Clocked In: A conversation about the difficulties of working and touring with Little Big League’s Michelle Zauner

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I called Michelle Zauner on the phone a couple weeks ago and this is what she said to me: “I forgot this was happening.”

It is easy to forget things are happening, especially in the summer. Plus Zauner was on vacation, in Oregon, the state where she grew up and where she lived before attending college at Bryn Mawr, before making Philadelphia her home and before starting the band Little Big League.

It was recently announced that Little Big League signed with Run For Cover, the Boston label that released the new album by fellow Philadelphians Modern Baseball, You’re Gonna Miss It All. A new Little Big League LP, the follow-up to the well-received These Are Good People (Tiny Engines; 2013), is expected to arrive later this year.

In addition to her work as the singer and guitarist in Little Big League, Zauner also makes music under the name Japanese Breakfast. Last month, the Seagreen Records label released her cassette American Sound & Where Is My Great Big Feeling?

Zauner is clearly very busy with music, but when she’s not on tour, she works elsewhere. For this new installment of Clocked In, we spoke with Zauner about her non-music-related work history, from clerical work at her dad’s truck broker business, to bossing a grill at Bryn Mawr, to holding down the comic shop Brave New Worlds.

Were you the type of kid who did your chores?

I was the only child, so I had a lot of responsibilities. My mom was a homemaker, so I had a lot of chores and people on me about doing them. I had to do little things around the house. I grew up in the country, so I would help my dad collect blackberry bushes around the property. There’s actually a song about that on the new record. I’m actually in Oregon right now, where I grew up, in Eugene. We had like five acres covered in blackberry bushes, so in the summer we’d collect them all and have these giant bonfires and stuff.

Did you also eat the blackberries?

Totally. They were great. We didn’t make pies – we’re not really a baking family – but I’d eat them off the bush.

What was your first paid job?

I worked at my dad’s office. He’s a truck broker. He owns a company that’s like the middleman between truckers and produce distributors, so I did clerical work there. When I went to college, my first job was working at a cafe. That was actually my favorite job ever. It was like a fun game, and there was no real commitment. It was a campus job, while I was at school, so I’d go in anywhere between one and four hours at a time, between classes. I was making sandwiches and working the grill. There was some really jolly, masculine thing about working the grill and the fryer that I really enjoyed. I don’t know why.

Were you good at cooking?

Yeah, but I would mess up sometimes, like not slice the onions thin enough, or something. It was a blast. It felt like a weird game, with all the tiny compartments of ingredients laid out in front of me. I smoked a lot of pot in college, and I’d go there and work the night shift and eat everything. I’d make these giant hamburgers and eat bacon out of the container. I worked there for three years; I was the only person who worked there that long who didn’t get promoted to manager.

So you had fun but you weren’t a very good employee?

I was okay. Music has always been more important to me – it would be pathetic for me to choose a grill job over playing a show, so I always choose to play the show. I’ve definitely left a lot of places, and got fired from a lot of places because, you know, I want to play shows.

Do you feel comfortable sharing an “I Got Fired” story?

I don’t know if any of them are really that interesting! I’ve pretty much been fired from every job I’ve ever had, and it’s always been really unsurprising and uneventful. I tell them “I’m gonna be gone for a month to tour, so if the job is still here I’ll take it,” and they say “No.” I don’t blame people for firing me. People want to have employees that stick around… wait, someone is going to probably read this and never hire me. It’s just, when you’re in a touring band, when you apply for a job, you basically and have to lie through your teeth or you’ll never get hired. Like, “Yeah, I plan on working at this restaurant job foreve!” They expect you to not have any other interests and just be there all the time.

You mentioned loving the cafe job, but what has been your most favorite job ever?

I’m leaving for tour this whole summer, but now I work for the comic shop, Brave New World, on Second Street. It’s like High Fidelity but with comics. My good friend is the manager, and he’s like Rob, and there’s this total Jack White character. I just work there and read comics. It’s a blast! There are a lot of regulars who are so kind to us; there’s this one guy who always brings us sandwiches.

Are they delicious sandwiches?

Yeah, they’re great! There’s a guy who brings crab fries. This guy Brian always brings us muffins and baked goods. It’s a strange culture; so many nice nerds who really appreciate what you do. They know each other’s names. They come in at the same time every week to read comics. I love it. They let me put on a ladies night recently, where only women were allowed in the store. It was a comfortable environment where dudes weren’t like, “Oh, you’re only into this because of your boyfriend” or whatever. It was really fun and positive.

What about your least favorite job?

Every restaurant job I’ve ever had. I’ve worked in a lot of them. I hate “Mexican fusion” food. I’ve had some crazy managers that have made me feel like a total moron.

When you went to college, and picked a major, what did you then see yourself choosing for your profession?

I created my own program because there wasn’t a major I liked. I just wanted to take the classes I wanted to take. I was very studious growing up and I did well in school. Before college, I was good in math and science and stuff, but I didn’t want to do that anymore. I loved literature classes, and I really liked film studies classes. I took a lot of film classes, and studied a lot of video production and creative writing. In college, I also did an internship with R5 Productions, which was great. It got me introduced to the city and local music scene in a good way. I met a lot of lifers. I think I wanted to be involved in publishing, or do video editing, or work with directors. I don’t know, I wanted to be involved in film making in some way.

If you were to, say, give up making music, what type of job would you pursue?

I don’t think I could ever do something that wasn’t a creative job. I can see myself getting by with just playing music, I think. I’d like to direct films or curate films. There’s a great film museum in Amsterdam; I’d like to work there. College was just a very expensive way to develop great taste; I’d like to be a tastemaker in some way. Or get involved in writing music for pop singers.

There’s decent money in that.

I know! But I don’t know how to get involved in that world. I’d love to find a producer and just write pop songs for like Britney Spears. Well, not Britney Spears anymore, but someone else. That type of writing seems so freeing because you don’t have to be overly sentimental or anything. But if I was to stop doing music, for a little while at least, I’d want a job where I made crazy money just selling my soul. I’d want to make bank after hemorrhaging money for so many years into the music thing. Touring is just so exhausting. I have to stay away from my friends and family and significant other. I have to sleep in all these shitty places and eat all this shitty food. Tour was always my dream, and now I’m like “Fuck this!” But I really love it too.

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