Turning despair into action
She admits that she doesn’t know too much about astrology, but Ezra Furman is recognisably a Virgo.
The first clue is in her intimidating schedule: when I speak to her she is packing up to move across the country, from California’s Bay Area to Boston. Then there’s simultaneous preparation for the release of her new album – the ferocious, righteous Twelve Nudes – before her seemingly never-ending tour starts up again. The first show coincides with her birthday: 5 September, “like Freddie Mercury.”
She also has the trademark meticulousness of a Virgo, both in the way meaning is densely packed through her work, and in her thoughtful, in-depth approach to speaking about it. Twelve Nudes is her self-described “punk record”, but its directness is like economical poetry. “I could say nothing about it and you could get the point just through listening,” she says at the start of our conversation. It may be less verbose than her last album, 2018’s narrative epic Transangelic Exodus, but these are still songs that stick to the soul, moulding their lean, scrappy forms around the listener’s own pain and experience.
The subject matter and themes of Furman’s music are esoteric and multifaceted, but a strong line of struggle and survival can be drawn through all her work. She excels at expressing a familiarly oxymoronic state: a simultaneous weary frustration and a sharp and inexhaustible determination to keep living – like that old Samuel Beckett line, “I can’t go on/I’ll go on.” Although released eighteen months apart, Twelve Nudes was recorded soon after the release of Transangelic Exodus. They seem to represent two approaches to the same crisis: the former is measured, allegorical and polished; the latter is too angry and exhausted to spend time relating its pain through stories. The two albums feel conceptually twisted around each other; companion pieces of sorts.
How does Furman see the relationship between them? “[Transangelic Exodus] was really rather well dressed. This one is more naked. It’s scary to say that Transangelic Exodus didn’t feel freaked out enough, but it’s true. As fearful, paranoid and sometimes angry as it was, I felt like a lot of it was about solidarity. I started seeing a lot of despair going around – deeper despair than just political despair – and my role was becoming the person who said, ‘don’t despair, we’re gonna be ok.’ While saying this, something started to grow, and gather darkness out of the corner of my vision, which was – it’s not gonna be ok for everybody.”
I suggest that the album is a touch nihilistic, because of how its songs hold their feelings of anguish for longer, rather than trying to find a way out of them. Furman firmly disputes this: instead, she sees this approach as a useful tool for survival. “The despair and panic we sometimes feel are not really best brushed off,” she explains. “It’s worth feeling them. I think those kinds of feelings show up as alarm bells, and some of us – even people who are doing activism or talking about these things a lot – we can still get into the mode of hitting the snooze button on the alarm. It started to feel very important to start paying attention to these feelings and to look right in the face of how afraid I am. Even feeling hopelessness points toward having to do something, having to participate. If we live in that feeling first for a minute, then we can respond appropriately.”
For Furman, this response is increasingly expressed through activism. She states that, “my dream right now is for all our fans to become activists” – an aim she has encouraged in recent years through sharing calls to political action over social media. In the run up to the 2018 US midterm elections, she regularly and passionately encouraged her fans to register to vote, even attempting to introduce voter registration booths at her shows. Political engagement was framed as inherent to Ezra Furman fandom. “If you are a fan of our music, this is as good as – or better than – buying a record or going to a show,” she tweeted in March 2018.
This galvanising force is behind “Evening Prayer aka Justice”, the most explicitly hopeful moment on Twelve Nudes. Aligning with Furman’s tightly-wound practices of artistry and activism, the song is a call to transform the energy of a rock ‘n’ roll show into political action: “If you’ve got the taste for transcendence/Then translate your love into action.” The song was prepared with characteristic thoughtfulness: “The more years I spend on stages the more I think, I have everyone’s attention right now, and what would I say if I could say anything?” she proposes. “What if I could go home and prepare everything I wanted to say? What if I could prepare it to rhythm and melody… Oh yes, that’s what I do! I feel like more than any song I’ve ever written, “Evening Prayer” is exactly what I would want to say to a crowd of people.”
Furman’s live shows are so electric, so transcendent, that it’s easy to be optimistic that their power could be galvanised for good. “I've been in so many rooms full of people with such energy it’s just crackling through the room, y’know? Us and the audience become this community that’s ready to live differently. The more times I'm in that kind of room the more times I think, this energy can be used outside of this room, let’s take it into the real world and agree together to live in accordance with what we think is important. I think that’s possible, and that’s the best feeling. You never feel as good as when you’re living your values and putting them into real action.”
Her current primary focus is one that is surely shared with a lot of her fans. “I came very close to calling this album 'Climate Change', and part of me regrets that I did not. But it’s become the issue I’m feeling the most urgent about.” Furman’s creeping realisation of this urgency is familiar: “It was in the corner of my vision and I was afraid to really look at it. I’d read something and it would send me into a tailspin of hopelessness and I couldn’t think about it again for a month. And years go by that way. It’s what human civilisation is all collectively doing, and it’s made everything worse. Sort of like a pain in your teeth that you’re trying to ignore and live with.” This lingering feeling is expressed on Twelve Nudes in the tense, visceral “My Teeth Hurt”. But even as Furman deals in imagery of screeching amps and bodily chaos (“The treble’s like a root canal”) she treats pain and frustration as an existential prompt: “The ache inside reminds my mind my body’s really there.”
The accumulating dread that inspired the album led to a simultaneous urge to record in a different way. “While putting such time and careful effort into Transangelic Exodus, there was something else building up. There’s another thing that I do, which is just hit the ‘on’ button and start bashing away. Almost in a similar way, the urge to do that was building up for the whole period, and I thought, I’m gonna have to do something like that next.” Recorded over “two short bursts” in Oakland, the album has a distinct sonic urgency. The guitars are loud and Furman’s voice is at times unhinged, tense against the timeless nature of her melodies. Even though it is the most musically cohesive of Furman’s albums, there’s still plenty of light and shade in its take on punk. “Thermometer“ is pounding and repetitive, where “Transition from Nowhere to Nowhere” is a tale of lonesome wandering in a grand American tradition, interpreted through a scrappy, lo-fi performance. On the 56-second-long “Blown”, the instrumentation is stripped back to just a guitar thick with Sonic Youth-esque distortion, heralded with a scream of “TRANS POWER!” at the start.
Perhaps the most surprising song on the album is the dreamy, romantic “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend”. Another of Furman’s riffs on 1950s and ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll, the song is a transgender girl group ballad for the last dance of queer prom, expressing Furman’s desire that “the real me might be the one you want.” How does Furman see it in the context of the album? “It was actually the last one we recorded. It was up for consideration [for inclusion on the album] but I was like, we’ve got to be ruthless, we’ve got to be relentless with the mood of loud, fast, aggressive. Then suddenly it hit me that this one could become the beating heart of it all. It changes the whole record for it to be on there.”
The song is coy but subtly charged with what Furman refers to as “transgender longing” – a daydream of fitting into a traditionally feminine role, alongside a pathos-laden admission of her perceived shortcomings (“Honey I know that I don’t have the body you’d want in a girlfriend”). But, as with all of Furman’s work, it’s characterised by determination. “The yearning is romantic but it’s also very much a yearning to become something and be taken seriously. That’s why it starts with applying for jobs,” she explains, citing the opening list of her friends’ parallel ambitions. “This is my job application for the job of desired girl, with all the fear and the weight of doing that in a world that says you’re not that. I think that’s what gives it the edge that allowed it to be on the album, that’s why we could do it in a way that gets loud and is recorded kind of raw like the rest of it. Because it carries an edge of anger and bitterness – fuck you, I wanna be your girlfriend, that could be possible. I know you don’t understand, I know this isn’t the body you were hoping for. Because it’s addressed to someone who maybe doesn’t understand. It seems to be addressed to a cisgender person, not in a queer utopia.”
Queer longing is so often wishing someone would want you as your authentic self, even if your authentic self is less of a fixed destination and more of a gradually revealed work-in-progress. “But like, it’s really not exclusively queer,” Fuman argues. “Most queer things have been sharpened by the particulars of queerness, but everyone is dealing with performance and their inner world being exiled from their outward contact with people. It’s acute with us queers though.”
The liminal state of queerness is referenced in “What Can You Do But Rock 'n' Roll” – both as a personal, yearning feeling, and a gradually depleting status imposed by governmental forces (“The kind of sex you want is the kind they’d like to make illegal”). The line “Bisexual blues got me begging to be recognised” resonates especially sharply with this feeling of statelessness. It’s not a universal bisexual experience, but I always think of my own bisexuality as wanting everything at the same time; an excess of feeling. But this is in tandem with an enforced societal invisibility. “The feeling of getting erased right?” agrees Furman. Then, quoting the rest of the verse: “You’re walking on the highway median, right in the middle of the street and invisible to everybody: ‘’my heart is on fire, does anyone know?’”
"Presenting feminine is a way of pushing myself out in public – I can’t just run into an old friend and not be wearing a dress if I’m wearing a dress"
The personal meaning of this plea for recognition has changed for Furman on reflection. “To me it seems almost like a line from a previous part of my life,” she explains. “It’s true that I still often do feel invisible, but a big part of me presenting feminine all the time is that it has to not be invisible. I can’t be walking around and have this be a part of me that I can easily keep secret. Presenting feminine is a way of pushing myself out in public – I can’t just run into an old friend and not be wearing a dress if I’m wearing a dress.” But the recognition that comes with being visibly queer is still complex. “I’m in so many situations where me being queer is not something that can be talked about even when it’s plainly obvious. There’s certain friends and family that haven’t really broken through that boundary even if I am looking feminine around them. It’s just like, ‘let’s just ignore that and pretend you’re normal.’ It’s a bad feeling.”
Furman’s live shows can be a sacred place for her queer fans. In a world where queer (and especially trans) people’s rights are consistently being rolled back and subject to ‘debate’, representation isn’t everything. But it’s still important and meaningful to see visibly queer and trans artists on stage. It’s also encouraging to see that visibly queer people aren’t the only people who make up Furman’s audiences, which tend to be fairly mixed demographically.
I liken this to the audience of someone like Bruce Springsteen – an artist who shares musical and lyrical concerns with Furman, as well as a fanbase comprised of ‘traditional’ rock fans as well as people who wouldn’t (stereo)typically be found in those contexts. “I mean I like that kind of thing, it’s my whole aesthetic,” Furman says. “I go to orthodox Jewish services so I fancy myself a bridge builder.” I bring up a friend who makes zines about being a queer Springsteen fan, and queueing for shows outside stadiums with middle aged dads. “I mean Bruce Springsteen is bringing these people together for sure, but also she is going out on a limb, she’s crossing a bridge to hang out in this space with the bikers.” The communities that can arise from being a fan of something, or even a follower of a religion, are not always expected. People brought together in this way are a kind of cross section of society – a community that feels more authentic because it’s unlikely.
Furman has an inherent understanding of the intangible, galvanising magic that can be shared between an artist and their audience – an understanding that stems from her experience on both sides of this exchange. “It’s something that I’ve felt as a member of an audience, and It’s something I learned from my heroes,” she explains. “Even as someone watching a YouTube video, y’know? And it’s a dream of mine that our show could not just leave you where it found you, but – as certain shows have done for me – leave you a changed person. With a bigger sense of what’s possible.”
What are some of the shows that have left their mark on her? “Oh so many,” she begins. “I saw The Strokes in 2002, which was pure joy, just watching people do something so cool, so fully-formed and perfect. Then I saw Pixies when they first reunited in 2004. That band has always been a doorway to a dream logic, just a whole different set of aesthetic values. Then there was a show by this guy Ben Lee from Australia who I saw when I was 18. By the end of his show it felt like we were all friends, we’d all gone on a journey together. I don’t really listen to his records much but that was a show I’ll always remember, how you can bring an audience with you and make them care about what you care about.”
Springsteen is another one – a show in 2008 when saxophonist Clarence Clemons was still alive and playing with the E Street Band. “I went in so sceptical of the pomposity of Bruce Springsteen and what a cliché he is. It instantly melted away and I saw the true heroism of what that artist has given us. Unforgettable. And then there’s more: punk bands from my high school days, and a million weirdos whose bands never even put out a release.” I like the idea that all of us have these transcendent experiences, and some of them are Springsteen in a football stadium and some of them are bands that nobody else remembers. “Yeah, like in a high school cafeteria or a church basement,” Furman agrees. Then a long, heavily felt pause. “Isn’t music the best? It’s just the best. Those things are from different directions and equally powerful and really transforming my idea of what’s possible in art. Even as a human being: what you can feel, what you can share with other people, what kind of community can suddenly exist in a world where you feel like you have no community.”
Furman strikes me as much a fan as she is a creator, “shouting out whoever inspires me,” whether in interviews or via cover versions of songs that punctuate her live sets, a selection of which were collected on the 2016 EP Songs by Others. After the release of Transangelic Exodus, the 33⅓ series released Furman’s affecting and personal book about Lou Reed’s 1973 album Transformer, a formative inspiration for her distinctly queer rock ‘n’ roll.
Another eternal favourite of Furman’s is Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson, a key influence on Transangelic Exodus. Its allegorical story of Furman and her angel lover on the run from the government chimed with Carson’s novel-length poems Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, which follow the queer, red-winged monster Geryon who lives outside society with his lover and friend. “I feel very unworthy to be talking about Anne Carson. I think she’s maybe the greatest living writer. I still dream of one day doing something that’s is so blown open like Autobiography of Red is, where the possibilities are limitless and the fidelity to experience the world is so high. That book feels more like life than really anything I’ve read.” Carson’s work is so enigmatic and rich that it’s possible to read Autobiography of Red and Red Doc> a dozen times and still not understand them. Every stanza feels unexpected, dragged up from nowhere. “Dragged up from nowhere and inevitable also,” Furman says. “Nothing else could have been dragged up but that.”
Furman namechecked Carson as one of the ‘spiritual heroes’ of Twelve Nudes, but laughs when I bring this up: “It’s funny to talk about Anne Carson with anyone who asks me about this record. I wrote the press release as a writing assignment that someone gave me that week, and just because of what I wrote then it infects every conversation.” But there are clear connections: the illustrated cover of the album, by Spanish artist Cristina Daura, shows a hand ripping back the skin of a face to reveal a cartoonish inner world. The hand is red, and the mouth grits its teeth around red feathers – red like Carson’s Geryon. The title of the album comes from her poem 'The Glass Essay'. “Have you read that one?” asks Furman. “I love it so much. The visions she has in meditation, I loved that she called them nudes, and they were only intermittent visions of bodies. It was like some deeper essential nakedness was what they all had in common, like an emotional nudity. And I think that’s what made me wanna call this Twelve Nudes.”
“Also being totally tired of thinking so, so much about what I look like to everyone else,” she says, alluding to a more personal way in which the punk approach of Twelve Nudes has galvanised her. “I’m just like, fuck it man. I can’t curate everyone’s experience of me anymore.”