by debra scherer
Ezra Furman is an American musician and songwriter from Chicago who unabashedly wears his heart on his sleeve. Touted by The Guardian as, “the most compelling live act you can see right now,” his spitfire, emotionally charged performances have led Pitchfork to rightfully dub him a “projectile singer.” After self-releasing The Year of No Returning in 2012, he released Day of the Dog in 2013, and subsequently released Perpetual Motion People in 2015. Fortunately for his devoted fans, Furman has always penned his own lyrics, a rare feat in a music industry that increasingly prizes commercial value over musical innovation or authenticity. His gender fluidity pervades both his stage presence and his day to day existence, a testament to his passion for the complete intertwining of life and art in pursuit of an original expression. As he himself succinctly proclaims, “...fuck it. I’m going to make the music I wish someone else was making.”
The first time I saw Ezra Furman I noticed that he was wearing a skirt. And not just any skirt. In fact, it was the perfect pencil skirt, paired with a floral print blouse that had just a slight shoulder pad, all tied together with a delicate set of pearls. There seemed to be more than a little bit of thought put into it, but not in a ‘trying to be someone else’ kind of way. It wasn’t an attempt at fashion, but rather, part of an expression that seemed to be intuitively pieced together, like a living breathing act of Assemblage. We met up quickly at The Echo in Los Angeles right before soundcheck and talked a little bit about music and fashion and of course, passion.
Ezra Furman: I’m not a fashion person by nature. I always had a problem choosing clothes, I always thought, ‘I don’t do that. I don’t like to choose what I’m wearing or think about it.’ But it turns out, there was something there. I was avoiding something that had to do with being uncomfortable, it almost was a cage or something, or a paranoid contest.
Debra Scherer: You definitely are picking up on certain signifiers that tell a story about femininity, though from another time. They are definitions of femininity that formed around the ‘40’s or ’50’s; the lipstick, the shoulder pads, though you are making use of them in a deadpan way.
EF: I feel like sometimes fashion is kind of trickling down to me, or filtering through to me. There are certain kinds of clothing that have signifiers and it all gets mixed into my own conscience until I feel bad in certain shirts and good in other shirts and I don’t understand why. There are certain cultural reasons that other people have thought about a lot more than me.
DS: You are taking, certainly choosing pieces that have a lot of historical fashion baggage...
EF: What do pearls carry? Because I feel like I know what you mean but I can’t figure out why pearls feel so right to me.
DS: Well, compared to other stones, there is a unique femininity attached to pearls, more than other precious stones. I mean, unless you are a Maharaja, I can’t think of any other instance when a man could wear pearls, not even for pure flamboyance.
Ezra: I see pearls and think I want those on me. Without considering the fashion, the connotation is femininity. Pearls are unmistakably feminine.
They are easy to put on. I’ve only been consistently and publicly walking around in everyday life in feminine clothes for two years or so. 90 percent of feminine clothing I try on or look at I feel ugly in, really standing out as comically trying to achieve some feminine effect that’s not working and it’s this real self conscious thing. I like when men dress feminine and it’s not really feminine at all. I don’t think I look like a woman.
DS: I agree. You look like you.
EF: It’s kind of tricky and heartbreaking and anxiety producing to shop for clothes. I hope I can give people a little faith in themselves, a little faith in weirdness. Anything that’s a little off the mainstream is called weird. I like the word weird and I don’t like the use of the word as a negative, like when everyone says, ‘that situation was weird” and, “weird is bad.”
DS: So where are you coming from just now?
EF: You know where I just came here from? a FASHION SHOOT, in a way that I had never done anything like that before. They brought me a rack of clothes and there was a lady there saying (with a french accent), “oh I think this would look good with this, what do you think?” There was a makeup lady, putting make up on me and asking me my opinion and taking pictures of me.
DS: So what did you think?
EF: I really liked trying on the clothes, but posing for the pictures, you know, it’s awkward.
DS: So what was the theme?
EF: I think the theme of the shoot was, “white background” ;) They asked me if I had any lipstick and I said I did. Then they said they were inspired by me and the color of my lipstick. What does that mean? I can’t imagine being inspired by a particular shade of red.
DS: That is bullshit fashion talk 101.
EF: I know! But I try and take it in. I have trouble with words. I have trouble with words that people say that mean other things than the words are supposed to mean.
DS: I hate to say this, but what do you mean?
EF: Well, I myself might have a meaning that’s attached to a word like, ‘inspired’ and it takes me effort to be like, ‘oh! when they say that they mean a more generally accepted meaning.’ I feel like the way a lot of people talk is a secret code that I have to crack because people say stuff where the context, tone and facial expression are more important than the words they are saying in most conversations and I have trouble thinking that way. So, when people say, ‘inspired by a lipstick’ I lack the emotional intelligence or context clues to what people are talking about sometimes.
It has to do with my love of language and lyrics and words and stuff. It’s harder to write lyrics in a way than just talk, but you’re not under scrutiny while you’re doing it. It’s a funny choice, I used to be a lot worse at it. I’m a socially anxious person, I’m often socially incapable in some ways, and then I chose a thing to do where everyone watches you and scrutinizes you all the time. Actually, to me it’s easier to be on stage than to be in the crowd. Because I guess I have more control, my voice is the loudest. I have a microphone.
DS: Speaking of words, I read that you are going to write the 33 1/3 book on Lou Reed’s Transformer. That will be a good one!
EF: I met Lou Reed for a second at SXSW when he was a speaker. They had a party right after where they had a bunch of bands play Lou Reed songs and he performed at the end, but he was watching the whole time, taking pictures. I played “Heroin” alone on acoustic guitar and he said something nice to me.
DS: He has influenced a lot of music, and in so many ways.
EF: That guy’s music, not only would I not be in a band if it wasn’t for The Velvet Underground, I’m not sure if any of the kinds of music I like would exist. The Velvet Underground really might be the best band, the best of all the bands. My favorite.
EF: Because they took the best and dumbest things about rock and roll music, or garage-y dirty dumb pop music, and put some real art into it. Real art, real songwriting as art, noisemaking as art, and they just did it the best. Those songs, there’s just nothing else like it to me. They’re just my favorite. So I saw they (the 33and a third books) were doing an open call for submissions and I got an idea, so I worked really hard on one about Transformer, nobody asked me to do it, so now I have to write a book!
DS: It seems like I keep reading about you more and more as the public tries to figure you out.
EF: It is a little bit creepy to watch myself become a character in terms of my public identity because there are just a few things that are always written about or said about me. They form this picture and its all ‘true,’ but to have who you are or what you are reiterated again and again to you by people who don’t know you, for people who don’t know you to read about, its very strange. It’s as if someone draws a picture of you, then someone draws a picture of that picture, and eventually hundreds of pictures in, you’ve got a distorted image of yourself, and every picture that’s drawn is bigger than the last one. But, then again, it’s just a picture.
DS: That’s such a good description, like playing a game of visual telephone! I guess at a certain point you just have to not care anymore.
EF: What I care about is fans being moved by stuff, you know? I do have some control over what they write about me because it is stuff that I say, stuff that I do that they observe, and that has some effect on people sometimes.
DS: What is it that you really can control?
EF: I feel like I really only have full control of the albums I make. I care about people finding the albums useful in their lives.
DS: It seems like you are in a constant dialogue with the world at large especially with your fans. I noticed it even when you are performing.
EF: I find music quite useful in serving being a person, so it’s an honor when I talk to someone who’s found some stuff Ive done useful, that they find it inspiring, even if they are only inspired by this public character. I guess we all have a public persona that feels ill-fitting to our actual selves, a little not quite true.