By April Short
City on a Hill Press Editor

At the Cayuga Vault last weekend a graceful, raspy voice rang out over the sultry drumming of a piano played in a minor key. The voice and music belong to Tess Dunn, a 14-year-old eighth-grader and Santa Cruz local with a terminal illness and an inarguable musical gift.

Dunn, who has played the piano for nine years, first started writing songs two years ago.

“I actually originally didn’t intend to sing them because I didn’t like my voice,” Dunn said.

Last week, upon receiving a donation from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fulfilling the “wishes” of children with life-threatening medical conditions, Dunn recorded an album under the direction of prominent musical producer and UC Santa Cruz alumnus Ari Shine.

“I love Tess’s voice. It’s really passionate. It’s very real,” Shine said. “And she also really has a range. She can sing really low and kind of intense, and then she has this really lovely high part of her voice that she opens up at the end of a couple of her songs, and it gives me shivers. It’s just really excellent.”

The concert at the Cayuga Vault on Saturday was entitled “Tess Dunn and Friends,” and sold out days in advance. It featured Dunn alongside other musicians, including Cayuga Vault manager Amanda West, saxophonist Alex Bignell and acclaimed vocalist Nina Storey.

Dunn has struggled with the respiratory disease Cystic Fibrosis (CF) since birth. CF is incurable and manifests in a chronic cough.

Dunn’s stage presence, and her musical style, similar in some ways to that of Avril Lavigne, made it easy for observers to ignore occasional coughs she uttered between sets on Saturday.

Although recent estimates are higher, the average life expectancy for those with the disease is usually in the 30-year range. Dunn’s current lung capacity, however, is average for a person of her age. Her mother, Siri Vaeth, attributes this relative health to a complete adherence to the CF medical regimen.

“She does her treatment twice a day if she’s feeling great, and if she’s not feeling great, three times a day. There is no pass on a day,” Vaeth said.

When Dunn received the Make-a-Wish Foundation donation, she traveled with her family to Studio City to record an album under Shine’s direction.

Dunn and Shine originally met by way of a CF benefit concert at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz one year ago, where both performed. The concert was Dunn’s debut performance at a musical venue.

“I loved [Dunn] the minute I met her. I thought she was so spunky and a real star — and just the whole package,” Shine said. “Her songs were amazing, way beyond her age. She was 13 at the time that I saw her. I wanted to work with her anyway, and Make-a-Wish Foundation made that possible in a real studio setting.”

Dunn described the recording experience as magical. “We get [to Shine’s recording studio] and it’s this shabby-looking building … and my parents were like ‘Tess, did you read us the address correctly?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, it’s the correct address, maybe we should … knock?’”

They knocked, and Shine welcomed them into a studio filled with musical equipment, lit almost entirely by Christmas lights.

Dunn spent four days there recording her first album, “Darling, Just Walk.”

“I met singer/songwriters Gabby Moreno, Sierra Swan, Carina Round … and then I met the percussionist from Jack Johnson, Adam Topel, and he played drums on two of the tracks,” Dunn said. “Ari played guitar and bass and some drums on other tracks. Adrienne [Pierce] and Carina both sang backup harmonies. It was really great and I met a bunch of people. It was such a great experience!”

Dunn recorded six songs at the studio, all of which she performed at the Cayuga Vault on Saturday.

The tracks, most of which center on love, included “Marionette of Me,” “Goodbye Hero,” “S?nny Walks Away” (pronounced “Sunny”), “One Heart’s Battle,” and “Silent Conversations.” Copies of Dunn’s album went on sale following the show. Dunn’s tracks are also available to listen to on her Myspace page at

With some help from Shine’s connections, Dunn has taken her first steps toward a promising career and is scheduled to perform at the Warped Tour in San Francisco on June 27. Talks are also in the works for Dunn to perform with Shine and others in Northern California venues during the upcoming Breath Easy Tour.

“Tess really is an important songwriter,” Shine said. “I mean these songs, they humble me with how emotionally adept they are for her age. It’s really an amazing feeling to be in the room while she’s playing this stuff that’s just so … from the heart. The whole experience of recording her really affected me and really affected the other people involved. Everybody who was in the studio was just really affected by how passionate she is.”

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