ezra furman: just your average cross-dressing jewish rock’n’roll superstar
Clad in red lipstick and a dress and singing about his faith, Ezra Furman is an unlikely star. But you can't deny, the boy's got talent.
"The weirdos become the heroes. If that's what rock'n'roll is to you, that's what we're playing." Ezra Furman, wearing a yarmulke, a string of pearls, a boat neck top, skirt, tights, black socks and a vibrant shade of red lipstick, is standing on stage addressing a crowd at Rough Trade's flagship store in East London. He's here to celebrate his new album, his sixth, that can now be found tucked between John Frusciante and The Fresh And Onlys on the racks.
Ezra's clearly finding the experience surreal - he's one of this year's most talked about live acts. Bjork reportedly checked out his soundcheck and thanks to the display stands of new LP Perpetual Motion People, he has to walk past 41 pictures of himself on his way to the stage. His manager makes the executive decision that Furman doesn't require an artist's wristband - if security don't recognize the 28 year-old Chicagoan in lippy and a skirt, then they're clearly not paying attention.
Watching Ezra live is akin to seeing Jonathan Richman in Mac makeup performing songs by Loudon Wainwright, backed by a doo-wop band that look like they could punch your lights out. It sounds extraordinary - lithe, spry rock'n'roll that twists and turns like a dervish. He dedicates one track to a Dutch customs officer who asked him earlier in the day "Are you aware you're wearing a dress?" Speaking to i-D backstage, he discusses advice from Lou Reed, admiring Fiona Apple and why Beyonce's XO feels like love.
Describe what it felt like the first time you wore a dress on stage?
It was in the summer of 2011 and I thought "This feels good to go public with this rather than hiding in some female friend's bedroom." But there was still the disconnect: I think my band and most of the audience thought it was kind of a joke. Which is fine - there's a little cognitive distance. I remember thinking: "I wish I felt more comfortable wearing this tomorrow too." Also the intense fear of rejection, of course. That people are going to look at me and laugh and tear me apart. It turned out OK.
Who is your style icon?
I have a friend named Cantwell Faulkner Muckenfuss IV: probably the best dresser I've ever met. They find things like a purple shiny sequinned jumpsuit that also has a rectangle missing that would usually cover the nipples.
Would you say you come from a musical family?
Not my forebears but my siblings: my brother is in a band. I was really fortunate to find Sail Away by Randy Newman in my parent's collection which I really treasure. My parents were really into good songwriters: Paul Simon's Graceland was an important inheritance. It just never gets old, it's so fucking good.
You were inspired by The Velvet Underground's Loaded. Did you ever see Lou Reed perform live?
I met him actually. He was a keynote speaker at South By Southwest in 2008 and all the bands did Lou Reed covers. He gave me a compliment on my version of Heroin which I did solo on an acoustic guitar. He asked me if I was on heroin. I said I was not. He said "Good - stay away from that shit!"
What qualities of punk do you love in particular?
To me it was a novel idea when I was 12 that you could somehow claim your misfitness as a badge of honor. As something you embrace, rather than being scared and ashamed all the time. More than anything else it was about self-acceptance. Saying "Yes, I am not what various authority figures would like me to be. And maybe that's my best quality rather than my worst."
What are you reading at the moment?
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato. It's this mystery story but then it goes on these wild digressions about, like, Christopher Columbus' assistant cartographer. And I'm reading the Torah, The Old Testament, pretty regularly.
How hard is it being observant on tour?
I think this is the second time I'm completely observing Shabbat to my standards of the rest of my life. I keep sort of "fake kosher" and I'm mostly vegetarian. It's my goal to pray three times a day. I don't always keep to that and it's usually because I'm exhausted or there's not a moment. It's tricky.
Is there a contemporary artist who inspires you?
I was just thinking about Fiona Apple. She's the fucking bomb. Her last album is a stone cold classic. I found it so bristling with this energy and power. It's just has a quiet, seething rage. I'd hate to be her ex-boyfriend.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
I saw M. Ward when I was 18 and I talked to the opener that night, a band called Devotchka. I asked one guy about advice on being a professional musician. There's only one line I remember: "Everybody thinks they know what you should do. But only you know what you should do." It took me a long time to truly internalize that but I'm living by that creed.
What drives you when you perform?
A lot of tension builds up when you're a shy person. I'm sort of repressed in a lot of ways socially. Especially if I'm "off of my turf", which I usually am. Right now I'm "on my turf" in some way, even though I'm in a foreign country - there's a picture of me on the wall. Most places are an enemy planet. When you feel like you can't tell the truth, that builds up. It bursts forth in song.
What music do you love that would surprise people?
People are surprised I love Beyoncé: XO is a masterpiece. That's one of those songs that sounds like it's actually trying to be as beautiful as actual love is. There's a few records that are like that to me: Little Star by The Elegants is an old doo-wop one. For me I just hear it and it just hits the same love muscle that actual love presses.
What's your vision of the future?
Anything could happen.
Ezra's new album Perpetual Motion People is out now on Bella Union. Catch him live at Latitudes' iArena on Friday, July 17.
Text Andy Morris
Photography Phil Sharp