‘I study music like I’m in school’

American songwriter Ezra Furman has found critical acclaim in the UK. Could her new album be a springboard to wider success

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Ezra Furman feels one of a kind. Vulnerable, brave, passionate. Continually seeking new directions. Someone steeped in music, who continues to pay tribute to those who inspire her. Always humble and giving the best of herself.

Furman’s latest album, All Of Us Flames, was released in August. In the build-up the 36-year-old musician, from Chicago, had rallied the market with the ambition that this might be the first album by a trans artist to enter the charts at number one.

A subsequent Instagram post two days before release demonstrated both ongoing low-level angst and the playfulness fans have come to recognise. “I have no illusions here, we’re not that popular and everybody hates trans people…”

She went on to reveal a series of posters for fans to post on “telephone poles, bulletin boards, highway overpasses, the top hats of local dignitaries”.

The release date coincided with a mini-UK tour, with acclaimed shows at the Green Man festival, Edinburgh Festival and Leeds’ Brudenell Club. After a US tour– afflicted by Covid cancellations– the band is back in November to play another week of gigs, including Manchester.

Furman seems relaxed and happy, spending some time with her infant son before hitting the road again. The UK dates went well, with new guitarist Max Talay settling in –the first change to the line-up since saxophonist Tim Sandusky left in 2018.

“Green Man was amazing, a magical moment in that mountain setting,” she says. “It had just been the four of us since Tim left, and oh, Max is so good. It changes everything.”

Mancunian music institution Marc Riley is one man Furman credits with the band’s UK breakthrough, with 2015’s album Perpetual Motion People being the big moment. The band play a BBC 6 Music session for Riley most times they’re in the UK, and August was no exception. In a sweet moment Furman told the DJ: “You saved my life.”

“Marc is certainly a big part of why we’ve generally been more successful in the UK,” she says. “It’s very different to the US, how somebody can have that level of influence by having a national radio show. I don’t even know how you get famous in the US, and I’m not interested in it. With the UK, I dunno – you have that island madness, and people can catch a wave.”

Furman’s now a semi-regular presence curating shows on6 Music, while she also penned a beautifully written book for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series about Lou Reed’s album Transformer. If you’re a fan of Netflix hit Sex Education, you might know Furman sound tracked that.

All Of Us Flames is the third part of a trilogy, following escapism-fuelled Transangelic Exodus and the furious Twelve Nudes. On its own terms, it stands as a deep, questioning, but ultimately optimistic and beautiful record. Furman believes it’s her best work yet.

“Is it optimistic? It’s certainly more optimistic than the last record. With that one, I was at the end of my rope. This one does feel more future-oriented, like there are things that I can see on the horizon, where I want us to lean towards collectively.”

There’s hope in a post-Covid world, a slight relaxation and a hint of more social justice. She says: “Are we through the doomscrolling period? It’s not a joke – there are still global crises – but might we have changed things about the way we live post Covid? We have to make plans, react and plan for the short term and the long term. I think maybe that mood is seeping into my songwriting.”

In Lilac and Black, Furman sings “Tonight I’m dreaming of my queer girl gang/We who walk this deadly path”.

She says: “As a trilogy, the three records are concerned with citizens at large, they are personal and to do with society, with sub-groups and communities.”

Reviews of All Of Us Flames have talked about Springsteen, along with the Shangri-Las and other girl groups. Anything else in there?

“There’s tons of stuff. I listen to music all the time, I study it like I’m in school doing assignments. Let’s see what’s in there: Cat Power, John Cale, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Fiona Apple.

“A really big one is Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, both the work of David Berman. His writing voice and goals were really formative for me.”

Of the new record, Walking in Sunset seems to have been a hit with 6 Music listeners. The opener hits home too, as Furman says: “Train Comes Through I thought was really strong. I might be inclined to it because I’m a spiritual and religious person.

“But also I just think the form and refrain are simple and universal, while there’s more intellectual detail too – so I’m proud of how that came out. It encapsulates the record in a way – there’s communal burns and redemption.”

Although she’s been a prominent campaigner in areas such as voter registration to quell Trumpism in recent years, Furman has talked of the record being biblically rather than politically informed.

“I’m not sure what the word political means any more. Issues of my personal life have become politicised and are items on the news, and the right or legitimacy to be transgender has become the topic of white debate.

“When it comes down to it, these things don’t feel political to the people on the ground.

“I guess I don’t want to frame social issues as political – these are ethical and human issues. I think that’s the Bible’s concern – it speaks of the protection of the vulnerable and the enslaved. The Bible means more to me than the daily news does.”

Is life easier now for a trans artist than it was?

“There is more visibility of trans people, which will inevitably mean there’s more acceptance. But there is also more rejection – there’s more reaction all round. One of the best things to come about through the internet age has been connectivity, the ability to find your community, and how that allows people to learn how it’s possible to be trans.

“I didn’t really know what being trans was about until my mid to late twenties, despite having heard of it in my early twenties and having been interested in being gender non-conforming from being a teenager.

“There was so much stigma then, so much ‘no pictures please’ whenever I borrowed a dress from my friend. That’s changed, but on the other hand trans people becoming an electoral concern is a terrifying new situation – things are getting worse in those ways.”

Trans issues have become weaponised in the culture wars by populist drum-bangers aiming to win votes with not a thought for the consequences.

“It’s not a linear thing – things move in many directions at once. Some people make progress, some struggle. And I think this record has that arc to it – we will have our day, the empire will fall, the good will come through. By the end, we’re zooming in on people’s lives. There’s progress – we can have big Pride parades, but always remember some people can’t be at the parade.”

Has parenthood affected the work?

“Yeah, it has in lots of ways. It’s transformed my whole life really. Maybe it’s more the impulses that led me to wanting to be a parent are what comes through in the music, the desire to root myself. The desire to love and care. For some people it’s a case of growing maturity, part of a cycle. Spiritually it’s good for me, because it takes time.”

All Of Us Flames is out now on Bella Union. Ezra Furman plays UK dates including ManchesterO2 Ritz, 16-21 November

An Ezra Furman primer

Known previously as the Boyfriends, then the Visions, Furman’s band is keyboardist Ben Joseph, the bear-like former brewer Sam Durkes on drums and uber-cool Jorgen Jorgensen on bass – now augmented by guitarist Max Talay.

To Them We’ll Always Be Freaks is both a refrain in Suck The Blood From My Wound and the title of a Covid release of demos, and sums up neatly the band’s position as champions of the underdog.

To get a sense of Transangelic Exodus, the first part of the more recent trilogy, seek out Suck The Blood From My Wound and Love You So Bad. Twelve Nudes highlights include Thermometer and I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend.

In the early days the rousing set-closer at live shows was Tell Them All To Go To Hell, a song Furman, dripping with sarcasm, memorably dedicated at Coachella to US leisure tycoon Philip Anschutz. Furman had only realised after taking the booking that Anschutz, a donor to conservative anti-LGBTQ organisations, is the event’s ultimate owner.

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