Feb 03, 2022
8 mins read
If Liza Minnelli and the Violent Femmes had a love child, their name would be Ezra Furman – a songwriter who found recognition in their own country, the USA, pretty late in the game, and whose words, music and aesthetic currently provide the texture to Netflix hits like Sex Education.
The Violent Femme’s playful, raunchy baselines echo through much of Furman’s music, which is equally peppered by the rasping genius of Minelli in her Cabaret prime. Furman’s sound – whether rock or punk orientated – is catchy and hook laden. It’s also pushed forward by writing that tells a distinctive set of 21st century stories, and which often veers into straight-up poetry.
Viewing musicians’ writing through a literary lens inevitably starts with Bob Dylan and ends in a Twitter-style battle of favourites. But poetry’s abiding value has never been as a head-to-head contest, and Furman’s writing is compelling not for where it ranks on the ladder, but for how well it captures our 21st century tussles with life, and identity. In this realm, Ezra Furman flies a one-of-a-kind spaceship.
Beauty is a drug – and so is great writing
Furman wrote and sang for well over a decade within the conventions of pop culture and gender, often within the boy / girl frame, and often, especially in the early years, as ‘he’. Mainstream success came slowly, and initially mostly in Europe. In fact, lack of recognition in the USA saw Furman decide to quit the music business altogether, but as that decision was made the 2013 release of Day of The Dog sparked European love, and the beginnings of a meaningful career. Then came 2015’s Perpetual Motion People, which cemented European success and started opening doors in America. In 2021, Furman publicly declared a transgender identity, changed her pronouns and started wearing lipstick and skirts as a matter of course rather than as a performative accent. The complexity of this journey is fascinatingly expressed through all her studio albums, read as an evolving body of work.
But before we get to identity and self expression, we first have to recognise a writer with a routinely enviable turn of phrase. Take these lines, for example, plucked at random from the opening of Bad Man, off The Year of No Returning (2012):
Beauty is a drug, and it’s coursing through my veins
I sit at home staring at your picture, while my colleagues discuss capital gains
This love is just a cloud of cigarette smoke...
Blows away in the wind
But stays in your throat
The coughing’s worse than ever these days...
All Furman’s writing is of this kind of strength. Indeed, there are so many similarly powerful lyrical constructions in her back catalogue that one of the big challenges in listening to it is resisting the temptation to stop and rewind, stop and rewind.
Writing in the Guardian, she cites the mercurial Lou Reed as a primary inspiration.
“Lou Reed was an ideal figure to me. He was bisexual, like me, and seemed to inhabit an ambiguous middle place on the masculine-feminine spectrum. He was artily avant garde, but he also made a lot of traditionalist, good ol’ rock’n’roll. He was somehow “punk” but he was never part of the media-saturated punk movement of the late 60s; rather, he preceded and transcended it. His lyrics were mysterious and unpredictable. Whoever heard of a punk singer lilting: “Jesus, help me find my proper place?” What did it mean to “put jelly on your shoulder?” In Lou Reed’s refusal to be categorisable, I saw the sketchy outlines of a way of being that might actually work for me. I sensed in this man’s voice and image a freedom for which I lusted fiercely.”
Does containment mould a better writer?
Within Furman’s early music and lyrics lies the intriguingly fragmented diamond of self expression thwarted - of a naturally gifted writer telling a very personal story obliquely, and seemingly only approaching the fundamental facts of their life from around the corner. I have often imagined the difficulty of this road for Furman, and wondered about the many contexts in which the euphemistic phrasing might have felt like a perverse pantomime. And yet, her early lyrics are also universal. Here’s a sample from I Killed Myself But I Didn’t Die ( Mysterious Power - 2008):
My mom came in
she was having trouble trying to sleep
she could see that her boy was some sort of freak
[chorus] I killed myself but I didn’t die
now she’s my baby
she’s the apple of my eye
she only wants a sensitive guy
and I’ve been in and out of my mind
That’s just the way
the way I always was
I go to therapy
but I don’t take the drugs
I try and really look my life in the face
I think I’m learning that there’s no escape
The worst part is that I didn’t really care
it’s just to be or not to be
and either way
I’m only barely there
Looking back, it’s easy to picture a writer re-framing and re-expressing their struggle with gender identity. But a bit of research shows that this is only one part of the story. Yes, Furman was seeking the words to express herself, and her identity. But she was also seeking words to connect with all of us, regardless of who we were, and are. And it was through this connection as much as powerful self expression that the Lou Reed freedom outlines she lusted for so fiercely began to be coloured in.
The result is a wonderful duality. On the one hand, we can track the writer’s personal evolution. On the other, listeners and readers without knowledge of Furman’s personal life can still connect. We are all at some stage that kid at the back of the class, struggling to see the blackboard, or hanging under the bleachers smoking, desperate for a kiss. Certainly most of us have had that moment of realising that our parents are starting to realise certain things about us.
Writing from society’s margins is a complex business. The risk for the writer is that their self expression emerges as too raw for a stranger, who is disquieted and unsettled. This is true of disability, gender, race and most other zones of life functioning outside the middle market, and within this paradigm it makes intuitive sense that more creative and personal freedom would be the best path ahead for the writer. But Furman’s early work dangles a question mark over that assumption. It suggests that restrictions and containment can mould a nuanced writer as effectively as vast freedoms, and that these apparently negative forces also have the power to positively develop one’s ability to articulate the common experience of being a living, struggling human being.
A physical, lyrical transition
Only Furman herself will be able to say to what extent this has been true of their own life, and art. Regardless, the listener / reader can’t help but experience a sense of triumph as she shifts gears through the years, and moves from the cryptic to the real.
In the track Body, on 2015’s Perpetual Motion People (and, in fact, through this album as a whole), Furman starts speaking freely about what they had been alluding to for so long. The result is magnetic, lyrically and musically:
My body was made this particular way
There's really nothing any obstetrician can say
Your social beliefs can just get out of my face
And my body was made
My body was made this particular way
Recurrent desire never totally tamed
And honey I've tried and tried to explain it away
But my body was made
- Body, Perpetual Motion People (2015)
From I to all of us
Ezra Furman wasn’t the first to sing and write about the complexity of gender, and they certainly won’t be the last. But to my mind their work will eventually be seen as one of the defining poetic contributions to 21st century society’s expanding conception of identity - in the broadest possible sense. Ezra Furman, in other words, speaks and sings about life in a way that’s likely to resonate no matter who you are, where you live, or what you think about the world:
I’m up at six
I get a slice of bread
I cut a hole in it
I crack a little egg into a frying pan
And I try to get my mind turned off
I’m naked now
Because it doesn’t really matter when the shades are down
I was born this way, I’ll die this way
I don’t know how
I’m ever going to tell myself the truth
I live alone
A house without a heart is not a home
I think I may destroy these things I own
I’m going back, way back, to black and red
Inside my haunted head
-Haunted Head, Perpetual Motion People (2015)
As her global profile ticks ever upward, Ezra Furman will inevitably - and ironically - be forced deeper into the box of gender identity. Her lust for freedom of identity and expression will thus likely be smothered, at least to a degree, by her gender profile. But my gut says that long after we’re all dead and gone, Ezra will slip back into the category that is truly hers. Not gender activist, not transgender, not even musician, but poet laureate of an especially strange and stressful age.
Pretty punk rock: how Ezra Furman found freedom in gender fluidity
Ezra Furman – I Killed Myself But I Didn’t Die
Ezra Furman - The Queen of Hearts (Live at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)