Ezra Furman walks gingerly up to the mic. She’s clad in a leather jacket, tight black dress, faded Doc Martens and hot pink tights, with most of her wavy hair covering her face. Guitar in hand, she looks straight out into the audience and says, “Transgender in the state of Texas in March 2022. This is not a f—king around type of situation.”
She then launches into “Evening Prayer aka Justice” from her 2019 punk rock album “Twelve Nudes,” an immediate introduction to the rawer edges of her sound that swerve in an entirely different direction from the softer indie songs written for coming-of-age Netflix show “Sex Education.”
Her lyrics evoke a sense of urgency, a call to action: “If you’ve got the taste for transcendence that translates your love into action / And participate in the fight now for a creed you can truly believe.”
Furman’s entire set has punk energy, and yet there’s a vulnerability to her onstage presence. She’s playing a SXSW showcase organized by songwriter, producer and 4 Non Blondes frontwoman Linda Perry to highlight EqualizeHer, an initiative combating gender inequality in the music industry. Perry pauses Furman’s set at one point, making sure the audience hears it straight from her that Furman, who has been making music for 15+ years, is incredible and about to blow up the airwaves.
“That was a bit of a moment,” Furman says of Perry’s interruption.
Fast-forward to the end of April, when I’m on a 50-minute Zoom call with the prolific artist talking about everything from having a cocktail party with Talmudic-era rabbis to all the pleasant surprises found in motherhood to the excitement — and nerves — surrounding her upcoming tour.
Furman kicked things off in L.A. in late May, with a steady lineup of shows over the next four months including a stop at Baltimore’s Ottobar on September 17. Her new album “All Of Us Flames” won’t be released until August 26 but she’s steadily putting out new songs like “Forever in Sunset,” an ‘80s-infused rock ballad about a woman trying to warn her new lover that she’s trouble.
She describes her new songs as “a lot gentler and a lot less screamy,” and says she’s learning to sing “a little prettier.”
“I always wanted to lean toward the wild. Garage rock and punk rock are so in my blood. They’re so my home — [my] starting point.”
While her songwriting gig for “Sex Education” is close to her heart, she sees a bit of a disconnect between the fact that she’s best known for those songs but prefers the creative freedom of doing whatever she wants with her own albums — including performing them live.
“We don’t play anything we wrote for ‘Sex Ed.’ The show has used music from our records and we play those still, but we also made a lot of original music for it. So far, we’ve decided never to play any of it because that’s the corporate job and making records is my art life.”
But then again, she says, maybe she’s drawing the line too bold and bright between the two. Either way, she’s ready to be back on the road.
“I really missed playing rock ‘n’ roll,” she says. “It’s one of my top five favorite things to do.”
With such a large gap between live shows due to the pandemic, Furman says she feels a bit like a new artist making her debut.
“I feel like a little crinkly butterfly unfolding some new equipment,” she says with a quiet intensity. “I had a lot of second puberty feelings during lockdown. The shows kind of feel a bit like my quinceañera.”
A little over a year ago, she came out as a trans woman and a mother on Instagram, sharing her experience for a very specific reason. She wrote:
“One problem with being trans is that we have so few visions of what it can look like to have an adult life, to grow up and be happy and not die young. When our baby was born, I had approximately zero examples that I had seen of trans women raising children. So here’s one for anyone who wants to see one. I’m a trans woman and a mom. This is possible.”
This new chapter of her public life has created uncertainty, and she’s understandably cautious as she navigates people’s reaction to who she is.
“There’s an element of extreme self-consciousness in putting out new music and putting out new pictures of myself, and a new version of myself that can be translated via media — like in an interview like this.”
The pendulum continues to swing for her on being open about her personal life. While she doesn’t see herself as an activist, she understands why just being herself carries weight in the trans community.
“Somehow, I made it my job to air the contents of my soul. My work as an artist tends to be an exploration of my deepest, most visceral concern of the moment and that tends to overlap a lot with my personal life and being part of a hated group: trans people. When you are part of a group that has been demonized and politically weaponized, your personal life becomes almost like activism.”
Furman says it’s a charged event to show up in public at all when you are physically gender nonconforming, and small acts of support go a long way.
“[When] people who aren’t trans interact with trans people, you should know we are looking for confirmation that you’re not part of the faction that wants us to disappear. We are looking for reasons to be comfortable or uncomfortable. Who can I trust? Who thinks I’m disgusting? Who is pissed off at me? Who might hurt me? It’s worth reminding cis people that being trans is a social war we didn’t ask for, and we’re watching out for enemy fire.”
This is why pronouns, she continues, are such a big part of the conversation.
“It is the quickest social signal that people aren’t at war with me as much of the world around me is.”
Her forthcoming record is, in a way, its own form of activism. She describes it as a first-person plural album made “for use by threatened communities, and particularly ones I belong to: trans people and Jews.” This shift in her focus toward community has coincided with motherhood, and a keen interest in interdependence and finding her chosen family.
“I knew I wanted to be a parent, and yet I did not realize how much I would actively love it. It’s sort of freaking me out and making me not want to work on other things. I think it’s quite good for me — spiritually.”
Toward the end of our conversation, Furman looks at me and asks with immense sincerity, “Who are you?”
This encapsulates the earnestness with which she approaches everything in life — even an honest moment with a stranger. At the root of it all, it seems, is building connection.
“It seems obvious in retrospect, but I didn’t realize that you make your own community around your art project and your band. Whatever I talk about — it changes who listens. I feel more comfortable in a room with a higher percentage of queer people in it, and so it’s nice that that’s where I work.”
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