With new album ‘All Of Us Flames’, a lot has changed for Ezra Furman.
Words: Alex Cabre.
“What are we writing here? What are we trying to make?” Ezra Furman asks pointedly, over video call from her home in Boston, USA. The 35-year-old musician immediately has Dork on the back foot getting the first question in, but her reasoning is sound; after being burned by the media in the past, “I’ve learnt to watch out,” she explains. “I want to make friends with most people that I talk to, but in this context… I’ve learnt to be careful what I say.”
Since Dork last met Ezra, promoting her fire-bellied punk record ‘Twelve Nudes’ back in 2019, she’s come out as a transgender woman. In the same announcement, posted to Instagram in 2021, she spoke publicly about having a young child with her partner. “When our baby was born, I had approximately zero examples of trans women raising children,” she wrote then. “So here’s one for anyone who wants to see one. I’m a trans woman and a mom. This is possible.” Support from friends and fans poured in, but “for some reason I don’t really understand, it was picked up by everybody on the internet.” Major media outlets clickbait-ified the post Ezra thought would only be of interest to her own followers, and an announcement which was meant to be celebratory ended in her receiving a torrent of transphobic abuse. The reaction still baffles her now. “Why would I be on Fox News or CNN.com? I’m not Jennifer Lopez!”
If the experience had one silver lining, it was the sense of mission it instilled into ‘All Of Us Flames’, Ezra’s empowered and cinematic new record, which she began recording right as that post went out. Turning pain and anguish into fervent rock and roll is a trademark of Ezra’s music, which often deals with topics of outsiderdom and mental health. Hateful comments became ammunition when she realised what the album’s purpose was and what it could mean to the queer community. “It’s got to be a weapon you can use. It’s gotta be armour. I know just a handful of people will use it that way, but I hope that they will.”
“Why would I be on Fox News or CNN.com? I’m not Jennifer Lopez!”Ezra Furman
The essence of the record is distilled on ‘Forever in Sunset’, an anthemic cut Ezra wrote during the early days of Covid. When a close friend found herself without income or a home, she found sanctuary in Ezra’s living room, where they considered how, for a lot of queer people, end-of-the-world scenarios occur far more than once in a lifetime.
“When Covid was hitting, like a lot of people, my friend Chelsea’s life was blowing up. [But] she was so calm. She was like, ‘my life has blown up before’. The queer people that I know, we’ve been kicked out of our homes, we’ve lived with poverty. You have a personal apocalypse sometimes, and we know what to do. We take care of each other.”
The necessity for acts of compassion that the pandemic spurred happened in tandem with Ezra’s new role as a parent. Although it became “very intense” looking after a one-year-old while stuck inside worrying about loss of work, being a mother “feels like a job I was born to do”, she proudly confesses.
“It makes you organise your life around love and care. Those are no longer just feelings. They’re the structuring concepts of your life when you become a parent. I think it’s been really good for me, spiritually.
“Not that this wasn’t true before, and in some way, I think this comes through on the record, but something you’re reminded of perpetually when you’re a parent is that there is a future, and you have to work to love, to make it possible.”
Hence why ‘All Of Us Flames’ strikes such a different tone to ‘Twelve Nudes’, which ricocheted angrily against Donald Trump’s America with an array of choppy drum machines and scuzzy riffs. “It feels like the sequel to a punk rock attitude is an attitude of, well, if it’s us against them, how do we last? How do we not flame out, be resilient, survive to watch them fall?
“I always hated all the fucking apocalypse discourse. People joking about the end of the world…” she continues, harking back to the rhetoric during the early days of the pandemic, though the same attitude applies to climate change, politics, and endless other late-capitalism anxieties. “It’s not the end of the world. You still have to do your job as a human being, you know? I know you want all the problems to be over, for everything to burn up, and we all die, but that’s not how it works. I felt like that apocalypse talk was this defeatist and futureless thinking. You got a job to do here. We need you to know; we’re gonna need you in ten years”.
Ezra’s Jewish faith is another facet she explores deeper on this record than ever before. It’s something she’s written about in the past; on the grief-stricken 2016 track ‘The Refugee’, she imagined herself in place of her grandfather, who was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Poland in World War 2.
‘All Of Us Flames’ takes its title from the song ‘Book Of Our Names’, in turn a reference to the Bible book Exodus, which is known in Hebrew as the Book Of Names. “I started to think that the act of saying names out loud, of seeing individuals in their full, irreplaceable uniqueness, holds the seed of true liberation,” Ezra writes in a press release.
“It’s a huge subject; I don’t know where to start,” she says now of the topic. “If I had to choose one thing that the Jewish people came into existence to demonstrate or teach the world, I would say it’s about caring for the vulnerable and embracing the outsider. Our Bible – the Old Testament, some Christians call it – says some version of care for or love the outsider about 36 times. It’s the most repeated idea.”
For Ezra, being Jewish “rhymes with” being queer. “A lot of ideas about what it means to be a cultural minority were first demonstrated by the Jewish people being so scattered around the world. Not just spiritually and religiously, but [as] some socio-cultural demonstration of what it looks like for there to be a sub-population of people who are different.
“Queer people are doing that teaching as much as anyone now, [driving] the conversation about how society should treat a sub-group of people, a hated demographic, a vulnerable demographic.”
Over a glistening, hazy soundscape, Ezra reaches out to other trans women on the song ‘Lilac and Black’, singing, “Tonight I’m dreaming of my queer girl gang / We who walk this deadly path / And the city that tries to kill us each night will soon bow before our wrath.”
The two colours in the song, which also make up the album’s artwork and accompanying photos, become uniform, a livery for an imagined gang who look out for each other and are willing to defend themselves. “Maybe we should all wear the same colours. It’s just a little idea, just a little suggestion,” she smiles.
“Working for Netflix, that’s my corporate gig. I had to get a job!”Ezra Furman
Endlessly quotable and effortlessly charming, Ezra talks so much like a freedom fighter it’s easy to forget that she’s also a multi-talented singer-songwriter with an impressive breadth of material to her name. ‘All Of Us Flames’ is her sixth solo album and her ninth overall (she fronted Massachusetts-formed outfit The Harpoons from 2006 to 2011).
Ever the adventurer into new sonic realms, ‘… Flames’ takes her alt-rock roots into shimmery, dream-pop directions, lending optimism to the often fraught subject matter. Working with trusted collaborators plus an outside producer for the first time helped Ezra create her most ethereal songs to date; ‘Ally Sheedy in the Breakfast Club’ prickles like static from an old TV screen, ‘I Saw the Truth Undressing’ glistens with mesmerising melancholia.
“They’re beautiful, right?” Ezra grins. “There’s a couple of factors here. I’ve been with this band – these three guys and me – for ten years now. To my shock! [When you’ve] played together for ten years, you can make decisions about making records that you couldn’t early on. On this record, I leant a lot more on their expertise and ideas. It was the most collaborative, really. I tried to let go of my control freak tendencies and let my genius drummer be a genius drummer, let my genius keyboard player be a genius keyboard player…”
The band were aided by studio wizard John Congleton, whose extensive resumé includes work with St. Vincent, Alvvays, and Bombay Bicycle Club, among heaps of others.
“Congleton is great to work with. We have a lot of the same taste. Pretty early in the process, I was grasping for a certain weird sound and he pulled out this thing called a Panoptigon. It’s kind of like a mellotron but you put a record on it made of these old recordings of choirs and stuff like that [which] you manipulate with a keyboard. It’s like sampling a texture and then fucking with it, basically. We ended up using it on eight or nine tracks; it’s that swirly organ sound.”
“That melty feeling isn’t what I went for in the past. I’m feeling a lot more melty these days,” she says.
Armed with a set of new songs to perform, much of the rest of Ezra’s year will be spent touring, at home in the States before heading back to the UK in Autumn. For Ezra, there are “a couple of attendant emotions” attached to getting back on the road.
“The first one I think of is ecstasy because playing shows is one of the big joys of my life. Both the band and the audience are really good at their jobs. But then there’s another aspect of not being very used to leaving home after two years. It’s hard for me as a parent. It doesn’t feel quite right. As of yet, I’m not making the kind of money where I can easily take my family on tour. So, there’s that bittersweetness.
“And then there was a lot of fear,” she continues, tone suddenly riled. “A lot of fear just to put myself in front of people again.” A run of US gigs back in May was her first time back in front of an audience since the reaction to her coming out, and though “it turned out to feel okay in a live show context,” she found herself feeling more self-conscious than before.
“The truth is I don’t love getting a lot of attention about me; I like to get attention for my work”, she concedes, denouncing the music industry promo machine, which relies on visibility to sell tickets.
One way she’s enjoyed her work getting attention is by penning the soundtrack to Netflix’s ground-breaking dramedy series Sex Education; the third edition was released on streaming platforms last year. And although she views her work for the show separately from her “world of making albums,” it’s something she’s keen to continue in the future.
“Working for Netflix, that’s my corporate gig. I had to get a job! To have a child and try to rely on rock and roll money? That’s not smart!” she laughs. “We don’t really play it live, but I’m really proud to be associated with it. As TV shows go, it’s very sane and big-hearted. I think it’s a force for good.
“I am in my element when I’m on stage,” she notes, as talk turns back to touring. “Especially in the past, when I had more social anxiety than I do now, I longed for the stage because that was a place where I could prepare what I had to say and say it, and no one could interrupt me. Even though I’m very nervous on stage a lot, it’s the perfect place for me to be able to articulate myself”.
Ezra considers ‘All Of Us Flames’ to be the third instalment of a trilogy which began on her escapist concept album ‘Transangelic Exodus’. That record explored “this dawning fear and paranoia that we’re not safe” in 2018. The emotion of its follow-up ‘Twelve Nudes’ was “pure fury and despair; it’s worse than we thought”. Now, with the realisation that “these crises are permanent”, her intent to avert the disasters faced by not just her own but the whole world’s children is as rousing as ever.
“We have a chance to survive. How does that feel?” she muses. “With ‘Transangelic Exodus’ there was a lot of panic and fear, but I had my guardian angel with me. [Since then, the message] has become of plurality, community. Not only me and my lover on the run, sleeping in the parking lot, but a wider screen picture of people who need each other. It feels like gentleness and solidarity.” ■
Taken from the September 2022 edition of Dork, out now. Ezra Furman’s album ‘All Of Us Flames’ is out now.