Transformer: Ezra Furman’s Songs of Innocence

“I think I just do being male different”


In the spring of 2016, Ezra Furman rediscovered the title for a potential song on his phone, which acts as his digital notebook. “Suck the Blood From My Wound,” which he had written down earlier that year, was just a phrase — the note on his phone didn’t contain any chord structures or lyrical ideas. But he couldn’t get the words out of his head for weeks.

When he finally sat down to write the song, a wild allegorical story poured out of him: A narrator, who has woken up bleeding in the “crock of a tree,” and his angelic lover with feathery wings are on the run from a violent government. They race away in a red Camaro from a hospital the angel had been held in, a pair of queer outlaws uncertain about their fate but determined to defy their oppressors.

“[The song] suggested a whole world and a whole situation,” Furman says on the phone while backstage at Montreal’s Bar Le Ritz. “I was like, well, either I could put this in a drawer somewhere and be like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what that was,’ and say, ‘That was probably too ambitious.’ Or I could actually see it through.… I had to finish it, and it really kind of turned into the whole record.”

The song, which mixes epic E Street–sized chords with a crunchy electric bass sound and affected drums, ended up as the first track on Furman’s recently released record, Transangelic Exodus (Bella Union). Furman refuses to call it a concept album — he refers to the collection of songs as “a cluster of stories on a theme” and a “half-true memoir” instead. Some of the tracks hem more closely to the fictional narrative (like “God Lifts Up the Lowly,” in which the narrator and his angel stop in an alley for the night and tear a tracking device out of their car), and some are more grounded in reality (like “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill,” which evokes the anxiety that comes from eyeing a dress as a male in public). But they all explore the feelings that come with being persecuted and marginalized as an LGBTQ person in modern America.

Furman, 31, often wears dresses and lipstick onstage and off, but he identifies as queer, not transgender — despite the clear nod to trans people in his album title. Over the phone, he often talks slowly and can sound at times as if he’s zoning out, but he’s actually just choosing his words very carefully. He admits that his gender identity can be hard to encapsulate, and he adds that he’s used to having people fit that identity into a neat narrative box.

“For a few years now [I’ve watched] who I actually am in the real world be the story, and nobody ever gets that story quite right,” Furman says. “I briefly went with this term ‘gender fluid,’ and then it became kind of the tagline about me. And I didn’t fully grasp what it means to most people who call themselves gender fluid. I think I just do being male different.”

Furman grew up in Evanston, Illinois, an idyllic suburb north of Chicago, as the son of a stock-trader father and technical-writer mother. He and his two brothers all caught the artistic bug: Younger brother Jonah was the singer of the indie punk band Krill, which broke up in 2015, and older brother Noah is now a visual artist. Ezra’s parents introduced him to classic rock and folk songwriters like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but he quickly graduated to an obsession with punk bands ranging from Green Day to the Clash. Around age 14, he discovered Lou Reed, who has become his idol — as a songwriter, lyricist, and bisexual icon who shifted through a variety of identities throughout his career (Furman also wrote a book in the 33 1/3 series on Reed’s seminal 1972 album, Transformer).

Furman formed the Harpoons as a student at Tufts in 2006, taking cues from Dylan and blending them with more standard 2000s indie rock. From 2012 through 2015, he released three solo albums, which refined his retro rock sound and featured more aggressive lyrics that hinted at the inner anxiety he was feeling about his sexual identity.

The sound of Transangelic Exodus, by contrast, is dark, even murky at times, to fit the thematic mood. Anchoring it all is the lead single “Driving Down to L.A.,” which starts with an eerie guitar line and drops an explosive fuzzed-out chorus that is the musical equivalent of a shrapnel bomb. The harmonica, strings, and saxophone of his older records have been replaced with drum machines and thick distortion.

This increasing sense of artistic exploration and expanding musical palette correlates with the fact that he’s becoming more comfortable in his skin each year. He didn’t wear a dress onstage until 2011, a few years after graduating and while still with the Harpoons — and even then, he downplayed the concept as a rock star alter ego that he only embodied in front of a concert crowd. Now he’s clearly out, and though he still idolizes Reed as a songwriter and lyricist, he’s more interested in achieving new sonic textures. In a statement announcing the release of the album, he noted that he aspired to match innovators in an array of genres, such as Kendrick Lamar, Beck, and Tune-Yards.

That’s not to say that the influence of his hero is totally absent — the cello on “God Lifts Up the Lowly” would fit comfortably in a Velvet Underground set, and album closer “I Lost My Innocence” sounds a lot like Fifties bubblegum pop. But most of the retro sounds, from the sax to the occasional vocal “oohs” and “wahs,” now sound like they’ve been sent through some kind of futuristic robotic filter.

Furman wrote all of the record’s thirteen tracks on a guitar, but over the course of eight months, he and the four members of his band — formerly called the Boyfriends, now called the Visions — meticulously reworked each song. They recorded the album in a Chicago studio built by Tim Sandusky, who engineers most of Furman’s output and plays multiple instruments in his touring band. Furman calls Sandusky — who has also worked with the electronic r&b group Lolawolf — the group’s “secret weapon,” and he’s constantly digging to find sounds not heard anywhere else.

“We’d change chords, change the entire approach, and then after doing that throw that version out and start again,” Furman says. “I was afraid to do it, because I was like, ‘Are we going to overthink these songs and just take the life out of them by rehearsing and arranging them to death?’ But we had an active goal the whole time never to do that.”

“Exodus,” the other word in the album title, is not just standing in for escape — it’s also a nod to Furman’s religious side. He’s an observant Jew who aims to stick to the Orthodox tradition of praying three times a day, and he keeps kosher when he can on the road. Jewish themes and references are becoming more common in his songs. On his last EP, Big Fugitive Life, from 2016, one song titled “The Refugee” chronicles his grandfather’s escape from Nazis in Poland during World War II. At the end of “God Lifts Up the Lowly,” he sings part of a Jewish prayer.

So does Furman plan to fight back in real life against the forces that confront the hypothetical trans angels? His answer is an emphatic “yes,” and these days he’s “obsessed” with getting people to register to vote. He had planned to set up voter registration booths at every concert on his tour (partly inspired by the rise of Donald Trump, whom he groups together with others in America who “disregard the plight of the vulnerable”), but logistical complications delayed that idea.

Although he’s frustrated and often frightened these days, he’s also hopeful. On the album’s poppy closer, “I Lost My Innocence,” he’s confident and defiant in the final verse: “I found my angel on a motorcycle/I’m a queer for life/Outlaw, outsider.”

“At the same time as fear and paranoia were growing, a need for solidarity and hopeful togetherness was also growing in me, and I think the record has both of those,” he says. “As you’re more afraid, you look more for a guardian angel who can help you. Or who you can help.”