Chris Cunningham fronts the Seattle band Ravenna Woods. He looks the part, too, with a lip ring, skinny jeans and facial hair. What he doesn't look like is a paralegal. That became a problem one day when the firm partners unexpectedly asked him to meet a client face to face.
Want to learn more about the artists in this episode?
If you need to "fight the man," the law firm where Chris Cunningham works as a paralegal is Breskin Johnson & Townsend.
You’re listening to Day Job. It’s a podcast about the people in your neighborhood… who have a life you may not know about… as talented musicians.
This is episode 4.
When he was little, Chris Cunningham was a handful.
CUNNINGHAM: “I’ve always been, even in school, like if I got harassed by a teacher, I would get in their face. And ultimately a parent would come and fight the school board or whatever.”
So it’s no surprise he started a rock band as an adult. It’s called Ravenna Woods.
Chris dresses like a rock star, too. He has a lip ring, skinny jeans, and lots of facial hair. But every day, Chris takes the bus downtown. To spend his day in a cubicle.
AMBIENCE: Copy Machine.
MUSIC: “You missed it burn.”
CUNNINGHAM: “I never thought I’d be working in a skyscraper downtown. You know? Because it carries with it this…”
Here’s how it happened: Chris had been travelling. When he returned, the U.S. had plunged into a recession.
CUNNINGHAM: “There was like no jobs. It was insane. I was looking for like 5 months and couldn’t find anything. So I was like, at this point, I need some amount of money.”
His old professor got him a job interview at a law firm. The partners saw his anthropology degree and they figured he could probably handle simple filing work.
CUNNINGHAM: “I don’t know, like my friends, when I first started working here…there’s this… I think it’s a Credence Clearwater song, ‘got a good job in the city. Working every day for the…’ You know what I’m talking about? That song? A couple of my friends used to sing that all the time when I started doing this job. And it’s hilarious. I mean, I’m kind of an atypical person that you would see like in elevators at this place. People like – unshaven and not cut hair…”
Now Chris climbs into that elevator every day.
MUSIC: “Live Alone.”
CUNNINGHAM: “And I’ve become one of those people who just pretends that no one else is riding the elevator with me because that’s easier. It’s easier than figuring out if you should say hello and engage in small talk.”
CUNNINGHAM: “Okay, now we’re on our floor and we are coming into the firm. It’s gonna be good, I can feel it! UHN! Okay, goin’ in.”
Chris is a paralegal. That means he does a lot of paperwork for lawyers. His lawfirm represents victims of gender discrimination, racial discrimination.
CUNNINGHAM: “Maybe a supervisor at a corporation catching on that one of his underlings is homosexual, and harassing them.”
They also defend whistleblowers… people like that.
MUSIC: “Night Runners.”
Sometimes, an attorney asks him to interview a client.
CUNNINGHAM: “Typically we do interviews over the phone with the client.”
But once in a while, the client meeting is face to face. The first time that happened, Chris wasn’t prepared at all.
CUNNINGHAM: “And I realized at the last minute that I was like not dressed the part at all. And I was like ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to come in and be like who the hell is this guy? Just some bum off the street?’”
DAY JOB: “What were you wearing?”
CUNNINGHAM: “You know, just skinny jeans and a plaid shirt. Typical Seattle fare. And like really ratty tennis shoes. I remember that. And I felt – panicked.”
Chris had just a few minutes to give himself a complete makeover.
CUNNINGHAM: “So like I went around and made like a patchwork of clothes from different attorneys. So I took a blazer from one, and some shoes from another. And I rocked it. I just wanted him to know he was in the ‘hands of a professional.’”
Chris has embraced his job as a paralegal.
CUNNINGHAM: “I think a lot of people feel helpless when bad stuff happens to them in the workplace. And I enjoy being part of the machine that helps get these things done for people who’ve been wronged.”
MUSIC: “All Us Liars.”
CUNNINGHAM: “What we do here is we fight the man.”
Has he applied any of the lessons he’s learned here to his music? Chris says they’re pretty separate. But when you listen to his music, you wonder. In the song “Borderlands,” he sings about a corrupt state and a persecuted protagonist who must go into hiding.
CUNNINGHAM: “You know they dig up everything. They always find out everything. They’ve got your jobs, friends, lovers all calling you out. And when they pull you to the floor, try to hold on to that life that you dreamed before.”
DAY JOB: “There’s some injustice in that lyric.”
CUNNINGHAM: “Yeah, yeah.”
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For Day Job and Northwester.org, I’m Joshua McNichols