Life & Culture

Facing down fear: Ezra Furman explains why community is important to her when she's battling prejudice

Her sixth solo LP, All Of Us Flames, is vivid, bold and thrillingly urgent - unlike the many introspective albums of instrumental music that emerged from the pandemic


When the world was grappling with the anxiety and surreality of Covid in 2020, musician Ezra Furman also had to deal with being locked down with an openly transphobic landlord.

“We did not conceal this at all, but he was like, ‘You didn’t tell me that you are trans’ and he was mad at us all the time and undermining,” Furman says solemnly over Zoom from Boston, wearing a pretty scooped-neck top, her hair cut in a bob. It didn’t help that the landlord lived upstairs. “It was just a horrible place to live.”

Add her one-year-old child, and a friend staying in her living room to the global turmoil, and you can see why the 35-year-old musician, struggling to find space at home to think, would escape solo for drives when “parenting shifts” were done, and then attempt to express her feelings on paper.

“I would just get out of there and bring a notebook and see if I could write or just journal, pray, cry,” Furman recalls.

“I was very overwhelmed by, partly my life, but mostly the semi collapse of global civilisation. I didn’t really try to write an album or expect to, and as I found these things popping up I realised they were turning into some of the best songwriting I had done.”

The result, All Of Us Flames, her sixth solo LP and the third in a trilogy that began with 2018’s conceptual Transangelic Exodus, is vivid, bold and thrillingly urgent — and unlike the many introspective albums of instrumental music that emerged from the pandemic.

Furman had been listening to Bob Dylan, whose music she’d been a fan of since she was 13, and turned to his 80s albums such as Oh Mercy for inspiration, for their being “adult, world-weary but prophetic, wounded, a little hopeful and pretty disgusted with the world … I feel like that’s where I’m at, in some way,” she says. She then added 60s girl groups, The Mountain Goats and Silver Jews, among others, as she ploughed her energy and conviction into writing the strongest compositions that could survive being played on guitar alone. “I listened to so much music. I’m like a student of songwriting.”

A conversation with Furman is never short of fascinating, full of deeply passionate opinions and a winning way with metaphors. “It always feels like going fishing in your own soul, like a pond, just catching things, finding things in your brain, and then it takes a lot of work to make them into a polished sushi dinner,” she says of the songs’ creation. “The raw fish doesn’t feel like I made it, it feels like I caught it.”

When we last spoke, pre-pandemic, late 2019, Furman was releasing the album Twelve Nudes, a year after publishing a book on Lou Reed’s 1972 album Transformer, and discussed her passion besides songwriting as Torah, and “contributing to human happiness” (her father was born Jewish and her mother converted).

Biblical connections run throughout this album, whose title originates from a lyric in her song Book Of Our Names, which was inspired by the second book of theTorah. And in the song Poor Girl A Long Way From Heaven, she mulls over spiritualism. “I was just dreaming of different ways to present my relationship with God,” she explains.

Back in 2019, Furman had also recently become a parent, a fact that remained private until an Instagram post in April 2021, which also was a coming-out announcement of sorts. It began: “I wanted to share with everyone that I am a trans woman, and also that I am a mom and have been for a while now.”

The post explained keeping the baby away from public knowledge for fear of being “judged and grilled about it”, and her reason for the eventual reveal as wanting to provide “a vision of what it can look like to have an adult life, to grow up and be happy and not die young.”

She points to the devastating culture of suicide among trans people. “A lot of it has to do with never having seen models of what your life could be like, if you’re trans,” she says. Having seen no example of a trans woman raising children, not even a photograph, she wanted to present herself as a trans woman and mother, to help others. “I wanted to say, ‘hey, this is possible.’”

For Furman, the post was more about sharing her parenthood than a big “coming-out moment”, so she was surprised when it was picked up by several websites that had never before shown interest in her music.

“Weird ones that I don’t understand why they’re interested in me, because I’m not very famous, like People magazine,,, and culture websites everywhere.

"And nobody asked me about it,” she says, adding that at the time she was busy making the record. “I mean, it is a big deal to say I am a trans woman, it was the first time I said that in public,” she ponders, explaining that it was more of a terminology change. “But I thought it was already clear, I’m trans and very feminine. I just hadn’t said woman before. Because various forces make you afraid…”

She breaks off for a moment. “Transphobia really works on me. It gets under my skin, and it slows me down and it intimidates me. And I get a lot of it. Sometimes it feels like I haven’t gotten tougher at all. It just hurts me so much. I’m working on that.”

The post had 23,000 likes, but it also prompted a barrage of hate, “a waterfall of transphobia”. She lists a few of these hateful accusations: you’re disgusting, you need to accept Jesus into your heart, you’re abusing a child.

“Yeah, the worst things,” she says, softly. “And that was exactly why I didn’t do it for two-plus years.” It would be ideal, of course, to avoid reading such hate online but, as Furman says, it’s addictive, like poking a wound before you “suddenly realise you’re covered in blood”.

While Furman more than achieved her goal of lots of people seeing it, it was at her own expense. “They punish you for visibility, they make you pay for it. But I thought if I can pay that price once in a while, I could maybe do something that matters to some trans people.”

And so, Furman’s new album — which she’s described as “a first-person-plural album, a queer album 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” -—became intended as a sort of gift for “threatened communities”, particularly those to which she belongs: trans people and Jews.

“That’s always seemed the goal of music and art, to me: against loneliness. But this in particular is about solidarity and community. And seeing yourself as functioning as a part of a community or a member of a gang. That can be healing, for the individual, the community and the world: interdependence. That’s been on my mind a lot.”

Even the making of All Of Us Flames was more of a community process than usual, partly due to the joy of the musicians’ being reconnected in person after a period of lockdown.

Furman “unclenched”, giving her band and producer, John Congleton, more freedom for creativity. “It mirrored a theme of the album, of more collectivity and collaboration and not the lone genius figuring out how everything should be and looking out for themselves.”

Since Furman moved to Boston in August 2019, she depended a great deal on the community, and she observes that now almost all of her friends are queer and/or Jewish. “It feels like the right thing for me right now,” she says.

“And it also feels like some kind of antidote to the decay of human civilisation, to understand that we have to look out for each other and protect the world we live in and human life. Because for 100 years or more, the guiding ethic of most of the world is make as much money as you can, and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt. And to worship whatever that god is — money? — that will destroy human civilisation, I believe.”

Jewish themes have long been integral to Furman’s writing; she explored her Jewish identity in Transangelic Exodus, which she considered to be a midrash (commentary).

This album is no different. She continues her scathing takedown of modern-day idolatry, aimed at the power-hungry leaders of the world: “To me, that’s what they’re talking about in the second paragraph of the Shema where the whole land will be destroyed if you turn to other gods.

The worship of multinational corporations is causing drought and famine and heat waves and fires and floods. It seems like biblical prophecy coming true. Suddenly, the Jewish obsession with prohibiting idolatry seems to be quite relevant when you think about the worship of money, and the ‘gods’ sat around our world.”

So it’s fitting that days before the release of her album that unites communities through music, Furman will perform at the 75th anniversary edition of the Edinburgh International Festival, an event founded by its Jewish director Rudolf Bing to unite people through art. As Furman continues in that quest to connect and strengthen community, there’s hope yet for human civilisation.

Ezra Furman performs at the Leith Theatre as part of the Edinburgh International Festival on 23 August. The album All Of Us Flames is out on 26 August.

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