Ezra Furman: ‘I worry about my fellow human beings’

Gender fluid, observant Jew... musician Ezra Furman talks to Elisa Bray about his quest for authenticity


Circumstance sometimes leads a rock star into a new career. Blur drummer Dave Rowntree is also a Labour councillor; Pulp guitarist Russell Senior is an antiques dealer. For Ezra Furman, the career alternative is… a rabbi.

A few years ago, with four not particularly successful albums to his name — three with his band The Harpoons and one solo — the now 32-year-old Chicago-born musician was struggling so much to make ends meet that he sold his possessions. While he considered retraining as a rabbi, his 2013 album Day of the Dog became an unexpected critical hit; he’s since played the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy, and has just released his excellent new album Twelve Nudes.

Nevertheless, rabbinical school remains an option, says Furman — especially when he hits “a dry spell of songwriting.

“I’m always, like, maybe there’s somewhere else I could contribute more. My other deep passion besides rock ’n’roll and songwriting is Torah stuff, Jewish stuff. I’m interested in contributing to human happiness.”

Now living in Boston, he keeps notebooks, not just for songwriting but for his prose. Writing a book on Lou Reed’s 1972 album Transformer, published last year, made him realise he can write, and he wonders what his next project will be. He also dabbles in fiction, memoir, and Jewish themes. You don’t have to delve deep into Furman’s oeuvre to notice his exploration of Jewish identity. Take his concept album Transangelic Exodus, which Furman considers to be a midrash (commentary) of sorts.

“It’s about the book of Exodus, in some way,” he says. “I mean, it can slip under the radar listening to it, but it is a Jewish album. And it’s meant to be rendered like a Torah contribution. If I think about going to rabbinical school, maybe that would help to learn what my voice might contribute to the Jewish conversation.”

Furman has a reputation for silences in interviews, while he mulls over his responses. Luckily for me, his answers today are free-flowing. “You caught me in the mood to ramble,” he says at the end of our chat, his relief mirroring my own.

Furman is a conundrum, and certainly one of a kind. His melodic songs pack the diverse themes of depression; his aforementioned Jewish identity; gender (he identifies as gender non-conforming); and politics into a compelling concoction of punk, doo wop, garage rock, and glam, where vulnerability collides with a frenetic rage against the global state of affairs.

He is also an observant Jew in a career that is traditionally more aligned with the excess of sex, drugs and booze than the modesty and discipline of Orthodoxy. And he is often seen wearing dresses, and a lick of red lipstick.

Raised with three siblings in Chicago by his mother, who converted to Judaism, and father, Furman attended a Jewish day school until his early teens. At the age of 12, he discovered punk. It started with Green Day, and at summer camp he learnt that it was easy enough to play punk chords on guitar.

“Before I heard punk, I really loved My Generation by The Who, how, right away, that song feels like you’re driving down a steep hill really fast,” he recalls. “And then punk is just faster and louder.”

Aside from punk’s ferocity, Furman also identified with its bold expression of individuality.

“I felt like I was a messed-up person, but I couldn’t tell anyone about it. I just wanted to be more normal. But then punk came to tell me you can really scream loudly to everybody that you’re a messed-up person and wear it as a badge of honour. So that’s why I really needed it.”

Even at the young age of 12? “Oh, especially at the age of 12,” he says. “I was an anxious kid, and I did not do well socially. I wanted to be popular, and I wasn’t, and I was having trouble adjusting to the way school got harder.”

He was also grappling with his sexuality. “I was closeted. I was attracted to everybody and really felt I could not tell anyone about being attracted to the boys.”

Furman looked to Lou Reed —another Jewish musician whose music openly tackled queerness — as an inspiration. But it wasn’t until his late-twenties that he came out as gender-fluid and bisexual, in an article he wrote for the Guardian just as he released his 2015 album Perpetual Motion People, and began wearing dresses onstage. How has he found fitting into observant communities, while remaining true to himself?

“I just found communities that are queer friendly, and a lot of times even led by queer people. It has taken some work to find,” he says. “And then, if I go to an Orthodox place, it’s a negotiation: how am I going to present myself and how much am I opening myself to dirty looks, or whatever conversations I don’t want to have? I find it is a strong value among Orthodox Jews to not embarrass or mock. People don’t give me too much trouble.”

The real trouble is outside the community, day to day, on the street. While he has expressed feeling liberated by embracing his choice of appearance, it’s a more complicated reality.

“It’s a negotiation even to go outside,” he says. “I know that any time I walk around dressing feminine, I might get harassed. But over the years, I’ve realised that it really is worth it for me. Because I’ve become a much more honest, and self-assured person than being ‘authentic’ to my gender. And people close to me have pointed out to me how much happier I am.”

With his self-consciousness eroding over time, Furman has moved on from caring about judgmental looks, but, as he points out, it’s fine until it isn’t. “I’ve come a long way. But then, you’re on the train at night, and you realise that somebody wants to f***ing kill you, or people call something out at you. There are times that it totally doesn’t matter to me. Then there’s times that it can really derail my whole day.”

Furman has said his paternal grandparents survived the Holocaust “because they were paranoid enough to leave home”. His maternal grandparents, meanwhile, told his mother that if she was going to convert from Catholicism to Judaism, she should be “a good Jew”, and this Furman adheres to; he is the most observant in his family. For more than five years, he has consistently observed Shabbat and not performed on Friday nights.

Before then, rules would be broken on tour. “It was making me want to stop being a touring musician,” he recalls. “Some people I work with were like, ‘why don’t you just not play on Shabbat?’ I didn’t even think that was possible. It turns out, for me, it is.” He concedes that he and his band undoubtedly do lose opportunities, but that they all know
 it couldn’t be any other way. 
“I’d probably choose Shabbat,” 
he shrugs.

For someone who openly sings about his struggles with depression, and whose new album has an anxious feel about it, Shabbat is also beneficial in restoring personal peace.

“I really do have anxiety and anger and sadness in my life. However crazy my life gets, weekends with Shabbat are always very peaceful. It always leaves that frenetic world behind in a way. And having that through your life, and then daily prayer, doesn’t make the intense, frenetic mess of the rest of my time go away, but it’s not 24/7.”

Then comes the caveat: the obligation that comes with a moral code. “The other effect is it’s a constant moral and ethical challenge. When the plight of poor people is like a cosmic calamity, as it is in my world view, and you’re coming from a rich family… you might have to find a way to deal with that problem. Being a person who believes in God and justice, I have to worry about my fellow human beings.”

So it’s no surprise that Twelve Nudes is political, but from an emotional perspective. Evening Prayer aka Justice is an impassioned, punk-fuelled call to arms (“If you’ve got the taste for transcendence/ Then translate your love into action/ And participate in the fight now/For a creed you can truly believe/It is time for the evening prayer/Time to do justice for the poor”). Trauma tackles the distress induced by witnessing the rising power of rich bullies accused of sexual assault, while In America refers to Mexico and slave owners.

“My only goal was to make a personal album and right now what’s personal to me is politics. It’s where my deepest concern lies. Isn’t everyone feeling really emotional about politics lately?”

I wonder if it’s cathartic to put these thoughts and feelings into song.

“No, it does not help,” he laments. “It makes me feel worse. Some of the most upsetting issues of the news I would try not to think about, the biggest one being climate change. But the more I look right at it, and feel fear, anger, and sadness, those things are better than emotional avoidance. That is a lot of what the record is about, dealing with things that have been getting worse, because we haven’t been willing to admit how bad they are.”

He tackled the Israel/Palestine conflict, too, in Rated R Crusaders. How does he feel about the pressure on artists to boycott Israel?

“I don’t like the polarisation of it. I’m pro Israel and pro Palestine. And if you can’t be both of those things, then we’re kind of in trouble because that’s what peace is. Peace means being in favour of both sides being able to live their lives. I want to depolarise it in whatever small part of the conversation I can affect.”

With a tour this month, Furman continues to affect the conversation. Becoming a rabbi might just have to wait.

Twelve Nudes is out now. Ezra Furman tours from 11 to 14 November. For more information visit the website here.

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