Interview: Ezra Furman

Ezra Furman

Ezra Furman is one of those rare artists who can veer from raw, heart-wrenching vulnerability to wild, unbridled chaos in as little time as it takes to change guitar chords.

Laid bare as a solo acoustic performer, his songs reveal an astute, switched on lyricism that deftly follows in the well-trodden footsteps of songwriting greats like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, while backed by his band The Visions (previously known as The Boyfriends), he’s a dynamite force to be reckoned with: all flailing arms, feverish passion and Lou Reed witticisms.

Active since 2006 with his then-band The Harpoons, the Chicago native is now signed to Bella Union in the UK and had his breakthrough moment with 2015’s Perpetual Motion People.

Lauded critically and achieving commercial success, it peaked at Number 23 in the UK charts on its entry week and landed him a spot on Later… with Jools Holland.

As a gender non-conforming, Shabbat-observing Jewish musician, Ezra is anything but your average pop-star, singing songs about apathy, love, depression and sticking it to the ‘social police’ (the body-positive anthem of Body Was Made.)

Now he’s back with a brand new album, Transangelic Exodus; a confident departure from his fifties-indebted, sax-heavy rock ‘n’ roll sound that is already receiving revolving airplay by long-term supporters, BBC Radio 6 Music.

Described as ‘a queer outlaw saga,’ the record was demoed with different band members, resulting in a refined and purposeful cut that takes in themes of love, gender, sexuality and religion in solidarity with the innocent, persecuted, oppressed and threatened.

Here, we chat to Ezra in an extended interview taken from our Mx music: deconstructing gender and sexuality feature..

Why was it important to you to include ‘trans’ in the title of Transangelic Exodus?

I guess because the thing we made, part of the point of it is that it’s by a queer person – me. It’s a little ambiguous whether I qualify as transgender but I’m like trans-ish for sure. It’s sort of a shout out to something that feels like a community to me, which is trans people and also queer people in general.

What was the thinking behind the record?

The record in a big way is about being queer. There is a broader sense that some people use with the word ‘queer’, which is just someone who has an experience in their past or present that marginalises them. For some people, that changes their worldview and their way of being in the world.

It doesn’t have to be sexuality or gender. It could be other things like a disability or a racially charged experience. Being marginalised and how that can change you: that’s the subject of the album in a big way.

Do you think society forces marginalised people to become ‘outsiders’?

I’m not sure what decides it but I just felt marked from a young age. It’s like some things happened to me or I was a certain type of person and it radicalised me.

Were you afraid of that feeling early on, or did it always give you empowerment?

Oh it caused so much misery in my life. It started with me just being queer and sort of generally weird, emotional… and having some very strong ideas of what was right and beautiful, which were different from all the things upheld around me.

I think it was really at a young age when I started listening to punk music, I started to catch on that, “Maybe this could be a source of actual power.” It gives me a great reason to push, reason to speak up.

In the Harpoons and then with the Boy-Friends (now The Visions), you’ve been on both sides of the artist experience in terms of your gender identity. How did it feel when you first ‘came out’ with your gender exploration? Did you experience a different way of being treated?

Well, I guess one thing I should say if I’m going to talk about coming out is that for some people, it’s a big moment. You tell everybody and you start to really inhabit it. For me, it was just very slow, bumpy and unclear. It wasn’t: “I’m this and now I should tell people that I’m this.”

I started to dress feminine and present myself feminine in public. The first place I was public with it was on stage because, honestly, that was easy to do. It seemed like it could be a joke. It could be an act. It could be a thing that doesn’t necessarily reveal what’s really going on with me.

I felt very, very vulnerable about it. But then I knew enough supportive friends that I started to wear feminine clothing all day on the day of the show, or I’d put on makeup. Then it would be a day that wasn’t a show. Then it would just be many days. I just started to look more how I wanted to look.

How have your experiences of gender and sexuality affected the way that you write music and lyrics?

I kind of have been thinking lately that being a boy attracted to boys from a young age, I could tell that I should keep this quiet, you know. I felt like I had a private world that I couldn’t tell people about. I was young enough that I was still forming myself socially, so it kind of became a deep thing about me.

I live in a private world a lot of the time and I have trouble telling people secrets. It just became how I was oriented to the world: a compulsive liar. That’s what Compulsive Liar on the record is about.

It made me want to just be alone a lot and listen to music. That was like my world where things felt true and I felt true to myself. Then prayer and a private spirituality became very important to me. It’s not like this is all caused by being in some way queer but it just all went together.

Do you think the music industry is a supportive place for queer and trans people?

That’s a good question. I mean, the music industry is large and varied. You’re going to find more solidarity in a world of artists than in a world of finance. What comes to mind is that the life of a touring musician – it’s not really healthy for anyone. It’s not set up to encourage mental health. You just go from bar to bar, you don’t sleep enough. There’s a lot of culture of casual sexual encounters. That’s maybe some people’s interest or forte but it’s not good for me.

Do you think there are any significant movements forward in terms of LGBTQ people having a voice?

For sure. Since the gay rights movement was founded, there’s been a steady, upward trend of queer people being able to live their life more freely and with dignity but that’s in a broad stroke.

This week, there was the first openly transgender person elected to state legislature. It’s good to watch. But to me, we’re really far from a baseline of equal dignity for queer people. I think it’s important to remember that queer people are getting murdered all the time, beaten to death. I love every moment of visibility for queer people but not everybody thinks about their safety.

Sometimes it feels like it’s great that we as a liberal society can all pat ourselves on the back that we are okay with seeing a trans person on TV, but I don’t want us to think that all our battles for equality are won.

Yes. There’s a danger of it being, “Look, see? We’re really tolerant,” as some kind of proof that the problem has just gone away.

Right. It mirrors that whole thing about post-racial society that people decided to talk about. Like, “Oh. Black president. That’s all done now I guess.” Here we are in 2017 with a Nazi sympathiser president.

What about venues in the US? Are there any that are doing good work, in terms of inclusivity?

Local 506 in Chapel Hill in North Carolina comes to mind. That was something where I saw gender-neutral bathrooms on tour. I was like, “That’s a good sign.” That was also the same week that the North Carolina bathroom law passed where you have to use the bathroom of the gender you’re assigned at birth. I don’t really understand what the law was. Do they ask you to show your ID?

It was just meat for the right. It was just throwing meat to the dogs to stoke this: get the culture wars roaring.

How do you think attitudes differ in the US compared to the UK? Do you get any different reactions on the street or from audiences?

It feels like in the UK, people will be pissed off that I’ve got a 5 o’clock shadow and a skirt on but they’ll just feel pissed off about it privately. Whereas, in the US, people talk in this policy-influenced way of: “It shouldn’t be allowed that my daughter has to share a bathroom with a man in a dress.”

This war is getting so intense right now. One of the key lines on the record for me is, “A plague on both your houses,” which comes from Romeo and Juliet. All this fighting in vain between two sides that hate each other gets Mercutio killed. He’s bleeding to death and he’s just like, “It is so sad that I have to die because these privileged, rich families are mad at each other.” That’s how I think about the people who aren’t on either side or anything and they’re just getting killed.

What do you think artists can do to get their voices heard and make changes? I was watching your performance at Coachella where you called out Philip Anschutz for his alleged donations to anti-LGBT organisations…

I’ve learned that speaking up is more powerful than I thought it was. It doesn’t take 30 years for an attitude about some issue to change. It takes one year or five years. It’s down to the language people use and it’s down to, “Do people start talking about things that they care about?”

I think Philip Anschutz’s biggest violation is that he runs Anschutz Exploration group. He is one of the main billionaires propping up the oil industry. He sued some towns that didn’t allow them to do fracking and exploration for natural gas. It’s a phenomenally dangerous process. That guy is one of the very few billionaires that has real power to not potentially destroy the human race.

Did speaking out against him come back on you?

I don’t know. We’re not playing Coachella 2018. They didn’t offer it again but I don’t know if they would’ve anyway and I’m not sure we would’ve accepted.

The guys working at the festival gave me a solidarity fist. Kind of like, “Yes, man.” That was pretty dope.

Hopefully it encourages people to talk about this stuff and be, really, anti-billionaire. Global capitalism is threatening the human race. Small capitalism like selling records; that’s alright with me.

What else are you up to at the moment? How is the Lou Reed book coming along?

I just got a copy of it to proofread. It’s really cool and I’m proud of it. It’s coming out in April.

I went to the British Library for your talk on The Velvet Underground’s influence on punk, how was that experience for you?

Oh, yes. I remember. I think it was a funny conversation we had. There was something so weird about the whole thing to me. Punk in a museum is just so funny.

It really is. When I went to see the exhibition, I was drinking a bottle of water as I was looking around and a security guard signalled over to me and sort of wagged their finger, like, “Put that away.” I just thought, “I’m in a punk exhibition, drinking water and getting reprimanded. What is this?”

That’s good stuff, man. That’s a life experience in the life of punk. Punk is still alive in some places and some bands. It’s just so not a museum piece.

Transangelic Exodus is released on 9 February via Bella Union.

Upcoming UK shows:

03 Feb – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
04 Feb – Arts Club – Main Room, Liverpool
10 Feb – Quarterhouse, Folkestone
23 May – O2 Academy Brixton, London
24 May – Colston Hall, Bristol
27 May – Albert Hall, Manchester
28 May – O2 ABC Glasgow, Glasgow
29 May – Tivoli Theatre, Dublin