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Tess Dunn - Singer-Songwriter - whose Music Is Inspired by Her Journey Living With CF
Tess Dunn is a 21-year-old singer-songwriter who was diagnosed with CF when she was five months old. Her mother, Siri Vaeth Dunn, is Program and Outreach Manager of Cystic Fibrosis Research, Inc. Tess currently lives in California.
WHEN, AS A CHILD, DID YOU FIRST UNDERSTAND THE IMPACT OF A CF DIAGNOSIS?
The big moment when I first understood the impact of CF occurred when I was six or seven years old, just after I started taking piano lessons. I don’t remember this, but my mom does. The first song I wanted to learn to play was “My Heart Will Go On”– I loved the Titanic soundtrack. So I researched Céline Dion, and learned that she had donated to CF research because her niece passed away from the disease. I immediately ran downstairs to my mom, who was washing dishes, and asked, “Can I die from this?” She wasn’t expecting this question from me at such a young age, but she sat me down and we talked. I don’t remember exactly what she told me, but clearly it calmed me down because since then, I’ve felt pretty relaxed about my future. My mom is the best.
YOU HAVE BEEN TOURING AS A MUSICIAN SINCE YOU WERE A YOUNG TEENAGER. COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR SINGING CAREER, AND HOW LIVING WITH CF INFORMS OR INSPIRES YOUR MUSIC?
My mom plays the piano, and as a child I would try to mimic the songs she played. I took piano lessons for a long time and when I was 12, I began writing lyrics and started putting them to music.
I’ve been really lucky to have a musical mentor in my life. I met her when she was playing at a blues festival. She is an amazing singer-songwriter and we started doing benefits for cystic fibrosis every year. When I was about ten years old, I got on stage at one of them and played “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” while she sang. I was terrified, but I did it, and I was hooked.
In 2009, I was granted a wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation to record a short album in Los Angeles with my mentor. Since then, I’ve used my music as a way to spread information about CF and be an advocate for CF. I don’t write about CF directly in my music, but it has an effect on my thinking and on the songs I write. CF has made me acutely aware that we aren’t here forever. It’s taught me that you can’t postpone doing the things you want to do. If you love someone, tell them. If you have something to say, say it. CF has taught me to power past fear and live in the moment. I don’t worry about outcomes as much as other people might.
"CF has taught me to power past fear and live in the moment."
WHAT WORDS OF INSPIRATION DO YOU SHARE WITH OTHER PEOPLE WITH CF?
You can’t live your life based on someone else’s definition of normal. Because there is no normal. You have to create your own definition. My normal is waking up in the morning, doing three daily treatments with three different nebulizers and taking 60 pills each day. Someone else’s normal is waking up and brushing their teeth. If you try to conform, you lose a lot of things that make you special.
Having CF, I have experienced plenty of ups and downs, but I’m still breathing. Because of CF I have met amazing people and been involved in incredibly cool projects. I’ve accomplished so much with my music because of this disease.
WHO IN YOUR LIFE IS “ALL IN” FOR YOU?
My family is all in for me. My mom has gone to nearly every doctor’s appointment with me, even though I’m 21 now, and she doesn’t need to do that anymore. My parents are constantly working to make sure I am cared for. My brother, Dylan, who is four years younger than I am, is also all in. He has every right to complain because my parents have always had to focus so much attention on me. But he has always been extremely sweet and supportive. My friends are amazing too. Even if they don’t fully understand CF, I know I can go to them if I’m having a bad day and they will be there to support and distract me. I have a lot of supporters in my life. I’m very, very lucky.