INTERVIEW

NO HARD FEELINGS: Ezra Furman has come to accept that without his religious beliefs and sexual ambiguity he wouldn’t have been able to make his best record yet

ezra-furman

I’ve tried my best, through capital letters, italics, and scattergun punctuation to capture the cadence of a conversation with Ezra Furman. For it can be quite a ride. There are, for a start, a lot of pauses. Long pauses and long stares into space. And yet, each time I start to think that a question has run its course and Furman has given me everything he has to say on a matter, he’ll spring back into life, his rhythm quickened with staccato bursts of forthright views and nuggets of insight. Luckily, it doesn’t take long to settle into Furman’s tempo and I’m glad for it, because there’s an awful lot of wisdom in that 28-year-old head. While he flits between seemingly contradictory meditations on music, sexuality, gender, it is only because his determination to tell the truth is so deeply entrenched. He often, therefore, discloses everything as he clutches to put into words exactly what he feels. It’s a quality that has begun to feed his songwriting, too, as Furman is slowly morphing into the poet laureate of uncertainty; a champion of the admission that we don’t and can’t know anything for sure.

As he emerges, sweaty, from the sound check for him and his band’s, The Boyfriends, final engagement in a string of European gigs, I start by asking if the tour is going well. A relatively straightforward question, or so I thought. “Yes,” he answers quickly, but something seems to hang in the air. “Are you sure?” I inquire, and I’m met with the first of those pauses. “I’m not sure, no.” He sighs, avoiding eye contact. “All tours are enjoyable and all tours are… hard.” Far from insolence, it’s clear that Furman’s silences allow him to choose his responses carefully and, when he does answer, he does so with an honesty that is disarming and refreshing. “I think most of all not having time alone. I never have time alone. And I need it, I’m just one of those people who need it. In fact, I think everyone needs it, actually.”

It is only when I ask if he lives alone that he gets coy; understandable for a man who has struggled to deal with his sexuality since childhood. “No. I live with a significant other and a friend. I’m comfortable with my band too but even when I’m at home I close the door.” Aside from the obvious lack of personal space, touring also gets in the way of another important cornerstone of Furman’s life: his faith. “I pray also. I’m a pray-er. So it’s hard to fit it in when you have to stay up late, get up early and get in the car immediately.” He smiles, and he seems unburdened by any previous baggage he might have felt around his religion. In past interviews he has been more circumspect about his beliefs, seemingly paranoid about how fans and the press might interpret it. It doesn’t, after all, fit neatly with the rock star narrative.

One thing I note is that Furman fidgets with a flyer for tonight’s gig throughout our conversation and I wonder how seeing himself staring back from every table in the room makes him feel. “I have no… it’s fine.” He looks down at the picture of himself, clad in what has become his trademark dress, pearls and lipstick, and a smile spreads across his face. “I don’t look too bad! I don’t get weirded out by people seeing me, or I don’t get nervous being in front of a large audience or anything like that. Numbers of people I’m exposed to is not what bothers me, it’s more fear of failure, no matter how many people are watching.” And it’s then that we hit upon a key driver of Furman’s. It’s easy for artists to wax lyrical about their inspirations, but it’s telling that he is motivated by something altogether darker: plain and simple failure, not doing something as well as he knows he can. “Of performing and also some sort of fear of… well, I’ve got more control over making a good record. It’s more qualitative failure, especially performing when it doesn’t go right, or I’m not fully there or things go horribly wrong. That’s what I fear; broken strings. I mean, it’s always OK but what really crushes me is if I know it could’ve been better.”

It reminds me of an interview with Furman that I read after the release of his last album, 2013’s ‘Day of the Dog’. In it, he was at pains to point out how disappointed he was with the thing that he was promoting. He didn’t think the record was bad but rather that it could have been better. So what about his latest offering? “I dunno. I really like it. I am disappointed, for sure – I wanted to make the greatest album ever made, you know?” He stares, this time straight at me, as if to underline his conviction. “And I don’t think I did that. And yet I think it’s probably the best record I’ve ever made, and I like my other records so that’s positive.” He trails off, eyes flitting around as though they might come across just the right words. “I sometimes like to be positive in public, or proclaim my greatness, just because I think that’s a good thing to do. I like when people fearlessly proclaim their greatness. And I am truly, truly great, but in my head I don’t pat myself on the back. I’ve got very high standards, am very competitive and am very discerning. Internally, I dream really, really big – absurdly big. And so I’m pretty disappointed in this album…” I could count to ten as he searches for the words to wrap it up. “BUT… I also really like it!”

And so he should. ‘Perpetual Motion People’, due out on 6th July via Bella Union, is not only by far his best work to date but one of the albums of the year. A mix of 50s rock’n’roll and classic ’70s punk with a smattering of ’90s grunge and indie, it is a series of up front confessionals on its creator’s grapples with love, sexuality, femininity, faith and depression. Crucially, it is the sound of Furman getting to grips with who he is as a human being, and yet he is quick to spurn any praise for its honesty. “There’s still more dishonesty deep in me, and duplicity. I think it’s more of a life long process. It’s probably easier to write about it for you as this guy resolved the contradictions in his life but it’s not like that.”

What is striking about the album’s themes and lyrics is how confident they are in asserting dualities. Sick of trying to be one thing or another, many of the songs play with the contradictions that make up Furman’s character, his life to date and the human nature in general. “That’s more of a recent thing for me. I’ve made some real leaps forward in the past two years in terms of being real, I guess. Being unafraid to talk about God and to be openly and proudly religious, for example. And then performing femininity has kind of blossomed in the last couple of years. For most of my life I’ve been very closeted and hoping that the fact that I’m bisexual and not very into masculinity would just… go away. I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll just ignore this problem.’” He convulses with laughter at the thought. “Maybe I’ll just get along with all the bros – all my bro-ey pals. But that was toxic and it distorts you to feel like you’re sort of lying to everyone about… everything.” He stops, as if coming down from the laughter, and adopts a decidedly more sober tone. “But I dunno. This ambiguity – I’ve always been drawn to people who have this ambiguity who are not totally on one cultural team. I was inspired when I was a teenager by Lou Reed especially because he just seemed radically free of definition. His sexuality was very ambiguous, his status of making art music, he just threw that out and then went very traditional with sweet, straight ahead rock’n’roll. And that’s been me. Even just in mild ways.” He cites examples from his childhood where he refused to let his perceived difference prevent him from being involved in the seemingly conflicting worlds he liked to inhabit. “Like in high school I was really involved in the Jewish youth group, I was super into punk rock and I didn’t drink or do drugs. I found this way of sliding from team to team. And I remained the same person each place that I went. I didn’t start wearing safety pins, you know? And it’s only recently that I’ve started to feel integrated or whole, and I think the new record’s reflective of that.”

What’s even more prominent on this LP is the self-assurance of Furman’s delivery. Tracks like ‘Ordinary Life’ and ‘Body Was Made’ are almost instructional, warning others of falling into the same traps of uncertainty that marred much of his early adult life. “I have a drive – in times that I’ve suffered to the degree I’ve suffered and struggled with things like social rejection and self rejection and mental illness – and when it’s been really bad, something I keep in mind is that your suffering is kind of what makes you – or can make you – useful to other people in pain. Hard times can produce a compassionate person if you let them. I’ve relied on despatches from people who’ve been through some shit so I’d like to be that to somebody else.”

However, despite admitting to having both good and bad days, Furman is strong in his assertion that he wouldn’t want to get rid of these frictions, even if he could. “It’s true that I’m driven by some unresolved tensions and that’s where these songs come from, I guess. Negative feelings aren’t bad – it’s the way we react to them. If you take your negative feelings or depression and just invite it in and let it have its moment and let go of it, you might not have to drink all week or lash out at other people or freak out and say, ‘Why am I feeling this way? I’m not supposed to be feeling that way.’ Sadness is good and it’s an indispensable part of life.”

I congratulate him on reaching some kind of peace but he’s quick to point out that those underlying tensions are far from resolved, nice as that thought may be. “Well, yeah. I’m feeling good today, that doesn’t mean… In fact yesterday would’ve been a much darker interview.” A little under 24 hours earlier he had been on stage in Manchester and I point out that every review I read was overwhelmingly positive. Still, the feeling of having to go on stage when his mood is low hits hard. “It’s really, really bad. It makes everything else worse. Actually – that’s not true. Knowing I have to go on stage in ten minutes, that’s the worst thing. But then you go on stage and you know you’ve got a job to do and you know how to do it. It’s something to focus on.” He reveals the rollercoaster of emotions and seesaw of positive and negative thoughts, which follow him with a string of buts. “But then if it doesn’t go so well, it’s a downward spiral.” He lets out a deep breath. “But then you wake up the next day and you go to London!” Finally, he concludes, “But no, Manchester actually went well.”

While he’s looking forward to getting on a plane home in the morning, it’s clear that the tour and indeed 2015 in general has gone well so far. “I already feel successful this year. Preparing for this tour we’ve gotten better as a band. Our shows have gotten better. I’d really like to expand it and make a leap forward as a live band, shaping our performances. I think we’ve gone past, ‘Here’s a song. It’s done. Here’s another song. It’s done.’ We’re getting a little fancy in the right ways. There’s a little drama. There’s a little more theatre; just a little bit.” And what if he could have anything at all? “Well, I don’t wanna die… I want to go to services on all the major Jewish holidays!”

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