff.” These days, her pop rock songs focus on mostly teenage frustrations, certain annoying boys and other themes that resonate with her high school peers. They feature dynamic piano riffs, grungy guitars and catchy melodies over plaintive chord progressions and honest, revealing lyrics—not totally unlike a more candid Katy Perry or perhaps an in-control-of-her-life Courtney Love. Dunn's songs are well structured, too. In many songs, her quiet, contemplative verses build into exciting pre-chorus hooks and ultimately catchy choruses filled with interesting revelations.
At the upcoming benefit concert, Dunn will be playing five or six new songs, most of which she’s never performed live.
Dunn’s already illustrious career has been aided by support from industry players a generation older than her. Dunn’s parents, Siri Vaeth and noted Santa Cruz author Geoffrey Dunn, both point out that she has been blessed with notable mentors, starting with critically acclaimed songwriter Ari Shine, who’s opened for Rhett Miller, Silversun Pickups, the Donnas and others. Shine co-produced Dunn’s second EP Honesty Box with Noah Shain, who’s also worked with dubstep demigod Skrillex. Shine and his wife Adrienne Pierce played on both of Dunn’s albums. Jack Johnson’s drummer, Adam Topol, has also played on Dunn’s records, as did soloist Carina Round, who’s currently on tour with Tears for Fears.
Additionally, it was the Dunns’ neighbor Bill Welch, owner of Moe’s Alley, who started the annual fundraiser where the young pop singer will perform Sunday at 7:30pm. Welch only does two other fundraisers a year, one for the Surfrider Foundation and another for Second Harvest. He sees a lot of talent in Dunn.
“She writes with a lot of emotion, and she has a great mind,” Welch says. “In years to come, she’ll keep writing things she knows about. She’s just starting. She’s growing by leaps and bounds.”
Welch calls Dunn a “very sharp, young, literate person,” and whether in songwriting or in conversation, Dunn appears to finds her words easily and with a certain eloquence, a trait that makes her seem wise beyond her years. But Dunn says she doesn’t think of herself as eloquent “at all.”
“When I write, it’s typically about how I’m feeling and the truth,” Dunn says. “There aren’t any lies about how I’m feeling. I don’t try to be eloquent in my music because the truth isn’t always eloquent.”
Dunn’s parents say she has always been a decisive go-getter, the kind of person who figures out what she wants and then starts trying to achieve it. “She is very intense and creative and has been since she was a little girl,” Jeff Dunn says. “I’m way more of a fan than a mentor. She has her own sense of what she wants to do and has always had. It’s just a joy for me to watch.”
Researchers have made tremendous strides in cystic fibrosis studies over the past half-decade. In the 1950s, victims of cystic fibrosis weren’t expected to reach their first birthday. Now those with the disease often survive into their thirties—still by no means old age. “At that age I was about to have my second child,” says Vaeth, 49. (Their younger child Dylan is now 13.) “If at my age now I passed away, people would say, ‘What a tragedy! She was so young.’”
The search for a more effective treatment and research—and ultimately a longer lifespan for people like Tess—is the motivation behind Welch’s fundraiser at Moe’s Alley. The disease currently affects one in 3,000 live births. As far as life expectancy goes, the outlook is brightening. When Tess Dunn was diagnosed in 1995, life expectancy was 29 years old. Now it’s 37.
If Dunn, who jokes about being in “mid-life crisis” mode, has any fear about life’s finish line, she’s not showing it.
“I’ve always had a clock ticking above my head subconsciously," Dunn says. "Knowing that the median age for survival for CF is 37 makes me less afraid. I’ve known that for such a long time that it’s settled in now. I’m not that scared.”
Tess Dunn & Her Band
Sunday, Aug. 12 at 7:30pm
Tickets $10 at www.moesalley.com