American singer-songwriter Ezra Furman goes on a road trip with an angel to explore themes religion and identity with his new album, ‘Transangelic Exodus’. Buckle up, it’s one hell of a ride.
Ezra Furman is, by his own description, 'shifty'. "That'd be a good word for me," he says thoughtfully. "There's a fearful ‘can't stay here too long' kind of thing going on with me." This much is clearly true. Sitting in an upstairs bar in Shoreditch, Ezra is fidgety in an anxious, rocking sort of way. He fixes his gaze on the table or at a spot on the wall, only returning eye contact to make sure a particularly important point is understood.
"I don't do it as much anymore, but I used to be known for just disappearing," he says. "Anytime there was a party, I would disappear, and people would be like, ‘Where did you go? You were there, and then you just weren't there. We all arrived together and then I didn't see you until today'."
He thinks on this for a moment. "I have the urge to leave wherever I am. I think I'm a person who developed a private world that I have to keep returning to every couple of hours, and that means leaving the place I'm in, leaving the people I'm with."
This transient ‘shiftiness' is rampant on his new record. 'Transangelic Exodus' is a ‘queer outlaw saga', following Ezra and his lover - an angel who gained their wings through a surgical procedure - as they flee from a hostile government. In the album's opener ‘Suck The Blood From My Wound', we're introduced to Ezra's angel as they climb out of a hospital window and make their escape. From there the album muses on sexuality and religion, gender, and the way that certain types of bodies are policed. Queer bodies. Vulnerable bodies. Ezra's body.
"I think the thing that causes me to move in life a lot is the same thing that causes me to write about being on the run," he says. "I think just being queer in general and at a young age being like, ‘No one can know, no one can find out about me', feeds into an ‘on the run' mentality." Of course, there are other factors at work. "There's also my job, my work of being a travelling musician. But again, I think I became that because I was eager to stay in motion. I think touring so much definitely influenced that sense of, ‘We're in a car, we have to keep going, no one understands us'."
Lead single ‘Driving Down to L.A' puts that front and centre, depicting the insularity and obsessive need for motion that drives the record. The ‘queer outlaw saga' of ‘Transangelic Exodus' makes it a kind of road movie, Thelma and Louise meets My Own Private Idaho. Listening back, it could easily be the skeleton of a musical. That said, ‘Transangelic Exodus' exists in snapshots rather than deep focus, and Ezra's inspirations are more literary than filmic.
"I wanted to do it kind of as a novel in album form," he says. "Not like a Charles Dickens novel or something, but I was inspired by this book Speedboat by Renata Adler, which is short sections you could probably read in any order and it would still make sense. They don't depend on each other, they're each kind of free-standing, but they're all in the same world."
In that way, the record also partially fulfils a long-held dream. "I wanted to be a prose writer since I was a kid, I used to write lots of fiction, and I got too into music I think. So with this one, it was sort of like, ‘What would my novel be like?' And I think it would be like this. Because I'm not good with a narrative." Ezra smiles a little, and his eyes widen with sincerity. "I'm actually very bad at telling stories in general. Like at a party I can never tell an anecdote from my life because I can never figure out what the point was, or what to leave out or what to keep in. It just wanders around, and it kind of feels like, ‘Is it over? Is it not over? It's over.'" He says. "‘What was the point of that story?'"
This particular story, the one about angels and persecution, wasn't always the one he intended to tell on his next album. But it persisted. "The angel image is something that just showed up," he says. "I mean as a songwriter I feel like most of the good stuff is just found. It just arrives."
"I had a whole idea about what our next record would probably be, and then this fuckin' angel shit comes crashing into my brain. And I'm like, ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do with that? How does that fit into anything?'" Ezra scoffs. "And then it turned out to be the thing and the stuff that I was playing went out the window. I had to follow the thing that was forming."
He shrugs. "Although, some of those thrown-out songs might have been pretty good. It's hard to tell."
Everything is open to interpretation, sometime several times over. Ezra Furman doesn't seem to deal in certainties. Like his lifestyle, like his music, he is constantly shifting. Watchful. The emotional sucker punch of ‘Transangelic Exodus' comes in the one-two delivery of ‘Compulsive Liar' and ‘Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill'. These are the moments when the fearful nature of the record is strongest and hints at the personal history behind the album's themes. Ezra slips a confession into ‘Compulsive Liar', with the lyrics "I can trace the habit to when I was eleven, and I thought boys were pretty and I couldn't tell no one. It opens at a young age, that old protective closet."
"I think there are things about being closeted and queer that can turn you a little bit more paranoid or a little bit more like-" he narrows his eyes suspiciously, curling into himself "-‘what's that person's deal?'" Ezra notes. "Worrying about your safety a little more. Actually, not being closeted, more being out. Feeling on the edge or threatened, even when you know you're not. Then, right now in America, I see life getting more dangerous for non-white people and queer people too, and poor people. The disregard that our latest government has for vulnerable people is really frightening."
He pauses for a moment, tracing the thread back through his own thoughts. "Anyway, that's all to talk about angels. It also may be important that they're angels. It just sounds like a beautiful thing to me, a person with wings," he says. "The story of queer people all over the world is basically being made to put a lampshade over the most beautiful part of themselves. I feel like I've done that all my life in various ways."
‘Transangelic Exodus' also addresses another major part of Ezra's life that he once kept private. The album sees him address his Jewish faith with a new openness, on songs like ‘God Lifts Up the Lowly' and ‘Psalm 151'.
"It's an increasingly important part of my life, perhaps. I think I'm more confident in life, and it's a thing that I've usually been kind of closeted about in the way of, ‘You don't need to know anything about that, that's my private world', you know?" he says. "And that's a corrosive way to be. But being interested in traditional Judaism, at least in the circles I run in, is a very inconvenient thing. It's not easy to explain. It comes with a lot of disciplines."
Not all aspects of his Jewishness are easy to square with the rest of Ezra's life. In some ways, it's a tangled faith, as he tries to balance each of his seemingly conflicting ideals. There's a hint of that on ‘God Lifts Up the Lowly', when Ezra describes his guardian angel as having been born inside of a guitar with wings made of tinfoil and discarded cigarettes.
"I've been working out how I can be a person who's respecting and doing justice to all of these very disparate things that I care about. Rock and roll, and traditional Judaism, and having a queer community; these are things that sometimes pull me in different directions," he says. "But honestly, I like being pulled in different directions. It's expanded my heart."
It helps that he's able to read between the lines. Like with most other things, Ezra says that in traditional Judaism the Bible is open to interpretation. "You can't read the Bible by the letter of it because it contradicts itself," he points out. "It creates extreme, extreme cognitive dissonance and I think it was actually written to do that. It's made to challenge your sense of justice, to give you a sense of justice and then be like, ‘What are you going to do with it when I say this? This totally flies in the face of that'. What you do with it is what you do with any law. You have to interpret it as life happens.You have to try to be true to the spirit of it."
The spirit of it has, in its own way, distilled into ‘Transangelic Exodus'. That takes even Ezra a little by surprise. "I don't know, how did I make a religious album? I guess I'm not... I mean, to be blunt about it actually, I don't care. As Abraham Heschel said, religion is not for religion's sake; religion is for God's sake," he says. "I'm not really interested in religion except as a map to get to ‘God Lifts Up the Lowly', to love the stranger, to do justice. Things like that. Which I think is what God basically is. This love for the most vulnerable. And religion... it's like a set of cups," he decides. "You don't want the cups - you want the water. But you need the cups to drink the water. Or it helps. Sometimes you just want to put your mouth on the faucet. But in general, I prefer to use a cup."
Ezra Furman’s album ‘Transangelic Exodus’ is out 9th February. Taken from the February issue of Dork, out now.