Interview: Teresa Gunn
By Mackenzie Gilchrist
The USD community has recently been infiltrated by a vivacious and talented singer/songwriter by the name of Teresa Gunn, and she has some big plans for us! Along with writing, performing and producing music for the last 30 years, Teresa is the founder of a program called Street of Dreams (SOD). SOD is an organization with the mission “to be a light in the dark regions of the juvenile justice system by providing a college bridge program for youth who are at the highest risk of going to prison due to generational effects of drug addiction, alcoholism and poverty.” This program currently has a 100% success rate and, with the help of student groups from the USD Communication Studies and Marketing departments, Teresa is hoping to take her efforts in helping these young people to the next level. USD Radio writer Mackenzie Gilchrist recently had the chance to sit down and talk with Teresa about her background as an artist, her work with Street of Dreams and her plans for collaboration with USD. Be sure to check out Teresa’s performance at Aromas on Thursday, Dec. 8!
Mackenzie Gilchrist: Well, I think we should start with your favorite way to start all conversations. What is your name, your challenge and your dream?
Teresa Gunn: My name is Teresa Gunn. My challenge is to make Street of Dreams self-supportive through the sale of a product, and my dream is to make Street of Dreams self-supportive through the sale of a product.
MG: Can you tell me a little bit about your background in music and how you got started in the business?
TG: Well, I was one of those people in high school that really didn’t like school. I wanted to quit studying, join a rock n’ roll band and just travel around. I actually did graduate high school but as soon as I could I went up to L.A. and joined up with a band. We traveled extensively and ended up on the East coast. I stayed with my original band and actually made a pretty big name for myself in the Baltimore/ Washington D.C. area. I was a two time nominee for the “Best Original Female Rock n Roll Singer” in Washington D.C. I did that for a very long time and I really enjoyed it.
MG: One unique thing about your music that I really love is that although you talk about some really powerful things, your lyrics are also really funny and entertaining. Is this an intentional effect, or just something that comes from your personality?
TG: Was there something in particular that stuck out to you that you liked?
MG: I think my favorite was the song “Cherry Lime Ricky” when you talk about the little blonde kid and you say…
TG: (laughs) “He was 12 and I was 27. It was the perfect combination of adolescence and experience.” Yea, I mean it’s fun for me. I love being a musician, and especially the musician that I am because not only do I get to use my talent as a song writer and a performer but it gives me a political platform. I can have an alter-ego. I can say things that I really want to say but you’re never supposed to say them. Normally you’ll get in trouble or people will think you’re rude, but as a song writer I can just say whatever I want and I do like being funny. I mean honestly who doesn’t sometimes see a really cute surfer boy skating down the sidewalk and think—god is he cute! If you say that to people they will look at you and say “Are you kidding? You’re old enough to be his mother!” But in a song you can say it, and it is really fun.
MG: Do have a particular place of inspiration for your music?
TG: Most of my songs originally really came from my background. I’ve recently been reading a lot of Pat Conroy and for anyone who likes to read novels—he is great. Pat Conroy says that the best thing that can ever happen to an artist is to come from a highly dysfunctional family. And I do, so I have a wealth of creative stories to draw from. My music comes from my own background and since I have been doing Street of Dreams a lot of the songs are inspired by the kids’ backgrounds as well.
MG: Speaking of the kids, I also listened to a lot of your student work and I noticed that the style is significantly different from your music—the student work is mostly spoken word over instrumental background. Is there a different creative process that you go through with the kids than you do with your own music?
TG: Actually there isn’t at all. You know, I am a self-taught musician. I don’t read music, I don’t play a musical instrument and yet I can write and produce songs. It was not until I started work with Street of Dreams that I thought about it and realized that this is a gift. I can come up with melodies in my head, work with people and have them transpose that into parts of my songs. When I started working in the court schools I had to think about how I write a song and how I can teach these students to do that. The first thing I realized is that we would have to break it down to the lowest common denominator which is spoken word—people just speaking from their hearts and everybody gets to shine.
MG: You have told me many times that you were never meant to be in the position that you’re in with Street of Dreams. You say that you never intended to be a “do-gooder” but you’re passionate about this project and that is because you believe art and music have the power to change lives. Can you explain what you mean by that?
TG: Well I’m glad that you asked that because yes, I am the last person that should ever be doing this. I was just invited to teach a songwriting workshop for a homeless school—I don’t know why the called me, I don’t know how they got my number and I don’t know why I accepted. It makes you think that there may be powers greater than ourselves at work here. But I did go to the homeless school and I was just so taken by the students. I fell in love not only with them as individuals but also with their honesty, their desire and their hunger to have a voice. I realized that whatever I’m doing as musician is going to have to be secondary to what we need to be doing as a community to create a new type of education where we can utilize partners here at USD, at San Diego City College, private citizens and then our students who come from the lowest rung on the social ladder. We have the highest prison population we have ever had in the history of the country. The students that we work with are at the highest risk of going to prison and our society has abandoned these types of people. Prisons are full of uneducated people that are from generational addictive disease—like our students. What we can do with music is give the children a platform and a voice. What we can do with the audience is integrate the greater, more affluent community with our students. We have to begin to mix people socially and educationally and the way that we plan to do this is through creative community collaboration.
MG: It sounds like you have some great plans for your project. How does USD fit into all of this?
TG: Well, what I want to tell everybody is that with no money or experience what we have created, through these collaborative initiatives, is a 100% success rate with our students. We have a leadership class of teen mothers who all come from homelessness, incarceration, foster care and we have a 100% success rate. 100% of these women complete our program, graduate from high school and enter college. This is all while toting their little babies along. Now, if we’ve achieved this with nothing but common sense, elbow grease and creativity think what we can do as a collaborative effort. We have done all we can do up to this point with our program. It is functioning and successful but we want to take it to the next step. Street of Dreams consists of a staff of 20 musicians, film-makers and artists but we are now creating a record label and that is where USD comes in. We hope to be formally adopted by the USD marketing program and to become self-supportive through the sale of a product. What is our product? Original songs. We have a big idea, we want to gain 1.5 million downloads of this new song we are just releasing—“Statue of Liberty.” But we need a marketing team to do this and what better place to start than the USD Marketing Department. Next year we even hope to offer 5 paid internships for students who want to work in the music industry. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Teresa will be performing for free at Aromas this coming Thursday, Dec. 8 as a part of her effort to encourage downloads of her new song “Statue of Liberty.” Be sure to come see her and tell all of your friends to join! For only 99¢ you can help this remarkable woman reach her goal and change the lives of young women who were never given a fair chance. Go here and download now!
You can also find more information about Street of Dream at http://www.musiciansforeducation.org/