While he was still in high school, he had a formative experience. He served as the musical director for the Cuyahoga Community Church (his official bio says he was "Minister of Music" but Dunn prefers the title "musical director"). The process of learning to sing different gospel tracks and then teach the tunes to church members made him into a leader. And the fact that he taught himself to play drums and bass guitar in the process gave him an extra bit of confidence too.
"I learned about being a leader and have always been a leader since that," he says. "The big difference was that I had to lead people of all different ages and dealing with different personalities. It made me work harder and be more of a dominant leader. When you work with people who are older, you can have age discrimination. It can work in reverse and I had to fight against that."
Shortly afterward, Dunn moved to Thailand. He had a contract with Hard Rock Hotels and played in a Top 40 band at one of the company's resorts. He did that for several years before moving back to Cleveland where he was determined to work on his own original music. He produced a five-song EP and in the process of mixing it, engineers at Sony Records heard it and liked it so much, they recruited Dunn to start working with a developing artist with the hopes that he could pick up on some of Dunn's vocal techniques. Eventually, they realized Dunn was so talented that they should sign him to a deal instead of the artist they were trying to develop.
"They forgot about the guy I was supposed to be working with, and they said I had an innate ability to write and arrange music," he says. "There was a deal on the table. It wasn't the best deal. It might have been the worst. But after that happened and I signed the deal, I started opening for major acts. I opened for [R&B stars] Avant and Musiq Soulchild. I started cutting the record."
Shortly before the album, Truth of the Matter, dropped in 2012, his mother passed way. The album ended up being a smash hit, but Dunn says the success was "bittersweet" because his mother wasn't there to witness it.
"The morning that my first single was the most added on Billboard charts, I was singing at my mom's funeral," he says.
And yet Dunn still summoned up the strength to join the Back to Love tour with headliners Estelle and Anthony Hamilton, and his career seemed to be on the fast track. Despite his success, his record deal fell apart, and he moved back to Cleveland earlier this year to finish "I Am," a beautiful ballad he had written about his mother's death. The initially sparse arrangement (the intro is nothing more than vocals and piano) works effectively as the song builds when the strings kick in to accompany Dunn's quivering vocals.
Dunn just released "I Am" as a single and to celebrate, he's hosting a special show at Cleveland State University that will pay tribute to his mother; proceeds will go to the Minority Women With Breast Cancer United, which will receive the Janna Dunn Breast Cancer Awareness Community Leadership Award. At the concert, Dunn will personally present the award to the foundation.
The show will also feature a unique ensemble. Former WZAK on-air personality Robyn Simone will host the event, and Dunn will be paired with locals Alvin Frazier, a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, and Rachel Roberts, an accomplished singer, songwriter and guitarist. Fellow Cleveland Heights High alumni Nathan Davis will lead the horn section and violinist Dr. Hanneberit Hahnemann will lead a string section accompanying Dunn. The concert will also mark the full-length live premiere of "I Am."
"I look at this as a great opportunity to come home and do a nice concert and not charge a ridiculous arm-and-leg ticket price and donate proceeds to an organization for minority women with breast cancer," Dunn says. "That's me trying to do two or three things at once with this concert here. I'm so excited about Cleveland right now and the growth and everything that's happened. I have a live band and a full string section and horn section and background singers and we're bringing in a grand piano for the show. It'll be a lot of production. I'm just excited about bringing all these great musicians together."
In the process of putting the finishing touches on his sophomore album, Dunn isn't sure which label will put the disc out. But he's excited to be home and off the road for a minute.
"I'm currently regrouping," he says. "I'm the kind of guy who just likes to keep going and going. When you lose a parent, sometimes that's not the way to deal with it. I didn't realize that I hadn't dealt with it. I was strong and everybody is proud of me. I was the guy who wasn't falling all over the place crying. They needed me to be strong. Being on the road and everything, I had never dealt with it. When I don't have that person to tell me to believe in what I'm doing, those are the times it becomes real. She's not here and I'm at home now and the thing that keeps me grounded is the simple fact that I'm here with my dad."