The political, the personal, and the spiritual with the inspired American songwriter...

“I first went on tour when I was 19 and I’m 31, which I keep surprising people with,” Ezra Furman discloses, sipping a peppermint tea. “People think I’m younger than that, I don’t know why. I have the mind of a child.”

This perhaps provides an explanation for the penchant for reinvention and tireless touring schedule that he’s maintained throughout his 12 year career. But honestly, as he tells me about his life, career and cinematic new “queer outlaw saga” ‘Transangelic Exodus’ through the din of a bustling Old Street café, his professed hyperactivity isn’t obvious; initially, Furman seems shy. Clash quickly realises, however, that this is not the case at all, he simply values every word he’s given the opportunity to share. A long time passes between each sentence, yet each sentence is as funny and fascinating as the last. Once our interview is underway it’s clear that he makes for wonderful company.

One only has to be loosely familiar with Furman’s career to know that his is a brain that never stops ticking over. ‘Transangelic Exodus’, his seventh full length which he is in town promoting, laughs in the face of critics whose snobbery prevents them from appreciating the escapist. Therein, the escapist is fictional, personal and political all at once: Furman and an undisclosed angelic companion are heading to Los Angeles, on the run from oppressive authorities.

But rather than operating like a concept album, this premise simply provides a thematic grounding around which other ideas orbit. When Clash tentatively uses that phrase, however, Furman gives a knowing smile and says “by the way, it’s okay, people can just use that phrase. I just don’t want people to think it’s a rock opera.”

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There’s something oddly funny about Furman having to point this out. When he tells me “the problem is I don’t have that energy off the stage. Onstage is the best. I was just telling someone I love playing shows and I hate going on tour”, Clash notices quite how wide the gap is between his onstage and offstage personas. Having in the past described himself as a tom-girl and regularly sporting a dress, lipstick and eyeliner when performing, to see him offstage clad in a warm, long jacket, jeans and a beanie pulled far enough down his face so as to practically function as a balaclava whilst insisting that his new record is not a rock opera makes for an amusing juxtaposition.

Frankly, though, it’s nothing short of lucky that Furman has a record to promote in 2018. We’re talking about his 2013 album ‘Day Of The Dog’, and he reveals to me: “I’d actually 100% decided to stop being a touring musician. I made what I consider my best attempt at my perfect rock and roll record. I pulled it all together, like, ‘this to me is what a good record is’. The very best I could do. It died upon release. The other issue I was having is I was increasingly committed to keeping the sabbath, shabbat, doing the Jewish sabbath in a traditional and serious way, but then I’d book tours with shows on Fridays, and you can’t be a touring musician and not play Friday nights, you’ll just kill your tour and you’ll never make it. That was another drive I had to just stop. Even with a five-star review in the Guardian, I was like, ‘it’s over’.”

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I used to be afraid, probably embarrassed, to be sincere about God in public...

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In ‘Transangelic Exodus’, he sounds more proud to address his faith openly than ever before; ‘God Lifts Up the Lowly’ even features a verse sung in Hebrew. Clash wonders how to broach this subject with him, but he seems somewhat relieved to be offered the opportunity to talk about Judaism.

When asked if it’s indirectly influenced his choice of career in any way, and if it has impacted specific facets of his music beyond being a reason to seriously consider if music was what he should be doing, he says: “I’m just becoming a more integrated person every year. I used to be afraid, probably embarrassed, to be sincere about God in public, and I’m just not anymore. It’s so weird, I guess a bit sad to me, to see so many liberal people and artists think of religion and spirituality as something that they wouldn’t ever touch with a pole, because to me it’s pretty clear that the message, at least, one of the core points of the Old Testament is that God takes the side of the lowly, of the oppressed.”

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All of this is not to say ‘Transangelic Exodus’ is set to be Furman’s ‘breakout’ album; in fact, it was his second full-length, 2008’s ‘Inside The Human Body’ with old band The Harpoons, which initially offered him a taste of major success. Its lead single ‘Take Off Your Sunglasses’ rocketed to number one. In Austria, sure, but it still counts.

This story is made all the sweeter by knowing that this record was released by Minty Fresh, a small, Chicago-based independent. His eyes light up with pride when he recounts finding out; he can scarcely believe that it happened himself: “You think you were amazed! [laughs] It was such a ‘what the fuck?!’ moment. Someone came up to us right after we played, like ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but you have a number one hit in Austria, they love it, I don’t know why…’ We didn’t… I’m still confused about why that happened.”

Even now, 10 years on, the words to pinpoint the feeling escape him. This - coupled with the aforementioned tumultuousness that has haunted his career up to this point - creates the air of someone who feels humbled just to be playing music for a living.

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I found it really powerful as a dream that doesn’t explain itself...

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After spending much of 2015 and 2016 penning “a lot of songs, I thought maybe I was writing about being positive or coming out”, Furman plucked from his subconscious a deeply inconvenient epiphany. From nowhere, the womb of the best ideas, came an angel; an allegory for the oppression of those who are visibly different. Different to what? To the authorities on the hunt for Furman and this angelic companion.

This idea compelled him so much that it troubled him, and immediately he questioned the potency of the material he’d been working on up to this point. In a frantic 15 minute scrawl, ‘Transangelic Exodus’ uproarious opener ‘Suck The Blood From My Wound’ was made flesh. “I was working on turning it into something with a beginning, middle and end, something with a coherent back story, then I just got rid of most of that explanatory stuff cos I found it really powerful as a dream that doesn’t explain itself”, he says. Its opening line belies its uplifting, Springsteen-style musicality: “I woke up bleeding in the crock of a tree”. From our conversation, it becomes clear that this juxtaposition serves as an allegory for solidarity amongst the oppressed.

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This allegorical thread runs deep throughout all of ‘Transangelic Exodus’. ‘Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill marries pop with paranoia in lyrics such as “I don’t think I’ll be showing up in synagogue at quarter past seven/sometimes you go through hell and you never get to heaven”, whereas the sentimental ‘Psalm 151’ wistfully entertains the idea of succumbing to resignation, yet beyond the melancholic balladry, Furman and his celestial ally are defiant: “Authorities are trailing right behind/I’m not afraid, we read the psalms at night”.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the record, however, is its production. The songwriting itself is unmistakably Ezra, yet when he professes a love for ‘Odelay’ and ‘Yeezus’, ‘Transangelic Exodus’ heavily affected, digitally degraded gloss makes sense. For so long, Furman has recycled the invaluable teachings of the canon of great American songwriters, on similar tools and similar terms. Now though, he wants to occupy the present.

"It might just be that as I snap to the fact that people are going to hear these new records, that they’re not confined to total obscurity, I kind of realise I really should throw my hat in the ring with the great minds of 21st century music”, he says. “We were making records that were intended to give you a feel of a band from the 60s, but we were using computers with limitless capabilities to do that, see what I’m getting at?”

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I just want everybody who goes to shows to vote.

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By the time our conversation ends, Furman’s intelligence is so devastatingly apparent that Clash is excited for an answer when we quickly ask him if there’s anything else he’d like to add that we haven’t covered. He says: “No need to incorporate this if it’s irrelevant, but I’m trying this year to have voter registration stations at our shows in the US, because there’s this midterm which is potentially quite crucial for the well-being of many vulnerable Americans, and I just want to start talking about it. I want it to become a thing that every band touring America is doing. I’m talking to a few organisations, but I just wish it would be a movement. I just want everybody who goes to shows to vote.”

When Clash leaves, it’s clear to me that Furman is the guardian angel to so many vulnerable people that he hopes to find for himself.

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'Transangelic Exodus' is out now.

Words: Sean Harper
Photography: Poppy Marriott

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