Interview: Ezra Furman is fearless
America-based musician/songwriter Ezra Furman has just released his latest longplayer. We have a conversation with him about it:
Hi Ezra and thanks for taking the time out to speak with us at Something You Said. Would you say that your new album Perpetual Motion People is a straight evolution from your previous releases or a completely separate beast that doesn’t share much in common with its predecessors?
I think it is an evolution. It has a lot in common. It has some common ancestors and musically it inferenced it. I think both this record and the last have a kind of influence from old music of the 50’s and 60’s. I feel like it is getting more original and less like a copy. You don’t want to just imitate the records you love but I still like to be influenced by them.
How far back do some of those songs stretch back? Is it all relatively all new material or have some of these songs been with you for years and are only now seeing the light of day?
There are always a few that are older. Most of them are pretty new, they had been written since the last record. I think there were a couple where we were like ‘maybe we could put this on Day Of The Dog… narrh it’s too slow or it’s not ready.’ Essentially I’m not sure if there are any really old ones. Watch You Go By is the oldest song I think, that is probably several years old I think but it wasn’t ready, you know, you’ve got to listen to these songs and what they want and if they are shy you have to let them wait till they are ready to come out to the world. With Watch You Go By, that kind of despair is getting a little rarer for me as I am figuring out how to be a human being.
As your success and global awareness snowballs, it would be presumed that this triumphant ascent would make you happy, but does this actually have the inverse effect by making you feel bitter due to the time spent in music industry wilderness and the unheard struggles of your earlier days?
Well maybe there is an element of that because you hear people say ‘where have you been hiding?’ and I’m like ‘where have you been hiding?!’ I’ve been in public screaming my head off saying ‘look at me’ and I didn’t see you around. I am glad it took a little time because you shouldn’t be famous right away, you know? You shouldn’t have great success without even trying. That is dangerous, I could have started a band and been a teenage sensation and it probably would have been horrible for me. Now I am a little calmer, I would have been really, really excited if this kind of attention had been given to me five or six years ago but now I am just like well it’s a thing, it doesn’t change my job. My job is to make really good records that are true and fun to listen to.
As an artist evolving emotionally and musically from album to album, do you find it hard or even redundant performing some of your earlier material when the person you are today maybe completely different from the person you were when you first put pen to paper?
Yeah, well I know a song is good when it still feels true later on after it was written. You can kind of tell when you first write them, it’s lasting and I pride myself on having a sense of that. Which ones were a spur of the moment that don’t really have the strong bones to weather the storm over the years you know. My real goal is to make songs that are universal and not bound by time so they make sense to me 10, 20 years from now. If I listen to my first record, most of it falls flat to me but there are some songs that are like ‘THAT is the good one, that one stays strong’.
In thinking about your music and some related artists, I think of acts like Daniel Johnston, The Pixies, Morrissey and Belle & Sebastian with their focus on lyrically painting portraits of everyday people and ordinary situations. Would it be fair to say that some of your subject matter is derived from some seemingly mundane affairs but refocused into sublime moments and everyday heroes?
Yeah, for me the good stuff is the songs that uplift everyday life and take you to an unreal place of larger-than-life superstar stuff like Ziggy Stardust and Led Zepplin, strange rock god stuff. I think it is not so much my thing, and I prefer the person when you can hear them open hearted and it’s like they are talking to you. That’s what I really get off on, a singer that seems to be talking right to you. Which is not to demean the artificial, I do like the artificial from time to time but I think I am not as good at artificial art. I mean it’s all artificial art but there is this veil of unreality to that stuff.
What does this album say about you and the stage of your life that you are in right now?
Well I have become bold and fearless, I have somehow gained this great confidence. There is a lot of joy in this album and a lot of fearlessness. You know death is my own Tom Sawyer, I am not afraid of things anymore. There is some kind of wild, restless peace. It’s a contradiction but I am not as worried as I used to be about the fact that I have an ambiguous identity, I am not afraid of people anymore and I am just more open.
How do you reconcile the disparity between your lifestyle choices and your faith? Does this tug-of-war accentuate the peaks and troughs of the joy and despair that comes through your music and lyrics?
Well, being a spiritual person is never convenient. If you are trying to live up to transcendent truths, that is always in conflict with the muck and banality of everyday life no matter what your job is and how you live. I mean it is particularly inconvenient for me, someone who both wants to play rock and roll shows that go past midnight and someone who wants to get up early, pray and recite religious poetry, but that’s the battle you know. I am Jewish and Judaism is for me not going away to be somewhere alone, it’s about taking the everyday and uplifting it. The same way as those songwriters you mentioned do, you don’t cloister yourself from your life to be religious, you get into your life and try and make it all holy and have some dignity.
Stepping back to some of your earlier work. Watching you play The Worm In The Apple on a Williamsburg rooftop, it made me wonder how do you find the transition as a songwriter to performer when the songs you write about are a private and personal experience that is crafted in a place of solitude… to then performing these deeply personal moments in a live setting in front of thousands of people?
Well, its weird isn’t it. My emotional life on display, I don’t really write personal or autobiographical songs. I just didn’t want to be a confessional singer/songwriter. It’s all fiction to me. I didn’t realise until more recently that it doesn’t matter how fictional you think you are being, it is always confessional. It always shows something about where you are at although I am not the type of person who narrates my songs, it’s the extreme versions of things I have felt. I am a writer, I mean I like Randy Newman songs because he writers in the third person a lot or he writes in character. I think a good writer should be able to do fiction and it’s partly fiction, partly confessional.
What does music give you that nothing else does?
With music, you are trying to go beyond words and that’s what it is really good for because it will always have something that literature won’t have. The rhythm and the harmony at their best take something that words are not sufficient to describe the experience and make it more, they make it bigger, they blow it up until it makes people feel what you feel.
Your live shows are very vibrant and refreshingly unpredictable, what were the live acts you witnessed as a punter that made you think ‘yes, this is how an artist should engage with their audience?’
I never forgot seeing Ben Lee when he came to Boston. I had never heard of him before but I saw him with my friends and he just talked to us, he brought the whole room together. It felt like I could walk up to any stranger who was there and we were all best friends. I was amazed at how he wove conversational talking and songs to make this experience of having really meet each other.
I saw The Strokes in 2002, I was a big Strokes fan in high school and they put on an incredible show and they are a band that don’t really talk much but they have so much dignity and I would like to get some of that in my shows because I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut on stage.
You have been receiving some high praise from high places (including The Guardian awarding five stars to both the album and live show). Does this subconsciously alter how you approach your craft and the shows you deliver?
I can’t speak consciously of the subconscious, who knows what subconsciously is going on but consciously that is not important and doesn’t affect anything that we are doing. I think that it is important that attention from the audience or the press doesn’t change what your role is. I feel like that if there is anybody there watching your show you should do a good job for them whether its five people or 1000. I try and keep all that stuff at a distance.
You are in the midst of a world tour on the back of your new album. What have been some of most memorable gigs to date and why?
Well, last year I had a ‘what the hell is happening here?’ kind of moment when we played End Of The Road, just because the crowds were fairly large. It seemed like everybody cared you know, it was like a whole festival of people who wanted to be there and had heard our records and knew the words and stuff.
Do you find touring to be inspirational whereby it helps you write and create more material or are you so focused on the task at hand that writing and creating new material takes a back seat?
On tour it is hard, I need time to write but I keep note books and I write down phrases and ideas. If I do find myself with some time alone with an instrument I work on songs.
What does the rest of 2015 have instore for you?
Playing a lot of shows and taking copious breaks which I need. I can’t be on tour all the time, I am not one of those people, I need time off to be with people I love and focus on not being tired all the time. We might come to Australia but not till 2016, I have heard some rumours stirring.
Perpetual Motion People is out now. Keep up to date with Ezra Furman on Facebook.
Interview by Courtney Dabb.