In the early 2000s, a young man is sitting in the hallways of the Evanston Township High School, located in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. He is playing on his guitar and is wearing flamboyant clothes that stand in contrast to the shy and reluctant expression on his face. His name is Ezra Furman.
Fellow students are passing by, noticing him. Amongst them he is already well known for his corridor busking.
He doesn’t know it yet though. Doesn’t know of his talent, his uniqueness and the effect his charismatic vibrancy has on people.
Almost twenty years later Ezra is getting ready for his gig at WUK club in Vienna. Meanwhile he should be aware of at least the latter. While he is still being hesitant to talk about his music with the kind of big words it deserves, one thing should be hard to ignore for him even in his most self-conscious moments: That his music does something to people. This UK/European tour is his biggest to date, with shows in venues that hold a capacity up to 2000 people and reviews of notable newspapers like The Guardian, praising his recent album “Perpetual Motion People” and the “Big Fugitive Life” EP, calling him “the most compelling live act you could see right now.” Tonight the WUK is crammed, too. Ezra Furman has a bit of a history with Vienna and its people, it is here where his music first gained ground in Europe. He has built up a following in this town that is celebrating him ever since.
When I meet up with Ezra for our first conversation he welcomes me very warmheartedly, but seems a little nervous. He admits that interviews freak him out. “It’s like talking to the cops.” Ezra is wearing a pearl necklace and a striped T-shirt, spangled with quotes. “A friend made that for me”, he says. The quote on the front is especially striking. It’s by Lou Reed: “There’s a bit of magic in everything and some loss to even things out”. During our interview it will show that this quote is thoroughly fitting to Ezra’s life in many ways.
After graduating from high school, Ezra Furman went to Tufts University in Massachusetts. There he met the guys who should soon be in his band Ezra Furman & the Harpoons with whom he released three studio albums before going solo for a while and then releasing two albums with his new band The Boyfriends. Finding the people who make up The Boyfriends was probably one of the best things that have happened to him during his career. They are passionate musicians through and through and refine his songs to perfection by seeming to speak the same musical language as Ezra does. Especially when the band is playing live, they get completely carried away with the melodies and the howl of the saxophone.
“I thought it was just a dream that could never happen. When I was eleven or twelve I started to get really into punk music. It was the first identity that made sense for me to take on. I started getting obsessed with music, but I was still like ‘I can’t actually do that’. One in a million people can have a successful life playing music. But then I just started doing it and then it was like ‘oh, now I have met people who wanna be in a band with me’ and then it goes up to ‘oh I met this guy who wants to set up some shows for us’ and then ‘I guess I’ll do this for a short time’ and then ‘I’m really doing it’ and then I was like ‘Oh, maybe I can keep doing this’. It was very slow like ‘this actually could be my main job’”.
After Ezra is a couple of songs into his set at the WUK club, he introduces his song “Pot Holes” with the following words: “We’re not really on the pulse of the time with that one.” He’s right, his music sometimes sounds a lot like the past, fitting perfectly into some Rock ‘n’ Roll bar in the New York of the 1940s. But still, it it easy to see why he reaches so many people with it. He is the kind of musician you wish you had in your childhood and youth to look up to. Only on a second glance do you quite grasp the sadness that speaks out of his eyes and out of his songs, but that is probably exactly what he wants. He has said in interviews before that Rock‘n’Roll saved his life and it feels as if he had wanted to give some of that back by saving lives with his music. His songs are written for the misfits and the underdogs of this world, full of melancholy and vulnerability, but with a positive foundation in all of them.
“I was very sad, because I was an unpopular kid and then these punk ideas where the fact that you’re a misfit could be like a “badge of honor”, you know? That was very important to me.”
Ezra, meanwhile, has gained a lot of media attention. What’s very noticeable is that most of the articles talk about the way he dresses, that he wears lipstick and that it’s apparently still something remarkable in today’s society if a person is being nothing but himself. All that is mentioned before they focus on what he does best.
“The craft that I care about the most is writing good songs. That’s often the first thing that I say about my job. That is what I wanna be doing if, you know, people stop coming to shows or whatever happens, I just wanna still write good songs.”
Apart from the focus, directed at his appearance rather than his music, there is other stuff that people get wrong from time to time.
“A lot of writers have written that I was raised in a very religious upbringing, very restricted. And that’s not really true. My family is very… not restrictive you know? They’re very liberal and my parents aren’t even really religious, they are sort of just interested. I just happen to be really into religion and really into being queer which is not true for any of my family members exactly. - I go back and forth like “how much should I manage that”, “how much should I care about that”. It’s better to just not to read the articles, I think. And actually what makes me madder than that is just bad writing. I love good music writing, I read good music writing, I just… I’m like, this is your JOB, you just ask what you wanna write, you’re a writer and this is what you wrote? Writing can be a wonderful thing, it doesn’t have to be dumb, just because it’s about Rock ‘n’ Roll. Sorry, I don’t mean to put the pressure on YOU”, he grins sheepishly.
I ask Ezra how the whole experience of school and growing up has been like for him. He answers after a long pause (One of many during our interview. Ezra thinks a lot before he speaks and often stops in the middle of a sentence to rephrase it. He seems very precious about his words and how they could be perceived. That’s a good thing, it gives his answers a lot of depth and profoundness).
“I didn’t have that many friends. I had more friends outside of school. I was in a Jewish youth group, called BBYO, it was all run by teenagers and there were hardly any adults involved. We made our own social life. Maybe because of that social life when I was younger I have a problem with group identity. When I become part of a group for me it’s like ‘I’m just here, but I’m not really part of this’. I feel that way on many different levels, even to from like small social groups to a kind of religious congregation and to my own country to the whole world society in general and I’m like ‘I am here’ but I’m not… I can’t fully… I can’t really participate, I can’t see myself as… a part of this world.”
Ezra is playing two shows in Austria during this tour, in Vienna and in Linz. He has a day off on Friday in-between both gigs, which is also due to the fact that he no longer plays shows on Friday nights to observe Shabbat. He mentions a lot how important Judaism is for him.
“I mean, again I’m a little bit like ‘Am I really part of this community?’ or like ‘do I really wanna show up and be with people?’, because Judaism is very communal. It’s also very individual. I think actually I just heard someone say that Judaism is one of the rare examples of… a belief system that is balanced between individual responsibility and collective responsibility. I don’t like western democratic society for instance, it’s very heavy on the individualism and there are problems with that, because it becomes self-obsessed and irresponsible to other people and then there’s communist Russia or something which is too far on the collective responsibility which oppresses people and erases individual identity. I think it’s important to have both of these things in balance with each other and Judaism is kind of good at that. Even though I have major problems with it all which are legitimate and not to be tossed aside, I just will never not be in love with it. I think I’ll just always love it.”
I travel to Linz on Saturday to watch Ezra perform at the Ahoi! Pop Festival at Posthof. Again I notice the discrepancy between the sound of his colourful, upbeat music that makes everyone in the audience dance and his frail stage presence combined with the sometimes sorrowful lyrics of his songs.
Ezra seems nervously excited - manic almost – while spitting his songs into the audience. It’s hard for me to still listen to his songs live and dance along to them, after I’ve gotten a glimpse of the place in his soul where the words to his music come from a little bit.
Before the band starts to play “Tell Them All To Go to Hell” Ezra addresses the audience again. “Please make sure that you get enough sleep… if you hate your life, change it instead of ending it. Change your life radically”, he conjures, talking himself in rage. “It’s like an old spirit that grabs me by the throat”, he says and that’s a perfect metaphor for what is to witness here. Ezra seems almost obsessed, like an animal, that is hunted into a corner and is scared at first, but then bursts into a defensive fury and it’s hard to tell if this state of him comes from a positive place in his mind or a not so positive one.
After the show Ezra comes out to talk to his fans. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to watch how people treat Ezra after a gig, they often show an almost disrespectful behaviour towards him.
“Yeah, there’s some negative side to having fans. Sometimes people feel a little bit entitled to talk to me and a lot of times I see people after shows and they’re drunk or whatever, they’re excited and they’re like… not everybody has boundaries. They think they know me and they think they are entitled to pull me by the arm over the way they want me to be to take a picture with them. That’s messed up. That’s pretty unpleasant for me. Even people who are being nice. When there’s too much at once it’s just really overwhelming for me and then… I’m really a shy person in a lot of ways and to talk to people… is… yeah, it’s really hard for me sometimes.”
I ask him how he copes with that, being the shy person that he is.
“The most of it is just a lot of positivity thrown in my way and it’s really great, you know? People who pay attention to me and my band and albums we make and songs that I write. They are people I don’t know and they are very special to me. And the funny thing is and I think that’s true for many performers who are kind of shy, socially shy… like to me it’s easier to have a rehearsed thing to perform in front of people in a room and I don’t have to really speak to them, but then after, just hanging out with people is harder for me. And to improvise. I mean sometimes I’m socially fine, but a lot of times it’s… it depends on my mood I suppose. I’m just not good at talking to people, who I don’t… who I’m not close with already.”
There’s no filter between his soul and the outside world. One can sense how painful that must be for him, fragile and so sensitive to everything around him. But what’s a burden for him is a gift to his fans. Because all of that makes him approachable and likeable and gives his art something genuine and authentic that is missing amongst a lot of his colleagues.
Despite his occasional problems with social interaction, Ezra talks very openly about his depression and anxiety and how meditation, religion and spirituality often help him to clear his mind a little bit.
“Also for me to remember that life is larger than these small, bad feelings is very helpful. I was thinking of my bad days and my bad feelings as even though they’re very intense, they’re very small. It’s like I’m in a small, crammed room when I feel terrible. And if you can knock down the walls and then be like… the whole world is strange and beautiful and there’s so much possibility and anything could happen today. Those are probably the clusters of thoughts. And gratitude, you know. That’s all clustered around. But I mean other than that… just this sense of largeness of life…makes me feel better, often. Also people who love me. And who I love, that is very helpful. Some of these things are important. Especially the people. The good people, you know?”
After our interview we leave the room and keep talking until we reach the backstage door. Ezra seems a little agitated, but deeply focused on the present moment at the same time. It is evident how intensely he feels about everything and how exhausting this must be at times. A day in Ezra Furman’s life is probably a hundred days in the life of other people.
I am sincerely touched by his delicate, reflective soul and I have to fight the urge to try to take Ezra away, away from the spotlights, away from the harshness of society.
That’s the tragic thing about art: It is often a product of coping with the struggles of life and when done authentically, the artist offers his agony on a plate. It sometimes feels voyeuristic to watch that. With Ezra Furman it’s no different, when he talks about his frustration on stage you can very much feel that he means it.
However, when it comes to him, we should all take a close look. Because the world can learn a lot from Ezra Furman.