Ezra Furman: ‘It’s in my blood to have a fear about encouraging fascism’
The cult indie singer on his angry new album, falling out of love with Morrissey, Trump’s treatment of refugees and why being gender non-conforming brings everyday peril
Ezra Furman: ‘People just come up to me and start talking about sex or propositioning me. It’s almost like they assume it’s a normal part of my life’
Ezra Furman has a lot to get off his chest as he adjusts his slim wraparound skirt and settles into the corner of a Dublin bar. Outside, a heatwave has the city in its clutches. Here, in the dark and the solitude, a thoughtful quiet has descended.
The cult indie singer will shortly agonise over his devotion to Morrissey, in light of the Englishman’s right-wing views. And he will explain why, as a gender non-conforming person who wears women’s clothes, life is never straightforward – and can become dangerously complicated when you least expect. But what he really wants to talk about is the anger rippling through his extraordinary new album.
“I almost called the record Climate Change,” says Furman, his expression nearly as solemn as his gothic frock. “Part of me still regrets not doing that. I think I’m becoming a climate activist.”
Twelve Nudes is the title he eventually settled upon. It’s a short, sharp shock of an LP, brimming with punk guitars and unprocessed angst. Wistfulness is a recurring theme of Furman’s catalogue, as might be expected from a self-proclaimed disciple of Morrissey (more of which later) and of the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt.
But on Twelve Nudes he’s more exasperated than wide-eyed. He’s kicking out the jams rather than, as was the case previously, reporting from the frontlines of sensitive dude ennui. The grandson of Jewish Holocaust asylum seekers, Furman believes there is a great deal to be angry about in Trump’s America.
“As children my grandparents were refugees,” says the singer, an observant Orthodox Jew who doesn’t perform on the Sabbath and briefly contemplated becoming a rabbi. “Eventually they got to the US – in 1950 or something. They grew up as refugees. Their earliest memories are of living in a home with their family. It’s in my blood, I guess, to have a fear about encouraging fascism.”
He’s referring, of course, to the Trump administration and its treatment of refugees at the United States’s southern border. Kids are being ripped from their families. Some are dying in custody. And yet the world keeps turning and humanity gets on with more important things such as tweeting about Love Island.
“They’re institutionalising child abuse,” protests Furman. “On my mind are children who died in custody at detainment camps. People legally seeking asylum. It’s tragic.”
He asks me what I thought of Twelve Nudes. My response is that, though angry and urgent, it struck me as optimistic too. Furman does a double-take.
“There’s a lot of frustration. I don’t think of it as optimistic. I was reading someone talking about movies, saying that every movie is political – every corner of the culture is political. Where can you go to get some relief from that? I don’t think my album offers any relief.”
Twelve Nudes marks a break with the past for Furman. It is a sustained blast of outrage. That’s in contrast to his earlier records and their celebration of minor-key anguish. Those LPs read like introvert manifestos. Now he’s seizing the mic and railing against all that’s wrong and ugly today.
Ezra Furman - I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend
I’m not really listening to Morrissey or the Smiths lately. It’s kind of ruined by thinking about things he’s said
The last time Furman spoke to the Irish Times, in 2015, he described Morrissey as his “hero”. Four years later all our perspectives of the Smiths icon are very different. Old Suedehead recently wore a right-wing “For Britain” pin on the Tonight Show. And he accused Mayor of London Sadiq Khan of being unable to “talk properly”. His halo hasn’t slipped. It’s turned to ashes.
“I’m not really listening to Morrissey or the Smiths lately,” says Furman. “When I do, it’s kind of ruined by thinking about things he’s said. And who he’s putting his support behind. I haven’t been not listening to him because I think it’s wrong to. It’s just hard for me to enjoy.”
He pauses. Furman is trying to walk a line. He may no longer be enamoured of Morrissey. But he doesn’t want to come across as if he’s telling other Smiths fans what they should or should not listen to. He’s not here to preach.
“If you can still enjoy it . . .” he says, trailing off as he gathers his thoughts. “I don’t really believe in trying to erase every Woody Allen movie from history. For one thing, that’s kind of unfair to all the people who worked on those movies or albums or whatever it is. What did they do wrong to have their work erased from culture?
“And secondly . . . we never knew anything about these artists. We’re not friends with them. I never expected my artistic heroes to be ethical heroes. It’s just if it ruins the art for you. For some people it does. For some people it doesn’t. If you were to put on [Smiths uber-weepie] I Know It’s Over Now, I’d be, ‘God, that’s good.’ I still know what’s good.
“You can’t deny that. You can’t be like, ‘yeah, that s*** sucks anyway.’ Maybe it’s a little bit ruined. Maybe it’s forever ruined. It’s hard for me because I’m a songwriter. I need my teachers. I need my texts that I study to get better at this.”
Coming from Chicago, cancel culture is something with which Furman can claim a particular familiarity. The city has across the past several years agonised over one of its most famous musical sons, R Kelly. Rumours about sexual abuse and misconduct have swirled for years. Another Chicagoan, rock journalist Jim DeRogatis, was among the first to report the allegations against Kelly. He was not always thanked for his pursuit of the truth.
“It was a heroic thing what Jim DeRogatis did,” says Furman. “I respected Jim DeRogatis ever since he reviewed the first album I ever put out and he gave it a bad review. It was my first bad review. I love getting bad reviews. That’s something I can do something with.” Are you listening, musicians of Ireland?
“But anyway . . .” he continues. “That R Kelly thing is insane. How many years can go by? We knew. Everyone knew. And we’re like, ‘yeah, we’re still going to dance to this at our wedding or whatever.’ Aziz Ansari had a joke recently: it had to be made into a hit TV show [six-part Lifetime documentary Surviving R Kelly] that explicitly tells you all the horrible things that happened before anyone would be like, ‘oh, we shouldn’t celebrate this artist.’”
It could be anywhere. It could be San Francisco. It only takes one person who wants to makes it an issue
Whatever about Morrissey, Furman is done with R Kelly. “Yeah, that stuff is completely ruined. I don’t know if I can ever listen again. Even though I know it’s good – in terms of pop and something to dance to, it did a really good job of being that.
“To become a horrible human being, you are doing that to your work also. You are going to ruin your work for people. You messed up as an artist – not only as a human being but as an artist. You killed it for so many of us. As an artist he wasn’t as good as we thought. And as a human being, much, much more so.”
Furman (32) is pale with a scarecrow deportment. He looks like Edward Scissorhands if Edward Scissorhands was a gender non-conformist indie singer from Chicago. In a trendy bar in the middle of the afternoon his outfit – Emily Dickinson by way of Memoirs of a Geisha – of course doesn’t merit a second glance.
Or at least it hasn’t yet. That’s the thing about gender non-conformism. Furman can never tell when it’s going to be an issue. At any time or any place, someone can have a problem with a guy in women’s clothes. He tries to be blase about it. But it can be hard to maintain an air of droll detachment when a stranger is threatening to kick your head in.
“It could be anywhere. It could be San Francisco. It doesn’t matter about the general population. It only takes one person who wants to makes it an issue. One drunk on a train getting rowdy. So you’ve got to switch cars. Or you get off at a different stop. It’s habitual. An everyday thing.
“Sexual harassment is the other thing,” he continues. “That’s a real part of my life. People just come up to me and start talking about sex or propositioning me. It’s almost like they assume it’s a normal part of my life.”
He pauses and smiles. “Anyway, it sucks.”
One thing Furman has in common with Morrissey – the pre-right-wing Morrissey at least – is that he wears his awkward customer credentials proudly. Performing at the Coachella festival in southern California two years ago, he took the opportunity to shout “F*** AEG” from the stage.
AEG is the mega-promoter behind the event. Furman was, in the most public way possible, biting the hand that feeds. This is never, ever done. Musicians will criticise Trump, Boris Johnson, the entire late stage capitalist edifice. Never the guys (it is always guys) signing their cheques.
Furman felt he had no choice. Just by being up there he felt he was selling out to a degree. He had been co-opted into the machine. He had to say something.
“I did it. I did Coachella,” says Furman. “I couldn’t just do it with a straight face. That was a situation where I was like, ‘if I’m going to be part of the system . . .’ I did feel an obligation to [tell the audience], ‘You know what we’re doing with our money, right? You paid to be here.’ They haven’t invited us back.”
Twelve Nudes is released August 30 on Bella Union