WHEN EZRA FURMAN was growing up in suburban Illinois, his mother and father—she a technical writer, he a stockbroker—couldn’t understand why he was so obsessed with getting his own guitar. By his bar mitzvah, he finally had them convinced. But the gift came with a condition: he would have to learn some Bob Dylan songs.
Although Furman’s tastes ran more toward Green Day than folk revival, Dylan’s lyrics turned out to be an inspiration. “I remember Ezra had these spiral notebooks, that were just song after song after song,” recalled Furman’s younger brother Jonah, who would go on to front the short-lived but much beloved band Krill. “He probably wrote two hundred songs, at least, between 1999 and 2004.”
Soon after arriving at Tufts, Furman, A08, formed a pop-rock band, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, with classmates Jahn Sood, Job Mukkada, and Adam Abrutyn, all A08. They recorded their first album in dorm rooms and played their first concert in the Tufts campus center. The next year, they were signed by the indie label Minty Fresh—which put out records by Veruca Salt and Liz Phair—and released their first studio album, Banging Down the Doors. During summer and winter breaks from school, they performed at South by Southwest, toured the US and Europe, and released a second studio album. The Harpoons broke up in 2011, but Furman continued to write and record, both on his own and with new bands, the Boy-Friends and, most recently, the Visions.
Now thirty-two, Furman is busier than ever. In 2018, he published a book for the 331⁄3 series on Lou Reed’s Transformer album, and he and the Visions released their critically acclaimed Transangelic Exodus. The album, a “queer outlaw saga” about an angel and a companion on the run from forces hell-bent on destroying them, is perhaps Furman’s most personal project to date. He has come out as queer in recent years, first expressing his identity in his concerts. “There was a time that I only looked queer when I was onstage and felt that I pretty much only told the truth about anything when I was onstage,” he said. “I had to learn to tell the truth offstage as well.”
Furman and the Visions also recently appeared on the hit Netflix series Sex Education, a smart teen dramedy with a diverse cast of gay and gender-nonconforming characters, and the soundtrack of the show is almost entirely populated by Furman’s songs, including new ones written specifically for it. Animating all of his music is a spirit of inclusivity, which becomes palpable in performance. “His concerts feel like a real safe place to be, to let yourself go for a minute, to be yourself, even if you maybe aren’t yet brave enough to be yourself in all situations,” said Simon Raymonde, founder of Furman’s current record label, Bella Union. “He has all the ability to be one of the greatest artists of this generation.”
In recent weeks, we spoke and emailed with Furman from his home in Berkeley, California. This interview is distilled from those conversations.
When did you first get interested in music?
I was and am an avid reader and prose writer. Stories, essays, poems. It was just something I took pride in. Hearing Bob Dylan for the first time, it hit me that writing lyrics could be as artful as any other type of writing. So I got a book of chords of Dylan songs and I would take one I hadn’t heard before and make up a melody for it, and then I’d change all the words and lo and behold, I had an original song. And then I started coming up with them out of nothing, and by the time I was fifteen I was writing sometimes a song a week. I loved doing it. When a couple of them started to be kind of good, then I got real excited.
How did you end up in Boston?
When I arrived at Tufts, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. I turned out to be an English major, which has been an enormous benefit to me as a writer. I probably wrote my first truly high-quality songs my freshman year at Tufts. Some ended up on the first Harpoons album. Me and my friend Jahn Sood would go to open mics at the Middle East Club, the Burren, and the Cantab. It was a good feeling to be young and be better than most of the older people at the open mics. People would be like, “Wow, you’re actually very good at this.”
You were recording albums and touring while still a student. Was it hard to juggle the band and college?
I balanced school and the band pretty well for a while, but then things got a little dicey. I sort of got swept up in it and skipped class a lot to go play residencies in New York. When we got signed to a record label I thought it was the biggest deal in the world. I was like, “We’re not gonna finish college because we’re going to be celebrities now.” I didn’t know anything about being in a band. One semester my senior year I decided to fail all of my classes. I had a meeting with each of my professors telling them, “I need to not get all As and Bs because I’ve never done that. So I’m not gonna turn in any assignments or take tests, but I’ll still be at the class because I really like your class.”
How was that received?
With a wide variety of responses. This person teaching a classics seminar of Greece was so down. He said, “Oh yeah, I get it. You don’t care about your grades, you’re not going to grad school, you’re just trying to learn in the best way for you. That makes sense to me.” Then a guy who taught my political science class was like “You can’t DO THAT!” He was livid. And then I made sure to pass all the classes next semester. I did graduate. squeaked it through.
What happened after graduation?
In the fall of 2009, the Harpoons’ manager, Mitch Marlow, came up to us and was like, “Hey, you have a number one hit on Austrian radio.” They had a national radio station that was playing our song “Take Off Your Sunglasses.” We went to Austria tons of times; we milked it. We played all these tiny towns there. Those shows were way better than our shows in America. Packed with kids. And we were like, “Oh, this is what it’s supposed to be like in a band!” But logistics of life and what we wanted to do with the rest of our twenties got in the way, eventually. We had to break up the band—2011 was our last show.
After the Harpoons, you released four albums in six years. Do you wish you could be even more productive?
I do debate myself on this question: Would I want to put out an album every year? For a long time in college, and even after college, my goal was to write a song a week. I did that for many years. At some point I consciously slowed down and stopped writing as many songs. I started to think it was destructive. I’d start to lose perspective about which songs should be made better. Instead of hundreds of mediocre songs, [I thought] if I stopped being so workman about it, that could really do me good.
In the last year or so, you’ve released an album, your Lou Reed book, and worked on the Sex Education soundtrack. Did you expect to be so busy?
Transangelic Exodus and the Transformer book were the ones that really happened at the same time. In fact, it turned out that the hard deadline to turn in the final version of both was the same day: August 31, 2017— and I had to move out of my apartment in Chicago that day, too. It was a very chaotic time, but I really enjoyed it: working as hard as I could on multiple things I cared about.
It was a while later that the Sex Education thing came up; we did that in the summer of 2018, between tours. But then pretty soon we started working on a new record, too. I don’t know; I like working a lot. I feel lazy if I don’t. Like all of us, I might die any day. I want to make a lot of good stuff before I die.
How did you get involved with Sex Education?
I had a mutual friend with one of the producers of the show, and she and Laurie Nunn, the show’s creator, got into the idea of asking me to do a bunch of music for the show. It has been really great. I hear from new fans every day online, because it’s popular. Hopefully they’ll have taken the time to check out our other music, too.
Music, and especially certain songs and records, has saved my life countless times.
Can you talk about how Transangelic Exodus developed, what the concept was in your mind while writing it?
The whole angel thing came after I wrote the first half of the song “Suck the Blood from My Wound.” I just knew everything I had written was powerful and strange and I wanted to keep it. So then I started building this whole world and backstory about people becoming angels and the government trying to outlaw it and social turmoil. But it dawned on me over time that I didn’t want people to fully understand the story. I wanted it to be like a movie trailer, or a dream, where you don’t fully grasp what’s happening but the feel of it is vivid and emotional and true-seeming.
Last fall, you tweeted, “It’s been slowly dawning on me . . . that it’s for-sure accurate to refer to myself as trans.” What was it like to have that realization in a political moment like this?
Something I was trying to evoke on Transangelic Exodus was the feeling of being paranoid about paranoia itself. Like, the feeling where I don’t actually know if I have reason to be afraid or if I’m being alarmist. When you’re trans, so many people are basically gaslighting you. In fact, I think whole segments of political America are trying to gaslight each other. Almost everybody is freaked out that the foundations of society are dissolving, but no one can agree in what way.
I pay attention to people who disagree with me. I’ve always believed that this is what intelligent people do. So I listen to the idea that I am sick in the head, that being trans is some kind of disease or misunderstanding. And I listen to people who tell me that my fears about the current American slide toward fascism are unfounded. This does me some good and it does me some harm. At the end of the day, though, I know it’s not crazy to do some mental preparation for an authoritarian attack on my life. It would be unwise to become obsessed with that possibility, but also unwise to ignore it. And trans people get murdered all the time. Jews get attacked. I am in solidarity with these communities, come what may. I hope that Transangelic Exodus is an expression of that solidarity.
Your lyrics tend to feel intensely personal. Do your listeners reach out to say what your songs mean to them?
People talk to me, online and in person, very often about how much they’ve been moved or validated or assisted by my songs. It’s the greatest honor I could imagine. I’m a music fan and I feel that music, and especially certain songs and records, has saved my life countless times.
Some recent headlines have suggested that rock ’n’ roll is dying. What do you make of those predictions?
I don’t take that kind of statement that seriously—it’s like people who say punk is dead. It seems like it’s from people trying to hold onto the idea of a monoculture.
I just think about depth. Some people are interested in width. I have trouble getting excited about the goal of expanding my audience. But I get excited about deepening the individual experience. Go deeper, not wider. It’s the only thing that seems good about music to me. Some of my favorite stuff in the world never had a big moment or a huge audience.
At some point I realized that if I focused on depth it was my best shot at sustaining a life in music, because the whole thing is powered on people who care a lot. You can’t make a living off music if you don’t make things people care about, so you’ve gotta make something that’s worth caring about.
Furman on five of his songs that felt like personal breakthroughs.
"I was sixteen when I wrote this, and a voracious consumer of classic songwriters. This was the first time I found a way to build a little world in a song, and one that reflected what I was drawn to as an artist."
"Perhaps the first song that sounds as desperate as I sometimes felt in [my early twenties], this one was where I learned to tell a frightening inner story in a colloquial syntax."
"Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" (2012)
"This is where my songwriting ability caught up with the complexity of my inner world. It also was sort of a personal signpost leading me to be less closeted as a queer and as an all around person: the song knew I needed to stop being duplicitous about who I really was even before I did."
"Tell ’Em All to Go to Hell" (2013)
"I got a Chuck Berry compilation and it hit me that what makes his songs sound exciting is not only the rhythm of the band, but the rhythm of the words. And out came this little personal manifesto, with which we’ve closed most of our shows for years."
"This song sounds almost like a movie trailer to me, or a novel vacuum-packed into a five-minute container. It was a new place for me as a storyteller and it opened up a whole new world for me to play in."