It has been over a decade since Ezra Furman released his debut album. Back then, in 2007, his band was called Ezra Furman and the Harpoons – a four-piece who met while studying at Tufts University on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts.
Since then Ezra has released a further eight records in a variety of guises: Ezra Furman & The Boy-Friends, The Visions, and as a solo artist too. You’d think therefore, being such a seasoned performer, that Ezra wouldn’t find gigging overly stressful anymore – he’s spent a third of his lifetime performing all over the world. Except, when we meet, and I ask him if he enjoyed being on stage the previous night, he tells me he didn’t. “I was on a journey of self-doubt before the show, during it and afterwards,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I know that doesn’t necessarily reflect how everyone in the audience felt, but for me it wasn’t a great night.”
It’s not the answer I was expecting, given what had gone down at the Lexington just a few hours earlier. Ezra and his band playing to an audience of fans, in a sold out intimate venue which, by his own admission, is the sort of place where Ezra feels at home. The crowd lapped it up, extended encore and all, the tracks from his new album – Transangelic Exodus – were captivating.
But sat in the corner of a pub, back hunched and fingers fidgeting, it’s obvious Ezra’s loud, confident onstage persona doesn’t quite match up with the day-to-day for this reserved and insular 31-year-old. We order some fries and get talking. He sits opposite me, listening intently. He pauses for prolonged periods of time, sometimes mid-way through an answer, clearly considering carefully every word that passes his lips.
Can we talk start by talking about growing up as a queer, Jewish kid in the suburbs of Chicago? I can imagine it was both comfortable and yet deeply uncomfortable too.
Comfortable yet not comfortable, I like that. The quiet certainly made space for an identity crisis. There might be something about the short train ride to the city, the wild world of uncontrollable cultures is so close and yet so far. It takes growing up to go and be part of it. Not just growing up, but breaking out of something that’s expected of you. Almost all queer people have to break out of some sort of prison, because there is something that is expected of most people and they have to make a mighty push against it.
Your new record was initially going to be about you coming out, it sounds like for you that wasn’t a straightforward process.
It took me years before I even thought of coming out. I think this is true for a lot of bisexual people, you think: well I don’t really need to come out, I’m not gay enough to merit all the disruption and effort if I tell everyone I’ve got this thing going on. I also didn’t have a strong impulse to tell anyone who I was attracted to. Maybe it was just because I wasn’t getting laid! It was pretty clear to me that it was a thing I’d take some punishment for, and I didn’t want to go through it. I thought I can just avoid this whole drama. It was kind of okay to just be closeted mostly, to just tell a few people, until after a while it started to corrode my soul a little bit.
Did religion play a part in creating a situation where you felt you weren’t able to yell ‘I am who I am’ proudly from the rooftops?
Sure, in some part. If you read Leviticus you see your religion is in love with a book that legislates your death. It’s very disturbing. It’s disheartening and heartbreaking, especially if you’re in love with the religion, if a part of you is really drawn to it. I just don’t think there’s any religious mandate to shun and shame gay people. I’ve been studying Talmud a lot lately in this queer study group in Chicago, an amazing organisation founded by this badass lesbian, Rabbi Benay Lappe.
The Bible says things that nobody does, she says, like nobody does an eye for an eye. At the time it was understood that nobody would cut off your hand if you cut off someone else’s hand, even though the text is pretty explicit in that respect. The Bible has always been read with a level of interpretation. It’s because there was a will to that – a will to not have a culture with a bunch of eyeless people. There wasn’t a will to protect homosexuals. If there had been, and there is now, then that’s how Jewish law and tradition would be.
Judaism is still really important to you, was it hard to retain an affinity to a religious community that, at least in part, still takes issue with accepting queer people?
For me, Judaism became a matter of the heart, not only a cultural form to fill but a spiritual quest – a deep mystery that I can’t leave alone. I guess it wasn’t Judaism that became that, but god, and ways of approaching that, and the deepest questions of what it means to be a human being. It stayed couched in the Jewish tradition as it was my doorway into that inner conversation, but I didn’t retain too many cultural affiliations with that community. I had to go and find my own version of it, find people with a tone that made more sense to me.
I’m trying to be a part of communities that are queer-led. I guess I found that world, a progressive Judaism. To me that’s traditional, I think of Judaism as a progressive religion, I think the bible is a radical document. It’s a religion of protest, it sides with the oppressed. Slaves are the heroes, rich people are the villains.
Do you enjoy interviews? Are you enjoying yourself now?
I’m enjoying this one! I enjoyed the one I did earlier today, too. I used to always enjoy them and then read the article and feel like an idiot. It was like I needed to remember to not enjoy myself or be friendly, but I think I’ve got better at saying what I mean and not saying what I don’t want to see in print. It’s always a strange dynamic.
The reason I ask is you’ve talked a lot about mental health in interviews before. For people in the public eye, there seems to be an expectation now, especially for queer people who have spoken previously about their experiences, to continue to. Does that frustrate you?
I started talking about my mental health because there were times when it would have been helpful for me to have read about someone else’s experience. I’d like the world to be more open about mental health difficulties, I’d like it to be more of an acceptable topic of conversation. You have to be the change you wish to see, right? So I talked about it.
I didn’t count on seeing this weird effect of seeing your distorted reflection in the press, and of having this character painted that you’re asked to continue to be, you know? I was just a lot less mentally healthy a few years ago when we started getting a lot of exposure. I’m sure to some people there’s an element of me seeming to be a mentally unstable person and therefore fascinating, and that can be a toxic dynamic.
It’s a dichotomy – you want to encourage people to be more open, you feel responsible, but also sharing your soul to everyone you meet and then having them write about it has had a profound impact on me, and I didn’t expect it. Stuff gets twisted by bad writers.
I’ll try my hardest not to twist this, I promise. What effect did that have on you though?
The danger is that it becomes self-perpetuating. There is some cultural energy that dissuades artists from being healthy, because this ideal of the tortured artist, the starving artist, has become a very beloved image. I always say you don’t need to court pain, it’s going to show up uninvited anyway. I don’t know about for other people, but feeling like I don’t totally have it together stops me from working, it stops me being productive and following my dream of being a great artist.
Let’s talk about the new album then, we should probably talk about music. When did you write it?
Oh yeah, music. I wrote it in 2015 and 2016 mostly. Some of the songs took a really long time to get right. I had a certain idea of what the next record was going to be, and then this inconvenient thing happened where I wrote half of the song Suck the Blood from my Wound, which had this whole mysterious angel-escaping-from-a-hospital vibe, and I just thought, what the fuck is this about? I found it so fascinating, there was clearly something there, so I became obsessed with it. I ended up getting rid of a lot of what was going to be on the record.
I was writing a record about coming out, actually. A very queer-focussed record, about myself. Then I found this thing in my brain, me and this illegal angel in a car escaping hostile authorities and it opened a door. It wasn’t about being queer only, it was about fear and paranoia and solidarity amongst vulnerable people, which felt a lot richer than something which looked set to be autobiographical. It turned out fiction was much more autobiographical than an autobiography.
Why do you make music?
Sometimes you just feel like there are parts of society that are crushing the human spirit, and others which are reviving it. You want to be sure you’re on the revive side, and I could just feel very acutely that, I don’t know, it was reminding me and people in the audience that we’re alive and that life is special, interesting and worthwhile. There’s a lot of things you can go be a part of that don’t do that, there’s a lot of entertainment that numbs and encourages a sense of nihilism in a bad way. I’m saying nothing of careers I saw friends go into, but it’s like they’re not helping the world at all, they’re hurting it. I didn’t mean to do it for this long though, I didn’t think I would.
Do you ever worry that despite there being more queer artists open and out in the public eye, that actually there’s little impact? The same newspapers who’ll interview LGBTQ+ musicians will also publish pieces that are homophobic or transphobic, almost as if we’re being co-opted…
I’m not sure, I certainly think that it does do something for making an atmosphere where more and more people feel safe to come out, to feel there is a world to go to, that it is possible to escape to find somewhere that will accept me. That’s simple.
I also think there’s a dangerous tendency underneath that – society wants to pat itself on the back and congratulate itself for its tolerance, but there’s a problem with the idea that gender difference is something to be tolerated, and a bigger problem which makes you think the work is done. People feel smug about their progressiveness, but trans people get murdered all the time; gay people get murdered and women get murdered. We get beaten up. It’s all still urgent and frightening if you’re a person who it threatens. It’s also frustrating to watch people, as it becomes part of pop culture, talk about it who are tone death. We have people talk about gender and sexuality as if it’s a matter of taste, when people’s mental health and lives are at stake.
There was an article in The Guardian a while ago which opened with this: “I very much doubt Ezra Furman will ever be a star, topping the charts, headlining festivals, getting photographed in the gossip pages.” There’s an assumption that what you’re doing could never be commercially successful, it could never be mainstream. How is that, as an artist, to hear?
That writer probably sensed in me an ambivalence in me about going to the top. Part of me wants total success, and part of me wants to stay in my strange corner of weirdness and to force everyone to come to me. Could my little corner become the centre of the universe? I don’t know. I find it a little hard to care that much, because I’m so interested in the content of the work I’m making that it’s hard for me to really put a lot of energy into asking how big this should get.
The main thing I’m doing is making something I think is great. It’s not that it doesn’t matter, success, it matters for my survival. I need this to succeed, but it’s a distraction really, to ask who “far” this will go. The frame is secondary, the question of how big the stage is. I just welcome it all.
Transangelic Exodus is out now via Bella Union, and Ezra Furman returns to the UK to tour in May 2018.