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04 Interview: Ezra Furman, the punk singer behind Sex Education

Interview: Ezra Furman, the punk singer behind Sex Education

At the age of 33, Ezra Furman’s carrier stretches out over nine albums, since her beginning with the group The Harpoons in 2007 up until today. Promoting a new punk attitude, the Chicago-based singer and composer opens up to Numéro about her collaboration with the producers of the Netflix show “Sex Education”, her last album “Twelve Nudes” (2019), her queer identity and her concern about climate change.

© Jessica Lehrman © Jessica Lehrman
© Jessica Lehrman

Numéro : Beginning of 2020, you put your voice on the soundtrack of season 2 of the Netflix show Sex Education. Was it a refreshing project for you? 

Ezra Furman :I mean there’s a fashion to get a good gig like that, you know. I can decently work and get paid for it, I don’t have to travel too much, and I can record it myself – I love recording! The show itself is also refreshing. You don’t really see shows in which sex is addressed to in a healthy, open and honest way. Neither on TV or in movies you see these kind of role models and especially not among young people.



How did you manage to collaborate with the producers to create the soundtrack of the show? 

To me, the hardest part was that to make music for a TV show and for somebody else’s project. I am a punk, you know. I am into punk music, and even if I am not making music that sounds punk, I still have a punk philosophy. I don’t instinctively trust TV that much. With this show, the goal was not to satisfy what I wanted to hear on a record, but rather to make a good soundtrack and work along with the producers. It was artistically tricky for me, but I think I did something that was true to myself. 



There is a sense of you making a kind of music that leaves room for people to interpret it. What is your usual process of composition? 

I write everything on my own first. I care so much about songwriting that I don’t want to mess around with making stuff up in the studio, waiting for everyone to be available. I first get the songs with my guitar, then we come together and listen to them, we select some of them and talk about how we can make them sound. This part is pretty collaborative, but it is also a very tricky thing to decide, because you never know what might turn into something cool. So that is my process: how trackers are going to sound, which one to pick, just hit it, boom boom! [Laughs.]

Ezra Furman - “Every Feeling”, from “Sex Education OST” (2020).

Your last album Twelve Nudes (2019) feels like diving into a punk-rock record. What kind of evolution do you operate from your previous album, Transangelic Exodus (2018)? 

Making Transangelic Exodus, I was influenced by a lot of artists who are not really rock’n’roll, like Portishead, Kendrick Lamar or Kanye West. We took some time making it and I started to get the itch to play simple rock’n’roll. When we finished making Transangelic Exodus, I just started to constantly listen to punk music. That was all I wanted to hear! I also felt like more and more urgent about my anger and fear in regard to public life. 


So, Twelve Nudes came out as an emergency?

The music that I make mirrors where I am at as a human being in the world. So, it felt truer to me to make something quickly. Transangelic Exodus took a long time to produce because it was the same urge as Twelve Nudes. At some point, I just started craving for more urgency and pessimism. Well, not exactly pessimism, but I got to admit how bad things look and that some of us are not going to be fine, some of us have already not been fine at all. I was not extreme enough before and I wanted to make my music extreme in an extreme time.



What are your main inspirations for this punk album? 

I love old Green Day music. It is the first kind of music I really loved. Actually, a significant model for our punk record Twelve Nudes was Green Day’s album Insomnaic (1995). It is just relentlessly negative, and I love that! The Mystics were a really big deal over the past several years for me too. I mean, The Mystics are complicated because they conveyed a lot of violence, but somehow, they charmed me. 



I am insisting on my right to say that this country has failed its people for centuries and that I want to be better.”



What is the meaning behind the title of your album Twelve Nudes

There are two different layers to it. I wanted my album to be emotionally naked, without the adornments, clothing and jewelry of Transangelic Exodus. I wanted to be naked. With the idea of nudes, I thought about painting, and especially about portrait painters making canvas that can be very emotional, sometimes embarrassing or almost harsh and screaming at times. Besides, I am also talking about naked pain. I was inspired by the poet Anne Carson who wrote a long poem called The Glass Essay (1994), in which she talks about a vision she calls “nude”. It is all about the human body and being in pain. She also addressing social issues, again the rich killing the poor… That is what the album represents to me, being nude and being honest about pain.


About pain and social issues, in the track In America you sing: “I’ll write you a national anthem” …

That’s interesting you connect that question to the national anthem part. That song sums up my posture as an American. I don’t know if that song is carefully written or not, but it feels emotionally real to me. It is pretty enthusiastic, with some kind of love for my country, but also so much deception. I am insisting on my right to say that this country has failed its people for centuries and that I want to be better. And that national anthem part is also a way for me to have some power, as much as I can. It is like I am holding the country hostage and have my hand over the money for this national anthem. This is an aspect of the American mood, I think! There are so money people looking for money and power, but to me, there are also ways to share, if that was a priority for the ones ruling the country.



You also have this song called Evening Prayer aka Justice in your album…

There is the constant demand and emergency for justice, especially with the song Evening Prayer. The album is the upshot. Some of the songs seems to say that “things are bad and there’s nothing we can do”, and this is a feeling I definitely wanted to put on the record. However, there is another feeling that says that there is something we can do, so we need to chill out.

Ezra Furman - “Evening Prayers aka Justice”, from the album “Twelve Nudes” (2019).

It seems that you are violently addressing political issues in Twelve Nudes

I am strongly insisting on environmental issues and on the fact that poor people are dying while wealthy people get away with murdering them. It is not politics – it is more about human life and human well-being. Going into politics is often a way to offer a solution to these issues. I was looking at how people were getting killed and drastically underserved by our society and sewing that in all this emergency aesthetics. 


Thus, you are positioning this album on a larger scale… 

Indeed! Climate change is the thing that worries me the most. I am seeing this emergency situation getting worse because we are not dealing with it. And in fact, it reminds me of lot of things I have done in my own life. For instance, I often did not admit that I was in pain, so I didn’t do anything to fix my life. I’m trying to get myself to say out loud what hurts and that something is wrong. 



It’s a never-ending supply to be a human being – that is the fuel!



You are trying to raise these issues aloud, with a more aggressive music in your last album. Are those fears fueling your music? 

Well, music reflects what’s going on with my heart and soul, it is where my mind is going, where I’m spending my time cyclically. I don’t know if it is fuel, I think there is always some stuff in my heart and mind that going to make me make music. You know, it’s a never-ending supply to be a human being – that is the fuel! I wish I wasn’t thinking about a panicked music and wish we were in a calmer situation, in which things were more under control and people were not endangered. Then, I would make some fictional music talking rabbits or something and write a nice love song from time to time… Well I am already doing that! [Laughs.]



Few minutes ago, you were telling about the fact that you try to think as portrait painter. How did you make your aesthetics evolve throughout your carrier, from a regular rock style to a red-lip-pearl-necklace punk?

About the way I manage my appearance, the line is pretty blurry between my public and personal life. I guess I have improvised the whole thing really. At some point, I thought that when I’ll be looking back at my carrier, I would like to see that I did what I cared about and talked about what mattered to me. I realized that the more I talk about what matters to me, the more I create a culture in my audience – we can all talk about what matters the most to us and make this space you talked about. Make a space where we can be more honest.



An open space where people can feel free to identify or not to who they want?

Exactly! You know, a lot of people who are not out of the closet as queer still come to my shows. People in general want to be more socially aware. Some are thinking that, because the world is so unjust, they have to cheat on others too. They don’t know what they care about and how to learn from each other to do it. So, I want our band, our shows, our conversations, to encourage that impulse – let’s be the people we want to be, even it is just for a night. Every human being has infinite worth and is irreplaceable. This is how you should treat people.

Ezra Furman - “I Want to Be Your Girlfriend”, from the album “Twelve Nudes” (2019).

It feels like it has been gradual for you, since the beginning of your carrier in 2007, until now, thirteen years later…

One thing that happened is that I am more open about my gender, my sexual preferences and my religious identity – things that I have been embarrassed of in the past. I am more opened about it with the persons I love in my private life as well. It really changed my life – it is a much better life now!


Is it a recent thing for you to include religion in your life and be able to freely talk about it?

Not really. Religious practice has been present throughout my life really. I have been keen to talk about it a little more now, but I talk more about other aspects of my personal life. Mostly because people ask about it less. Because how can you talk about the infinite in such a short conversation? [Laughs.]



I don’t think I could collaborate well with Bob Dylan for example… He is the artist who changed my life more than any other, but it doesn’t mean we would make a good record together.



Any idea about what will be your next step? Do you feel like experimenting a bit more of your punk dynamic? 

Oh, I love the way you asked that question! Well, I am learning. I have always been writing music and song. I am not a person that have writing periods, I am always writing. The comedian Dave Chappelle says that the moment you get an idea, hopefully the idea is driving the car and you are just riding in the car. You don’t know where it is going to go, because the idea is in charge. Some mornings you can hear the idea parked and horning outside your house, and then some other mornings, it is just you in the trunk, lost on your way. And that is the best part of it! [Laughs.] I don’t want to decide in advance and cannot predict any better than you what’s going to come up out for me next.


Perhaps are there some artists you would like to collaborate with?

Collaborations… You never know if it’s going to work! I have imagined some of them, with Patti Smith for instance. I feel like we could understand each other. I used to always say M. Ward! M. Ward is really inspiring to me as a songwriter, I would love to collaborate with him. I just want to meet people and see if it works – you need to have chemistry! I don’t think I could collaborate well with Bob Dylan for example… He is the artist who changed my life more than any other, but it doesn’t mean we would make a good record together. Not that he wants to collaborate with me anyway… He probably doesn’t know who I am! It is fun to think about it this way! [Laughs.]


Sex Education OST (2020) is available on every streaming platform.