The Chicago-area native Ezra Furman makes music that is decidedly enigmatic. His sound evokes big band and doo-wop era richness and melody; his lyrics are emphatically modern, touching on identity, societal norms, and self-acceptance.
“Wobbly” from 2015’s Perpetual Motion People serves as a great thesis to everything about Furman and his music. While his voice teeters on the brink he sings “I’ve been feeling wobbly, so wobbly / Feeling like they lost me / Can’t find me / And they’re always one step behind me / But they’ll never catch me / Won’t have me / Because no one can grab me / Even me”. Even Furman realizes he’s difficult to pin down, and he likes it that way.
The complexities of both Furman the person and the music he creates prove to be a rich source of interesting conversation. Our interview ranges from topics such as how he arranges his unique sound, staying motivated over the course of a long tour, returning to a formative place, the difference between an artist and their art, and Randy Newman & Harry Nilsson.
We caught up with him before his homecoming of sorts at Great Scott in Allston.
OpenEars:Your music has a big sound, you can feel the energy coursing through every track. In contrast to that, a lot of the songs are very inward facing lyrically and focus on a wide range of internal struggles, worries, and realizations. Is the dichotomy between the subject matter and the sound intentional?
Ezra Furman: Yes. I’ve always been moved by dark, even desperate lyrics paired with cheerful music. Like “Help!” by the Beatles or “Paper Planes” by MIA. It mimics the way a lot of life feels, when we’re acting normal and happy and feeling desperate.
OE:Touching on your sound again, when you’re arranging your music, do you pay any mind to how you will reproduce the songs live? Your production is incredible and complex so do you run into any challenges when bringing the songs on the road?
EF: Yeah, but I have such a talented band. They can figure out how to bring anything across live. The Boy-Friends, buddy. Don’t underestimate ’em
OE:What kind of emotions does creating music give you? Is it cathartic?
EF: I think writing songs sometimes is cathartic. But I think the psychological relief comes more from connecting with people rather than just expressing myself. When you make something that seems true and revealing and other people feel the same way about it, it’s very satisfying.
OE: When performing music night in and night out on the road, is it important to you to try and inhabit a similar mindset and energy to when you wrote/recorded the song? Does performing the song automatically bring you back to the genesis of it, or do you separate your performing from your creating?
EF: I care more about being faithful to what the song is now than how I felt when I was working on it. These songs have moved beyond me to some degree. They’ve become something that is not entirely personal. They are more public once they’ve been released. I just want to perform so that they are as powerful as possible. That doesn’t necessarily involved any faithfulness to my own emotions. It involves total faithfulness to the song.
OE: What motivates you to keep going when you’re blazing through months of touring? I have to imagine there are days where you’re just exhausted but still have to perform for people who are excited to see you.
EF: Different things. Doing a good musical service for the people who support me is one. Money is another. Loyalty to my bandmates is another. When I feel horrible sometimes I don’t want to perform. If I’m really in trouble, some combination of the energy inherent in our songs and the desires of the crowd carries me through.
OE: Your brother was the lead singer of Krill, local heroes here in Boston; Great Scott in Allston where you’re playing hosted their farewell shows in the city. You formed Ezra Furman and the Harpoons at Tufts. On “Ordinary Life” you mention a dark time in Boston. How did Boston shape you as a musician, if at all?
EF: I met my first band, the Harpoons, there. It changed me forever as a musician and they taught me so much. Together we made the huge leap from playing at fraternity parties for a laugh to trying to make an album for release to the wider public. But Boston itself? I guess I learned how to play loud music in a crappy room with bad sound. But I could have learned that a lot of places.
OE: What kind of emotions do you experience when returning to play in a city (and a venue) that has had a significant place in you and your brother’s history?
EF: I have some kind of love for Boston as a formative place. But what really moves me is seeing the fans come to our show. It’s touching. They’re so passionate.
OE: You give voice to a lot of undeniably important issues and topics, a voice that might be needed more than ever in our current political climate. However, does it ever get to be a burden for that to seemingly be the default starting point for discussing you or your music?
EF: There are ways that it’s a strain to always talk about gender when I do interviews. But it’s worth it. I love talking about gender and being a person who openly messes with the gender binary. I think it’s helpful to do so in public so other people see that it can and should be messed with.
OE: Following up on the previous question, will we ever see a time where someone’s appearance or sexuality isn’t the first thing mentioned in relation to their art? Is that something you strive for?
EF: I don’t strive for that. I think that appearance and persona is really kind of part of the art. Someone’s public presentation has an inescapable impact on how the effect of their work. Even if their presentation is as someone who doesn’t care what you think of them, or never shows their face, that will affect how their work is received.
OE: Separating an artist from their art is a topic that is discussed more and more lately. Is there ever a way to truly separate them in your mind? Even if the art is very personal, where do you draw the line between artist and person?
EF: I don’t know. I do know that you don’t necessarily know anything about a person just because you’ve seen or heard their art. Even if you’ve taken in the way they present themselves, a lot of it’s illusion, part of the project of being a public artist. You don’t know them until you actually know them. And if you’ve never spent any significant time with me, you don’t know me.
OE: In another interview you said this about creating, “Read everything, listen to everyone, devour it all until it makes you sick. You’re bound to vomit out something interesting if you take in enough volume.” What was the moment you realized that you had the capability to not just create, but make something worthwhile that would resonate with other people?
EF: For some reason I always had a lot of confidence as someone who should write and perform music. Despite the fact that my self esteem was low in general and I was shy as a teenager, I just felt very ready to make music. I just got excited about it and started working really hard on it right away. The fact that it’s worthwhile or resonant is something I only realized later. I started by just compulsively doing it.
OE: You wrote a love letter to Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman about Nilsson’s Nilsson Sings Newman. Nilsson and Newman are two of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, and in my mind what makes their music great is the level of autonomy they operated with – a freedom to be themselves, whatever direction that ended up being. It’s not something you see a ton of today.
You come about as close as possible to matching that level of fully-realized individualism as there is today. What aspects of this style of music-making appeal to you?
EF: Those guys are artists. They did what they wanted, mostly. That’s part of what’s great about them. I can trust when listening to their music that they’re pretty much following what moves them rather than doing what will please some audience that I don’t care about. I try to be like that: reliably motivated by artistic interests rather than by other more boring things.
Facebook: Ezra Furman