“These are my closeted clothes,” sighs Ezra Furman, at London’s The Forum, stuffing a maroon turtleneck and black into a bag for tomorrow’s onward travels. I’m pretty sure I’ve spotted those trousers before, when Ezra was presenting in a more masculine form.
“You need a dresser,” I tell Ezra.
“I need a dresser,” Ezra echoes, ruefully, with another of her black-lipsticked smiles that is an admission of something that is not going to happen and probably shouldn’t.
After all, in seven albums since 2007, no one today has smelted the life of the lonely bus pass quite like Ezra. She pins crystalline structures more commonly heard in country folk ballads and comparable to Cohen or Dylan, to rousing blue-collar chords, retro harmonies, vulpine guitar and screeching bop. She – till recently, ‘he’ – plucks from a trashcan of Americana, doo-wop, weird synth and punk brass. Hemorrhaging longings, she shamelessly mounts sing-a-long choruses and verses that glint with rhymes as euphoric as they are banal (“we bought drugs from a parking attendant/Those sober nights in your car were transcendent” – ‘Love You So Bad’). She voices wisdom that is admissible (“no one cares if you’re dying till you’re dead” – ‘Transition from Nowhere to Nowhere’) and love that is not, like the quasi-erotic female angel in ‘Psalm 151’. In short, Ezra with a dresser might not be this Ezra, kneeling beside me on the Green Room floor in her ripped blacked tights.
“Take your time,” she had earlier wryly comforted younger queers, from the stage. “I’m almost out.” Ezra has never been so ‘out’ about her trans urgings as on this tour, continuing in the U.S. this December 2019 and from February 2020. But this is the offstage Ezra, too. As she later tells me, she prefers to feel “naturally feminine”.
In 12 Nudes, the current punk album, Ezra caws to her flock to revolt, with body-slamming riffs, carburetor basslines, rap and the thrumming acoustic guitars of protest music. The opener, ‘Calm Down’, is a voodoo pogo pop assault on the false gods of wealth and power. On tour, audiences jump to ‘Rated R Crusaders’ and ‘My Teeth Hurt’, an ode to the desirable jolt of pain in life and rock n’ roll (“the ache inside reminds my mind my body’s really there”). Ezra’s band rip into the tracks, bloody in their amputations and tightly lashed into grooves. A one-chord dirge like ‘Evening Prayer’ – a punk anthem Leonard Cohen might have written, if Cohen had been punk – builds to one of Ezra’s heart-tugging choruses, heart-tugging, never less than fun. Yet Ezra’s solitary figure, the “shapeshifter from nowhere,” croons over the futility of success. For all her band’s collective lather, she remains a hermit who’s stumbled into town with her one-stringed zither then decided to stay for whiskey and burgers, one eye on the door.
For this interview, we talked in person and on the telephone.
DG: When you perform, how much of yourself are you revealing?
I’m focused on making sure something is happening for the people present. All kinds of things might be going on with me, but I’m trying to leave it behind and enter the work. Yet it’s always impinged by what’s going on with me.
My performance feels analogous to prayer, not spontaneous prayer but fixed text. I have to say the same thing and make it real this time, though I’ve said it a thousand times. I hope that the text is well-written enough so I might rise to meet it, in a state that is different to regular, default boredom mode.
DG: At the end of your recent London gig, you took off your guitar and laid it on the stage like an offering.
I didn’t think of it as an offering, at the time … but I do treat my guitar with violence and sacredness. It’s got that in common with animal sacrifice. My guitar is a thing I want to destroy. And it’s a sacred object.
DG: Speaking of animals and the wild, the landscape of your songs evokes cabins, prairies, trains, coastlines and highways. Why such an all-American, blue-collar landscape, for one who doesn’t fit the shape of an all-American urban cowboy?
What I see coming up again and again is feeling alienated and leaving the city. That’s a thing in my head, in my life. It’s a feeling of ‘I might have to get out of here’. I’ve driven a lot of highways in my life as a musician. It leads to open prairies, where I’m from, in the Mid-West. You get out of Chicago and you’re in endless flatland. Being out there, out of society, that’s where I’m forced to go. Things can happen out there and your spirit can expand to fill the space.
DG: Tell us about where you grew up & the figure you felt yourself to be.
It was a suburb, Evanston, a little train ride into the city, multi-racial but also kinda segregated; so, ‘nicer’ neighbourhoods towards the university.
I went to a Jewish faith school till 8th Grade – 15 years old – then a public senior school. I was very well-behaved, an authority-pleaser. I was closeted, afraid to be found out. It did not feel OK to be queer, or feminine. That’s why I went towards punk-rock. I was starting to feel invisible and I needed to push to be visible. Then I hit this thing at age 15 about being Orthodox Jewish. I thought, yeah, I’m going to be this punk artist and be obsessed with God. There was no group of kids around me into both those things. I liked that.
DG: And do you – did you – feel accepted by God, as you are?
Back then, no. It was a part of my brain that I sectioned off; my sexual life, my problems with sex and gender could not enter. That’s why it crashed for me. It pushed me away from traditional Judaism but I never lost my interest. I never became unobsessed with God. Now, no part of me sees how God could be rejecting of queer people. That doesn’t seem to be what’s going on in the universe.
DG: Yet the feeling of rejection propels much of your songs. You don’t stay in that place, but it’s there.
DG: Is 12 Nudes partly responding to the ‘nude images’ of Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay’?
Yeah, a little. But I also had the idea of songs that were like figurative paintings. I began by writing songs with titles like ‘Nude Reclining With Oranges.’ I was getting into the idea, with art nudes, of unadornedness, which is punk music. It was partly connected with exhaustion over worry with how I look to other people, what they’re saying about me. I’d no more time for that stuff. I wanted to take whatever’s in my mind and soul straight to the record.
DG: As you say in ‘Evening Prayer’, with this album, you’re pouring gasoline on the embers of punk and protest music.
In ‘Calm Down’, the first single from the album, you lift the ‘woo-woos’ from The Rolling Stones’ 1968 classic, ‘Sympathy From the Devil’. Those famous ‘woo-woos’ are cries for the outcast queers of your audiences whereas ‘Sympathy’ could be said to have been sung for elite bohos.
Do you not feel obliged to be ‘authentic’?
What are you even going to do with that word, ‘authentic’? It’s not a thing for me. I use the word realness. I talk about honesty. But I don’t think honesty has anything to do with plagiarism. Honesty is whether who you are is coming through. So yeah, I like the feeling of the Stones. And I do it with Bruce Springsteen, too, sometimes. I take classic American heterosexual male imagery and say, “no, that’s mine, now and I’m going to make it speak to my people.”
I like taking music from other scenes. I think it’s artistically healthy. I don’t feel compelled to disguise that.
DG: ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’ is a doo-wop ballad with deranged vocals that references The Ramones’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’. Does retro allow you to change shape and slide out of current cultural expectations?
There’s something I love about the old music… in doo-wop, the 1950s music and older, you can feel them pushing, through the 60s. They’re not allowed to say what they want. It takes such mighty push to say, ‘I love you’, or ‘I wanna have sex’ that you get Phil Spector creating a grand opera with The Shangri-Las. It takes a drama, a fiction to create a feeling that if they push hard enough, they will finally break those bonds. I’m communing with that pushing, that fiction, asking, ‘Can I say this, can I be real?’ It feels like there’s a lot of forces saying ‘no’. That’s what I think of with ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’. It’s not a song saying, ‘I’m trans, I’m free’. It’s not in any kind of queer utopia at all. I am repressed from others and I repress myself. I’m in a world where I have to ask, can you imagine, with my body, my looks, that I could be your girlfriend? It’s a classic romantic cliché that I can’t have but I ask for it, anyway.That seems a deep part of who I am. I’m not a punk who’s just going to hang out with the punks. I’m a punk who’s a practising Jew. I’m in an impossible conversation with things that can’t be together because, how could I deny myself both? How could you deny me? I don’t want to go off to queer utopia. I want to be queer in conversation with all the people who don’t believe me.
DG: Being haunted is a trope in your work, whether it’s the 50s, haunted places or the song, ‘Haunted Head.’ What haunts you?
I’m haunted by the small, potentially insignificant paranoias of everyday life that might be nothing or might be life-threatening. That directed ‘Transangelic Exodus’, that feeling of, should we leave town or is everything fine? That goes back to my family’s history. My father’s parents were Holocaust refugees, children from Polish Russia. Most of my grandfather’s family were murdered. His parents were like, we need to get out of here. Most of the family thought that this was their home and they were being alarmist.
Now I’m watching my country and some European countries pretty much ushering in white supremacy and normalizing it. One can feel like, is this country going to turn on me? It’s the same with being queer. I’ll be out in the city as a gender-non-conforming person. I’m with my friends, everything’s okay. It takes one drunk person to make me feel – this isn’t my stop but I need to get off this train, right now. A moment when things can swing the other way and I fear being another trans girl, murdered. That’s my hauntedness, I guess.
DG: So many of your songs are about running away. Equally, in many you return to your bedroom. As a shape-shifter, one needs a cocoon. How important is seclusion to you?
Very. I need to go back to my private world. It’s where everything makes sense. It’s the kind of person I am. In so much of my life, I can’t explain myself. People don’t understand what I’m trying to say. Out in the social world, I can see myself through their eyes. I see that I don’t make sense. In conversation with people by whom I might feel threatened, my sense of self-understanding breaks down. I need to go back to my room and see that I’m real and I do make sense. It creates a drive for a spiritual solitude and meditation. It makes me a person who prays.
The outside world often decays my inner clarity. But that’s what I’m working on, bringing the realness of what I am into any situation that it can survive. That’s part of why I became a performer – to have a stage where no one can interrupt me. I make sure I say it exactly how I want to say it.
DG: The night we met, you were wearing a little badge that said, ‘She, Her, Hers’ and I thought, “oh, Ezra’s wearing a name badge!” It was a deeply orderly rebellion. That seems very you.
I got it at a queer wedding. They had a bowl of different badges and everyone was encouraged to wear one. I use, ‘he, his and him’ also but I realised that you have to push for the one that won’t otherwise come forward. So I say that I prefer ‘she’ even though ‘she’ and ‘he’ are both completely accurate. I push ‘she’ because otherwise the tide of masculinity is always tugging at my ankles.
DG: Last month, you posted an Insta of you wearing a bra.
I love bras. I feel much better, presenting feminine. But I don’t need to pass as a cis-woman. To be he and him, I don’t have to reach deeply. But to push forward my femininity and make it legible to others feels great. I don’t know why but it’s improved my life a lot, over the last 5 or 6 years.
DG: Would you consider taking hormones, heading yet more into the feminine body?
I don’t know. I keep thinking about it. I just want, first, to see who I am. I still need to feel what’s actually here. And what’s here is a boy and a girl, in one person.
Ezra Furman (Twitter @ezrafurman) was in conversation with Soma Ghosh (Twitter @calcourtesan).
Ezra is on tour in the States now and through January & Feburary. In April, she returns to Paris and is performing at the Live at Leeds Festival and the Stag & Dagger Festival in May 2020.
Photos by Kat Bawden.