Sitting in her apartment in an undesirable part of Jamaica Queens, New York, studying for the MCAT, Allie Dunn—a junior biology major at St. John’s University at the time—decided to start a band.
“I don’t even know what genre was,” Dunn laughs telling American Songwriter. “There was a banjo but we were playing like weird rock. It was so odd, but it was like a great time. We just like gig around the city with mainly just covers. And we were we weren’t making like a lot of cash, but we could finally pay for beer. That kind of opened my eyes to what really makes me happy.”
It wasn’t until she felt the rush of delivering music to a live audience that she even considered pursuing this passion as a career. And at this point, it was still not in the realm of possibility from her parents’ perspective. Born to working-class Italian American parents in Long Island, Dunn spent the better part of her first 20 years paving a promisingly stable path for her future self. Varsity basketball occupied much of her high school experience. As planned, she obtained a scholarship to college through the sport and joined the roster at the College of New Jersey. Here she set her academic sights on medicine, like her mother.
“I was like, ‘Mom, I’m gonna be a doctor just like you,’” she recalls of the decision. “It was mainly because I wanted to help people. That’s my favorite thing, it’s very fulfilling.”
Her athletic obligations took six hours a day from her studies, and any glimmer of a social life was a distant goal. By the end of that year, Dunn made the difficult decision to leave sports behind and transferred to St. John’s in hopes of finding balance.
But before there was varsity basketball and biology, there was an awkward teenager, who after discovering the magic of The Eagles via her music enthusiast father, began songwriting. “I was like ‘Oh man if they can write, let me try this,’” she laughs. “Which is so dumb for a 13-year-old to think. It’s Don Henley and Glenn Frey, who did I think I was?”
She dabbled in piano, before picking up the acoustic guitar. Backed by the meditative strumming, Dunn habitually poured her fervently fluctuating emotion onto paper. Unlike her course of study, the practice became second nature to her.
“If I’m being honest, I had to really try with biology, like 5 hours a day,” says Dunn. “With music, it just came naturally and I think I should have like trusted that earlier on. But I kept trudging along.”
Dunn struggled through studying for the MCAT and even applied to medical school at Rutgers, but a moment of realization hit her while shadowing in the OR. She recalls seeing a family distressed by their child who was suffering from a rare disease in the trauma bay. “He was getting like all the care he needed at that time, but he wasn’t going to make it,” she explains. “That was a wake-up call for me. I thought ‘I do not love this enough for me to care for someone’s kid like this; I don’t have any passion for it enough to do right by these people.’”
The native New Yorker had never properly ventured down South, but Music City had inhabited space in the back of her mind for some time. “It was like a foreign land to me, because I’ve never really explored it, but I was like ‘Nashville, I gotta go.’”
In February of 2019, she embarked on her first trip to Nashville where she crashed on the couch of her now day-to-day manager, Madison Policastri’s Belmont apartment. The two went out to The Listening Room where they saw Liz Rose and Dave Barnes perform. “I started crying, like full I’m bawling,” she laughs. People were looking at me like ‘Who is this lady?’ It moved me so much that these people were doing what they love as a living, and after that, I knew it was time.
Dunn got through graduation, frantically pulling in additional income from a waitressing gig. She had about half of what she needed when Policastri submitted her song into a contest as part of the See Her Hear Her initiative. To her dismay, she won the $1000 scholarship and was hand-selected to be Maren Morris’s mentee. She took the happenstance win as a sign, cashed the check, and headed South.
“My parents moved me down there, but they were not too happy,” she recalls with humor. “They just didn’t want to see me go. But they were like, ‘You’ve got to go after your dreams.’”
Dunn wasted no time upon arrival. She scheduled a minimum of two co-writes a day before she headed off to her various jobs. And night-after-night, she managed to squeeze in a writer’s round. After just one year of residency, Dunn had stockpiled over 250 songs. Her drive, boosted by a natural inclination towards the practice, directed her dreams away from artistry. Songwriter seemed like a suitable role for her to fill, as she had been crafting cuts for country and pop artists in town.
But the winds shifted after a fateful run-in with her now manager Stuart Berk—noted for his work with artists including Brandi Carlile—while she was temping at an optometrist’s office. The two talked music while he awaiting his eye surgery appointment, and requested that she send him demos before. Berk signed Dunn upon first listen.
Her seemingly serendipitous pivot to pursuing the passion that had tugged at her sleeve for so long serves as a beacon for others who feel they’ve gone too far down their chosen path to turn back.
On October 15, Dunn dropped her debut EP, Good As Gone via Porter Rose Records. She harnessed this formal first step as an opportunity to introduce herself. Thoughtfully, she sifted through a towering stack of songs to fill just four slots. In just under 15 minutes, Dunn delineates the meandering path that led her here and sets the sonic expectations for her envisioned artistry.
Good As Gone presents the emerging artist at a crossroads. Deemed her too pop-country for the Outlaw stations, and too expansive for the more commercial space, Dunn intersects influence from intertwining aspects of her past.
Dunn pulls slight pop melodies into her country-tinged roots music foundation, occasionally ornamenting her soundscape with rock overtones. This dynamic blend of sonic elements lands her in the gray area that the industry has not yet been able to hack.
Need Somebody tunes the listener into life during the lockdown. From her lowest low, Dunn and her boyfriend penned their first — and likely only — co-write.“We were just like talking about how, as humans, you kind of need somebody or something to help you get through life because it’s not always easy,” says Dunn.
“Do You Miss Me (NYC)” brings her story full circle. From her adopted hometown, Dunn reaches through deeply run roots further north. Piano guides the track from a gentle reflection on what she left behind. But by the bridge, she recognizes the part of her that still resides there in spirit. “I’m so close to my family, so leaving one of the hardest things I’ve had ever had to do,” she says. “But it hadn’t be done at a time.”
But here in Nashville, she is no longer just one in a sea of millions.
A brazen entrance to “Tom Petty” mistakes the emerging transplant as a poised industry veteran. She pulled this hypnotic track from the depths of her personal archive. It was the first song she wrote in Nashville and stuck with her for three years since.
The rollicking anthem points to a pivotal moment with poignant detail as Dunn discovers the “deal breakers” that have been there all along. The revealing nature of her lyricism is reflective of her creed: Though the creative process varies, Dunn feels it’s critical to remain honest with yourself and co-writers.
The title track emphasizes this sentiment. Looking inward is not easy, but Dunn investigates the underlying issues that charged her past inclination to run from any decent romantic opportunity. Arguably the most country sound on the EP, “Good As Gone” opens with an intro that harkens back to a time when a curly-headed Taylor Swift still wore cowboy boots. Hey, if it feels good / I’m gonna run right away, she sings in a surrendering tone and a well-worn twang.
Good As Gone negates the necessity of a doctorate degree to help others. Steeped in authenticity, each of these tracks accomplishes what she had initially intended through a previously inconceivable career path. Her candid lyricism welcomes anyone who will listen into resonant realms with humor and ease. The common ground is not in the detail. Rather, Dunn creates community by leaving space in her own story for others to identify parts of themselves within.
“All of them do have some truth to it, and I think that’s why I picked them,” Dunn concludes. “That’s what I’m trying to do as an artist is just be as authentic and real as possible because it’s hard to find that. In today’s world, with technology and all the craziness, I’m trying to cut through that static and just speak some truth.”
Photo credit: Libby Danforth