- 29 Aug 22
Alongside her band The Visions, renowned Chicago singer-songwriter Ezra Furman is back with an enlightening, honest and brutal new indie-rock album, All Of Us Flames. She talks to Kate Brayden about marginalised communities being dragged into a political war, her musical inspirations, soundtracking Sex Education and more. Photography: Tonje Thilesen.
Ezra Furman is in London. The llinois native is readying herself for a weekend gig, when I sit down for a chat. It’s a privilege to get a proper opportunity to shoot the breeze with the outspoken indie darling, given that she spent much of the pandemic parenting her young son back home, and recording a blisteringly raw new solo album, All Of Us Flames.
The 35-year-old rose to fame in 2006 with her band, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons; they concluded their run with the impressive 2011 album Mysterious Power. Since then, Ezra has blazed a unique creative trail. Exploring facets of punk, rock, indie, folk, country-rock and alternative, it’s nearly impossible to slap a label on Furman’s sound.
Over the past year or so, the singer-songwriter has also been bravely open about her transition, in April 2021, from gender-queer to trans woman, unapologetically penning tunes for marginalised communities. Gender identity and solidarity with those most vulnerable may be a running theme, but Ezra won’t be limited by restrictive boxes and classification. She marches to her own drum.
“I’ve been quite intimidated by trying to re-introduce myself to the world, after going into isolation and continuing to grow and change,” she says. “It’s still a little scary. There’s a lot of anxiety about that, but I have my band who are so reliably great to play with. I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to play rock ‘n’ roll anymore. We didn’t play for two years and seven days, but turns out it didn’t leave us. The spirit is still blessing us with its presence. I wrote some really good songs and we made a great record. That boosts your confidence.”
A great record it certainly is. Riotous guitar lines, soaring melodies and raucous choruses are brought together in an incendiary call-to-arms. Will she be touring Ireland after its August release?
“We don’t come to Ireland enough!” says Ezra. “I can’t even remember the last time I was there, but I know we did three gigs in Dublin, Cork and Galway. I don’t have anything concrete I can tell you about Irish tour dates, though.”
Well, we tried.
“We wanted to do tourist bits last time,” she continues. “My drummer Sam really wanted to see the statue of Phil Lynott, but it was closed for repairs. We were crestfallen! But we don’t get to go to these cities as tourists mostly. You just go to a bar and meet people and play some music, and maybe have a drink with somebody afterwards.
“You get a little taste of life - it’s not like going to see Van Morrison’s house. I took a course in college about Irish literature. The module was about the Irish Renaissance, from the 1880s to the 1920s.”
So the names J.M. Synge, Douglas Hyde, Sean O’Casey, Austin Clark, Padraig Pearse and W.B. Yeats ring a bell?
“Yeats is the best! He’s one of my favourite poets.”
Furman is a self-professed student of songwriting. She cites Canadian poet, essayist and classicist Anne Carson as a major influence. While Iggy Pop is a fan of Ezra’s work, Furman’s own heroes include Stephen Merritt, Bob Dylan, Belle & Sebastian, Pixies and Jay Reatard.
“Nina Simone is a big role model,” she notes. “There’s something about her. She’s got a lot of music that’s about just being gorgeous and, by virtue of who she is, anything she does becomes a protest song. Even a Bee Gees cover becomes a powerful call-to-arms. It’s due to her presence and the cluster of thoughts and issues around her public profile.
“That’s an amazing thing to me. On the tower of songs, she’s 100 floors above me, but I do see a miniature thing like that happening. It affects who comes to my shows and how it feels to put out one of my records. Truthfully, I want to write songs that anybody could cover. One of my main ambitions is to write a standard that’s universally effective. Lana Del Rey could do them!”
‘Forever In Sunset’, on All Of Us Flames, was inspired by Titus Andronicus.
“They have a song called ‘Troubleman Unlimited’ and it got me writing those lyrics, ‘I told you I was trouble, man’. This whole Ezra Furman machine all runs on me listening to a lot of music and getting excited,” she grins. “Hurray For The Riff Raff has been inspiring me. I got to know the leader of that band, Alynda Segarra. Making this album, I listened to The Shangri-las, plus Fiona Apple and Cat Power. For my craft, I try to learn from people who are really good at writing songs. That’s my discipline; my studies. Lots of Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Carole King.”
TEENAGE GIRL I NEVER GOT TO BE
Produced by John Congleton of St. Vincent, Sharon van Etten and John Grant renown, All Of Us Flames unleashes Furman’s songwriting via an open, vivid sound, the boldness of which heightens the music’s urgency. The powerful title comes from the single ‘Book Of Our Names’, where Ezra sings, “None of us ashes/ All of us flames”.
There’s a specific fear that comes from travelling as a marginalised person to faraway places, but – in truth – her homeland has become an increasingly dangerous country for trans people. Furman describes feeling like she’s being embroiled in a war trans women neither deserved, nor asked for. With social stigma and hostility at an intense level, her music is full of warmth and love for all of those targeted by bigoted laws.
“Tonight I’m dreaming of my queer girl gang/ We who walk this deadly path/ And the city that tries to kill us each night/ will soon bow before our wrath,” she sings, before detailing a revenge plot where they drive out the oppressors.
“There are places where you can get a lot of political power by being anti-trans on a legislative level, and it’s really never been like that before,” Ezra explains, her tone resigned. “It’s really horrible. It’s such a huge, transformative thing to do in one’s personal life. For it to also be all over the news, while you’re trying to figure out your own self is too much.
“A lot of themes on this record are somewhat about that. They have to do with solidarity and anger, but the record’s not particularly about being trans. It’s got some focus on that, mostly on the song ‘Lilac And Black’. The others aren’t specific.”
Furman described her fourth solo LP as: “A first first person plural album. It’s a queer record for the stage of life when you start to understand that you are not a lone wolf, but depend on finding your family, your people, how you work as part of a larger whole. I wanted to make songs for use by threatened communities, and particularly the ones I belong to: trans people and Jews.”
Furman’s productivity has never wavered, no matter the circumstances globally or personally. Between 2018’s Transangelic Exodus and 2019’s 12 Nudes, the 33 imprint published her deeply introspective and thoughtful book on Lou Reed’s legendary 1972 album Transformer. And in January 2019, Furman scored the tender soundtrack to Netflix’s acclaimed comedy Sex Education.
“I was always telling everyone about how I wanted to write music for a movie or TV show,” Ezra laughs. “Finally this friend of mine was like, ‘I know this person who’s working on a series, maybe they need music?’ The producer on season one, Sian Robins-Grace, was the connection. It happened purely by talking about my dreams and ambitions all the time, but it seems like a miracle.”
The teen angst Ezra experienced surrounding expression arguably made her a stellar candidate to soundtrack Sex Education. Old and new cuts, like ‘Coming Clean’, ‘Every Feeling’ and a cover of ‘Origin Of Love’ from the musical Hedwig & The Angry Inch, are included, while Ezra and band appear in an episode at the school dance.
“It’s so special - especially when there’s a big moment and it’s my music as the exclamation point,” Furman beams. “There’s no feeling like that. It’s a good show with a good heart and good minds behind it. I feel so lucky that it’s intersectional feminist. Of course, I ruthlessly vetted them and I was like, ‘You’re not gonna be part of the problem are you?’ That show is really quite sane, and I appreciate that.”
What sparked the inclusion of the album track ‘Ally Sheedy In The Breakfast Club’?
“My friend and manager, Simon, told me to write about a celebrity after we’d been listening to Sufjan Stevens’ song about Tonya Harding. Queer people especially latch on to a fictional character, or celebrity, or someone we can idealise. It’s about a person we can use as a ground on which to build our life, when we have to reinvent ourselves, as we move away from all the gender that’s forced on us. Ally Sheedy is some sort of guiding light. I just love everything about the way she is. As the song says, it’s the teenage girl I never got to be. I was longing, and found myself.”
Would Ezra play herself in a biopic about her life, or even allow it to be made?
“That’s a tough one. Probably not,” she posits. “It would be hard to trust someone telling some kind of Hollywood version of our life - who knows what that may do to your soul? If a camera taking a picture of you steals your soul, imagine a team of Hollywood filmmakers making a movie of your life. It’s that on steroids.
“I just started to see my performances as an opportunity to show up, to be seen by someone who might be helped by seeing me,” she continues, after a long pause.
I’ve noticed Ezra that she often thinks deeply before she speaks.
“Someone who needs a little precedent,” she resumes, “who has never heard of being gender nonconforming or hasn’t seen it done in a way that seems possible. It’s something I never saw when I was growing up. If I had seen it, I could have gotten a headstart on becoming who I wanted to become.”
LOOKING OUT FOR EACH OTHER
As one of the few visible, outspoken trans women in the music industry, Ezra’s presence automatically makes her almost transcendental, angelic, spiritual for many fans. Does it get overwhelming when people she’s never met become emotional about her?
“It’s everything, you know?” she says. “Sometimes people tell me about a brush with death, where my music was part of turning away from that path, and it’s literally the greatest honour of my life to be useful in that way. It’s hard to have those conversations in a bar with a stranger when I’m exhausted, but there is no other time.
“How people use music and culture as a lifeline, it doesn’t always have that much to do with the creator as a person. I didn’t really do anything that saved somebody’s life. They saved themselves. They would have used whatever tool they could find that worked. I feel honoured that my record was one of them.”
For someone who understands the weight, and often burden, of such responsibility, Furman is both realistic and modest about the impact her art will have.
“What will my legacy be? That’s tough,” Ezra replies, wide-eyed. “I’m just so into art and music and people. It’s fuel that I need to live off. I just hope I could provide some consolation to others. Most people would remember me for music that made them nod their head in some episode on television!
“That’s the weird thing about making music,” she adds. “You pour so much into it your whole life just to be two minutes in somebody’s day where they smile, dance, or feel a little different. That seems like noble work. My life goal is to be a healing presence.”
The singer is an observant Orthodox Jew, who doesn’t perform on the Sabbath and briefly contemplated becoming a rabbi.
“Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that the goal of the Jewish tradition is to create people who are a healing presence. In general that’s my ambition.”
The grandchild of Jewish Holocaust asylum seekers, Furman understands what it means to enter survival mode. The politics of North America over the past few years has created a personal apocalypse for targeted groups, which meant they were surprisingly calm when a plague like Covid caused upheaval. When you’ve dealt with trauma before, you become familiar with anxiety, alarm bells and fear.
“I don’t understand anything about the world,” Furman offers. “I don’t even have a theory of why people are being this way. I can’t understand how profit and power have become the gods that are worshipped above all else, and people just die for the rich to get richer. I can’t wrap my head around it, all I can do is object.
“But I hope we’re realising that we all have to take care of each other better. That’s what I’m writing about on this record more than anything else. That’s the theme of the album: solidarity, looking out for each other, fighting for one another. Whether that be sort of militant or just caring, they’re two sides of the same coin really.
“I’m very confused about what’s happening next for me. I tend to want to be a better writer, parent, partner, friend and citizen. I want to become a master.”
Right now, all she’s thinking about is getting home to Chicago to see her family.
“When I come back from tour, I start working on being a parent,” she says. “I start changing diapers right away, cleaning things up, and then finding my friends. I love coming home so much. It’s hard for me to be on tour. I don’t like being away. I like playing the shows, and the rest of the day is like, ‘Why am I away for this?’ Then the show happens and I remember exactly why. Those performances are pure joy.”
• All of Us Flames is out now via Anti Records/Bella Union.