Ezra Furman has never really fit in. The “outcast kid” has always carved his own path in musical genres, style or gender boundaries.
Music has given the singer/songwriter both a dedicated fan base and the courage and confidence he has sought his entire life, he said. His music is also a vehicle for the Evanston, Illinois, native to speak out on subjects ranging from sexuality to police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri.
Today, Furman has developed a cult following not only in the U.S. but also overseas. The Guardian called Furman “the most compelling live act you can see right now,” and Gigwise Magazine named his latest studio release, Perpetual Motion People, the best album of 2015.
I spoke with Furman about his gender fluidity, the influential role of Lou Reed and navigating his musical and personal lives.
You cite Lou Reed as a major influence on many aspects of your life. How has he influenced you?
If you left out Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground’s influence on music in general, the whole edifice of rock music would be radically different. When I first heard The Velvet Underground, I could hear the freedom in Lou Reed’s voice and the way he approached being the singer of a band and writing songs. Hearing the song “Sweet Jane,” I sensed the freedom in his approach. There was also some sort of sexual freedom. There are a bunch of different ways that Lou Reed subtly signals that well-known category definitions don’t apply to him. That’s what inspired me most.
What made you want to come out as gender fluid?
A sort of personal confidence led me to live with more of an acceptance of my preferred gender presentation. That caused more confidence in my life. There was some sort of increase in confidence on stage that led me to dress more feminine during shows. That confidence fed back into my personal life, and I was able to brave the trial to dress feminine offstage. Over the past several years, there have been increasing levels of confidence in different areas of my life. Coming out has been a really big part of that. It’s been a slow and sloppy coming out; there was no moment of, “Hey world, this is me,” it just started to become more obvious as time went on.
You say you love musicians who contradict what artists should be. Why is this?
The more I’ve realized there aren’t rules, the better I’ve gotten at making music. You know intellectually that no one’s making you do music a certain way. But, it actually takes some creativity and mental courage to say, “I want to do this thing that is not the kind of music I’ve made my fans come to expect.” All those things take a little courage. Courage is one of the things I’m trying to have. That’s one of the best things that an artist shows—when they show themselves to the world—is courage.
Why is having a consistent personal and musical identity important to you?
I’m interested in performing in a way that reflects my life honestly; that’s always been the goal for me. That may not [have been] the goal for David Bowie. He [was] not trying to reveal himself; [he was] trying to become something alien and artificial and beautiful. I’ve been thinking lately [of] two goals. Some people’s goal is to create something artificial and become that. Some other people’s goal is to shed the artifice and show who they really are. The latter is [what] I’m going for. I’m not sure why I have this drive to live my offstage life in a way that is consistent with my stage life or why my values in private and public have to be the same. To me that’s a kind of sainthood.
What was the decision behind the varying musical styling on Perpetual Motion People from song to song?
My principle job—if I had to choose one—is being the songwriter. Since the first time I knew I wanted to make music, I knew I wanted to write good songs. I dreamed of being a songwriter and not a performer—just a songwriter for other people to sing my songs. I’d listen to all types of genres and music and I would see which ones I could pull off. Could I write a soul song or a rap song or a punk song? I just always wanted to be good at all of them. I was interested to see what happens when I’d play different songs with my band. I don’t really care that our most recent album is all over the place in terms of sound. It’s united by my perspective. I took that from The Beatles; The Beatles didn’t stick to any one sound at any time in the second half of their career.
Why did you feel it was important to write “Ferguson’s Burning” about the Ferguson riots?
I wanted to be one of the many voices talking about that and amplifying that and showing on the Internet that it’s important. I wanted to flood the Internet outrage about the death of Michael Brown. It also happened to be a moment that I was able to put into a song. It was a powerful thing and I found myself able to write about it. There [have] been a lot of moments that could use an angry song like that. It’s not like I write about all of them, but somehow that got into my brain that day in an urgent way. A lot of songs come from that feeling that something is happening here, whether it’s emotional, internal or outside in the public world. Even being on Twitter [while] the Ferguson riots were escalating, hearing about it from people who were there—it was very clear that something horrific was happening and it was so charged and upsetting.
What is the different between playing larger shows in the U.K. opposed to the U.S.?
More people come to our shows. To me, it’s important to see all club shows as equally important. If it’s a show for 15 people in Upstate New York or a show in London, my job is the same—to connect and do it really well.