Ezra Furman: ‘This record is more like putting a syringe in my brain and emptying it out’

Singer-songwriter Ezra Furman has a new album out and heads to Deer Shed Festival this month. Duncan Seaman reports.

Ezra Furman

Ezra Furman’s show at Deer Shed Festival in North Yorkshire comes a month ahead of his new album, Twelve Nudes.

A stripped-down affair inspired by the Canadian poet, philosopher and essayist Anne Carson and the late American punk rocker Jay Reatard, it’s a punchy new chapter for the 32-year-old Chicago-born songwriter following his 2018 concept album Transangelic Exodus and his soundtrack for the Netflix drama-comedy show Sex Education.

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“I think it particularly reflects the public conversation,” Furman says of the theme of the new record. “I think we in the West are seeing a lot of public anger and anxiety, and things to which the correct response is anger and anxiety – for instance climate change. It’s probably the first thing that comes to mind with this record for me.

Ezra Furman

“I almost called it Climate Change, actually, and then I noticed that I hadn’t written a single song about that, so it seemed a little facile, but it’s stuff like that: when you notice that the rich are creating crises that are killing the poor – and that’s not just true of climate change, it’s also true of hyper-capitalism in general, and I wanted to respond appropriately.

“Being angry and anxious is not my whole life, it’s not even my general life mood lately; I mean I’m feeling a lot of it when I read the news, but I am a peaceful person who is happy often.”

Where Transangelic Exodus was carefully written and recorded, with edits and overdubs, Twelve Nudes, which was made late last year with John Congleton and Furman’s current ‘band with no name’, is decidedly rawer. The singer himself has described it as “a ‘body’ more than a ‘mind’ record – more animal than intellectual”.

He says it was “a reaction” to what his previous album. “I was essentially working with a lot of fiction on the songs on Transangelic Exodus. I love fiction, I’ve been a fiction writer since I was a small kid. These [new songs] have their share of fiction in them too but it’s more like putting a syringe in my brain and emptying that syringe out on to the record. It’s direct from my inner life, basically, without the veil of fiction, and also it’s just musically and process-wise a lot more immediate.

“We made the record quickly and we didn’t think super hard about how to play the songs. It kind of took one conversation and one rehearsal for each song, it was like ‘we know how to figure this out’. A couple of them had some tricky details but with Transangelic Exodus we figured out a whole way to do three or four versions of every song then scrapped it all; there might have been one thing from that process we used in the final version. It wasn’t tiresome to me, it was very fascinated, but over the eight months we were doing that I was like, ‘I know I can also do this other thing which is well, punk rock.”

Furman has talked of Twelve Nudes being a political record, but one that’s an “emotional reaction rather than being specific or partisan”. The song Rated R Crusaders refers to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, yet Furman, who is Jewish, stresses within it that “polarise and binary is really not my scene” and that he’s “on the side of peace”.

“I think it’s a line of thinking which I have a lot, which is ‘oh, there’s a very divisive issue that people care about a lot that’s political, there are two sides of it and which side are you on?’ Israel and Palestine is one of many issue where I’m like, ‘Maybe this could benefit from looking at the situation not from I’m going to join one of these sides and go to battle but I’m going to think about the lives of the people affected here and find something to do that can be helpful for all potentially’. When you’re talking about making peace, that’s kind of what needs to happen. To me it needs to be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine at the same time, because we’re taking about people. That’s what I think about when I think about a word like ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestine’, I don’t think about the nation, I think about the people.

“The national ideally is there to protect people’s lives and to care for people, so I guess I see a bunch of refugee trauma in that situation and I sympathise with traumatised refugees. Where that puts me, I don’t know. If you’re on one of those sides then that puts you against the other side, then there’s some traumatised refugees that you are actively opposing. That’s really not what I want to do with my political energy.

“I know that doesn’t translate into where would you stand as an American, but that’s OK. I think I’m trying to be a reminder of the emotional issue of refugee trauma and the goal of peace. That is an area that an artist can be of use, re-centring in some people’s minds the emotional and spiritual undercurrents of these conversations, which can get lost.”

When it comes to Donald Trump, however, the choice for Furman is clear. “When rich people ruin the lives of poor people, I side with the poor people. There is a binary conversation and I oppose that guy, that current American President, but I do that not out of some kind of team spirit.

“I still insist, sometimes against people’s protests, that I’m not a liberal and I’m not a conservative, and I don’t take a platform. I just don’t side with the team across the board, I think that’s a dangerous thing to start to do, to say ‘I’m on this team, whatever you say’, that seems unhealthy and that seems to be what a lot of voices are doing. In the case of Donald Trump, it’s a rich guy ruining the world, it’s pretty clear. It’s just a poisonous, lying person, but I’m not like a ‘ra-ra, go Democrats person’. That guy is obviously a poisonous person, we all know that he lies to everybody, that’s not a debate.”

The song What Can You Do But Rock and Roll? is, he says, about “bottled frustration from my current life”. “It’s more about my current self than my younger self,” he adds. “That’s a song of anger, frustration and sadness and it leading me into going to rock ’n’ roll shows and make my own happen as well.”

Eight albums into his career, Furman feels he has finally found a suppressed power within himself that he once observed in others. “I have struggled with, and sometimes prevailed over, a lot of self-doubt and doubt from other people I don’t know, I think human beings struggle to be the best version of themselves, we’re all doing it, some with more ease than others. I am delighted to say that I feel like I’m better year by year as a human being and as an artist, even if it’s little increments, but whereas I used to be very repressed I’m not any more.

“The tides are always lapping back at me, the forces of repression and self-repression have not gone away, but I am more equipped each year to fight them off. I always wanted to make good records and I’m proud that I have learned how to do that.”

Twelve Nudes is out on Bella Union on August 23. Ezra Furman plays at Deer Shed Festival on Sunday July 28. www.ezrafurman.com