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Behind the Music 2: How D.C. Musicians Balance Day Jobs with Creative Pursuits

Matt Cohen

More often than not, especially when living in a high-priced area like D.C., making music doesn’t equal making ends meet. But according to four local artists, it is possible to find a job that is just as fulfilling as their creative projects. Continuing our ongoing series, Behind the Music, we explore just how these musicians balance their craft while holding down a day job.

If you missed part one of this series, you can catch up here.

 

Emma Cleveland

Emma Cleveland of Bad Moves 

What is your day job?

I work as a political coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, which basically means I’m a lobbyist for the good guys. Our union represents most of the janitors and security guards in office buildings in the D.C. area, as well as some workers on college campuses. Seventy percent of our members are immigrants and almost all are people of color.

Many non-union janitorial jobs are part-time, minimum wage positions with no vacation time or health benefits where you can be fired at-will, so being a union member makes a big difference. My job is to fight to pass legislation at the local level that will make our members’ lives better, but it also has the benefit of improving all workers’ situations. When we pass laws that raise standards for everyone, all workers make out better on the job.

Some recent wins in the last year include passing a $15 minimum wage and paid family and medical leave in D.C., paid sick days in Maryland and a law in Baltimore to require building owners to keep workers on the job if contractors change. But we’ve been having a hard time too: several of the bills we’ve worked on have been vetoed by governors or mayors in the localities we work in (including by Democrats). So the other part of my job is to make sure we elect politicians who are going to stand up for working people.

How did you become involved in this field?

I got involved in organizing in college, went to live in South America for two years, and then once I knew Spanish, got a job organizing for the ACLU in Pennsylvania in the wake of several local anti-immigrant laws. And I loved it and kept going for the next 10 years.

Any memorable stories while on the job?

I’ve tried to include music in a lot of the organizing I’ve done. In one case, I was helping organize a workers’ committee around issues of wage theft, and one of our members wrote a ballad with lyrics like “From the moment we’re born / we struggle / and together we will win!” All the members of the committee learned the lyrics and we sang them on the steps of the D.C. Council before a vote on a bill that would punish bosses who didn’t pay workers what they were owed (it passed).  In another case, before food service workers in federal buildings went on strike, we did a rewrite of “La Bamba” called “La Huelga” (The Strike) and several of the striking workers and I learned the chords and percussion so we could play it at the march.

Does your day job influence your music at all (or vice versa?)

After the election I was joking that I wished I was in an apolitical new-age group or something because I didn’t have any space to escape the political realities. But I do feel like thinking everyday about the dynamics of power on the job influences the music we make. I don’t write the lyrics for Bad Moves but I do get a real kick out of introducing “The Verge” on stage, one of our songs that’s about a shitty boss.

Are you as passionate about your non-music job as you are about your music?

I was definitely an activist before I started playing punk music, and so when I moved to D.C. and saw that the punk scene was alive and thriving, it felt like the right place to be musically because themes of social justice were everywhere, not just in the lyrics but also in the way that shows were set up and projects that sought to proactively include women and non-binary people like Hat Band and Girls Rock! DC.

Do you hope to one day make music your full-time job?

It hasn’t been a goal of mine because I feel really fulfilled by the work I do, but anything is possible…

 

 

Matt Cohen

Matt Cohen of Literals 

What is your day job?

I’m the Arts Editor at Washington City Paper.

How did you become involved in this field?

In journalism? Or in music? For journalism, kind of accidentally. I majored in Film Studies in school. I graduated and realized jobs in that field were extremely limited and hard to get (basically a film critic, or working at a film festival, or going into academia). So I worked other jobs in the writing/editing world, and just kind of did film reviews in my free time. I started reviewing movies for some outlets for free. Then some other outlets that paid me a little bit. Then I started writing things beyond film reviews. Eventually, I got into a little reporting and editing, then I just kind of kept expanding my writing field and sharpening my skills. Eventually landed a full-time journalism job and just went from there.

Any memorable stories from the field?

In both journalism and music, plenty. Some crazy stories from touring and reporting, although very different ones. But I’m going to save them for another time!

Does your day job influence your music at all (or vice versa?)

Definitely. I’m exposed to and listen to so much music in our own community that I think it, in a subconscious way, informs the kind of music I want, and don’t want to make. I don’t want to make music that sounds like what other people are making in D.C. I don’t mean that in a pretentious way, I just think that the music scene here is so creative and diverse that it inspires and pushes me to want to add to that diversity. I don’t want to cop anyone’s style or method, but I similarly want to think beyond what my initial musical instincts are, which is a trait I see in a lot of D.C.-area musicians: The drive to push their music and art beyond; beyond their influences, beyond what’s expected of them, beyond what they expect of themselves, musically.

Are you as passionate about your non-music job as you are about your music?

Absolutely. Journalism is in a tough time right now, politically speaking. But while a lot of the national news outlets are at the center of the attack on journalism, I think that local publications—especially alt weeklies—are kind of forgotten about. I think of local journalism as a community service, and that’s how I approach my job. I love D.C. and its many communities, and so it is our responsibility at the paper to tell the stories and news of these communities that no one else is.

Do you hope to one day make music your full-time job?

No. I love playing music, but I’m not very good at it. I mean, I’m good enough that I can make it a hobby and play shows and sometimes people come, but to make a full-time job out of it…it takes a level of skill and determination and hard work that I realized a long time ago I don’t have. I am very fortunate that I have found a career that is also something of great personal interest to me. I love to write and report and tell stories, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s my full-time job. D.C. has a rich history of musician-journalist model. A lot of people in bands over the years are also journalists. That reality was incredibly inspiring to me when I was younger, and was under the false assumption that I wouldn’t be able to really play music as a hobby outside of my own home if I wanted to have a professional career, or something. As a young punk tryin’ to make it in the real world, looking at some of my D.C. musical heroes, and learning that are also journalists…that was inspiring for me.

 

Ryan

Ryan Carey of Priors

What is your day job?

I am a French teacher.

How did you become involved in this field?

I got into teaching mostly because of my family. Once I acquired actual classroom experience overseas, I fell in love with the profession and knew I had to go back to school to get my teaching degree in the States. As fate would have it, I received a teaching placement at my old middle school where I worked with some of my former teachers (teachers would have been there for over 25 years). One of them walked right up to me and said (in French) “yea, this seems right.” It’s felt right ever since then.

Any memorable stories while on the job?

Oh man, too many to list! Ask me on a Friday night over a drink and I’ll tell you all about it.

Does your day job influence your music at all (or vice versa?)

Yes, teaching influences my music. Even when I was learning to write songs in France, working as a teaching assistant, it influenced my music. Music helps me be creative with teaching as well. Sometimes I feel creative inspiration and am able to take stuff I’ve come up with in my music to help plan for my lessons. Teachers often have a bit of autonomy with their planning which allows them to be creative. It works both ways, which is nice.

Are you as passionate about your non-music job as you are about your music?

Absolutely. I know it’s cliché but, for me, teaching isn’t a job–it’s a vocation. I come from a family of teachers, both parents and grandparents. Hearing their stories and seeing all of the excitement and joy it brought them really pushed me to become one myself. I can’t imagine doing anything else. At the same time, I can’t imagine my life without music. I’ve been listening to punk since I was a kid. I used to joke that eventually I’d grow out of it but alas, here I am, 31 years old, still going to shows, seeing bands, etc. Some things never change and I’m cool with that. I hope to grow old with the same love of music.

Do you hope to one day make music your full-time job?

It would be awesome if that became an option but I don’t see that being a thing. I just want to make music that I’m proud of, that I think is catchy, and that people want to listen to. For me, that’s what music is all about. I wanna make a record like the Ramones, except better.

 

Sheena

Sheena Ozzella of Lemuria 

What is your day job?

I’m a dog walker! My husband and I own a dog walking company called Peticular Charm and we do everything from regular daily walks to boarding, house sits, and cat visits! I also work with a company called Wagamuffin, who is wonderful! I also run a very small vintage online shop, Ruby Threads Vintage. It’s more of a hobby than a job, but helps financially from time to time when I need it.

How did you become involved in this field?

My husband has been dog walking for almost 10 years. He introduced me to the company he worked for a few years ago, and I got a job doing sub work while I toured. Eventually, I was home for a longer period of time and was given a job at Wagamuffin. I loved the hours of the day you worked (10 a.m.-3 p.m.) and being active for a job. Eventually my husband started his own company and now we work together.

Any memorable stories from your job?

No crazy stories, but I will say it’s so wonderful to watch my clients/pups grow up. Every dog has its own personality and quirky details, and it’s so fun to work with them. I feel truly blessed to do what I do everyday.

Does your day job influence your music at all (or vice versa?)

Honestly, YES! Since I’m with dogs all day, I’m able to listen to music and podcasts, and have a lot of time to think. I often write lyrics when I’m walking, and keep notes stored on my phone throughout the days. It’s wonderful to not have to talk to people sometimes. Though, my dogs probably think I’m nuts!

Are you as passionate about your non-music job as you are about your music?

Yes, I LOVE working with animals. I’m extremely lucky to do what I love in music and in everyday work life.

Do you hope to one day make music your full-time job?

I feel extremely grateful for every opportunity I’ve been given with Lemuria, and we have had some truly amazing experiences, but it is definitely not something I plan on making my full-time job. I love touring and playing music, but I’m afraid if I did it all the time, I would get burnt out very quickly. It’s a passion, and with every passion, you need space from it from time to time to do something else for a while and appreciate it.