The Future is Forever Lilac and Black

When you hear and fall in love with those musicians who have combined poetic storytelling with music that shows deep respect and love for its wonderful diversity of guises. That feeling, y’know? Rock ‘n’ roll has always been the haven of outsiders of those who won’t conform, a community, a gang where you can feel safe being yourself. It means rebellion. But time doesn’t stand still. And neither does prejudice. As I write this, the US Supreme Court has disregarded precedent and any evidence-based concerns to overturn Roe v Wade and already, all abortions are banned in at least nine US states. I have no doubt that the attack on our most basic human rights doesn’t end here. This is about fear and retention of power for the privileged few. The targets are already lined up –queer people, trans people, people of colour and even interracial marriage. 

Can the new generation of storytellers offer a vision of collective survival when the establishment is hell-bent on driving wedges between communities? Ezra Furman has been zeroing in on the light that sparks when struggling people find each other and ease each other’s course. Her music makes you want to bounce around your house all day.

Her forthcoming LP, All Of Us Flames, is a document that talks of community, networks of care, resistance, and survival. It’s at times thunderous, at times fragile and always stunningly beautiful.

Ezra: “This is a first-person plural album. It’s a queer album for the stage of life when you start to understand that you are not a lone wolf but depend on finding your family, your people, and how you work as part of a larger whole. I wanted to make songs for use by threatened communities, particularly those I belong to: trans people and Jews. People who have been through a personal apocalypse or two have something to teach them. The world doesn’t end, shit just happens, and if we don’t die, we have to take care of each other.”

“I’m really happy I’m this confident in the record itself. I’m also pretty damn confident in our live performance. It’s the best that I’ve done, I think. But what I’m interested in, you know, might not be what other people are interested in. And I’m curious to see if people like it.”

Giles: It’s noticeable that a lot of the record is written in the first person plural, which brings a sense of togetherness and community.

Ezra: Maybe solidarity is the term. Writing the songs and the lyrics is very much like seeing what happens. I don’t go in with a plan -like ‘we should be writing about this, or this is the kind of record I want to make next.’ It’s not like that. It’s really like, ‘what’s there?’ And now, I recognise some of the influences on why I’d be writing in the first-person plural, you know, it’s kind of a life stage thing and what stage of human civilisation we’re in right now kind of thing. But it’s amazing how my songwriting mind – by which I mean my unconscious – knows what to do before I’ve even thought about it. And then I can see it in retrospect through the lyrics like “Ah, I was trying to lean in this way.”

Giles: Is this just instinctive?

Ezra: Yeah, all the ambitious parts of making a record, I think, come a little later. I don’t start with any ambition. 

Ezra pauses, as she often does, carefully and considerately choosing her words. 

“I wasn’t really trying to write a record. At first, I wasn’t trying to come up with new stuff to release. Really. I had a lot on my plate. I am a parent of a young child and still working for the Netflix TV show Sex Education (for which she wrote the fabulous soundtrack). But I just thought, well, let’s see what’s in here. Let’s see what’s in the skull. And usually, like, stuff comes out, I write some stuff, write a song or write half a song. Then, I’m like, ‘This sucks. It’s terrible.’ I try to write a lot, and most of it’s bad. So, I throw it away. I’ve learned that that’s not what it’s like for many songwriters. Not everybody throws things away as much as I do.

Giles: Do you properly throw those things away, or do you put them on the shelf and think, ‘oh, I’ll maybe come back to that’?

Ezra: I do usually keep the demo or whatever I started. Because that’s the other thing: it’s my first assessment of what I did. I’m like, ‘that’s horrible’. I was trying to write a song as good as Blue by Joni Mitchell, and it’s horrible. And then I’m like, that was a failure, put it away. Five months later, I look into my phone, and I’m like, ‘Well, what’s this like?’ And by then, I’m no longer attached to what I hoped it would be, and I think, ‘oh, this is interesting and good’. I think that’s a very common process. But really, there’s a million ways it happens to write songs. And I still feel like I don’t know how to do it.

The key to being an artist is to get past that stage of hating what you do. Most people who want to be an artist and don’t end up doing it are like, ‘I don’t know, I’m not good at it.’ They don’t get past that phase. And I think artists know that everyone – well, maybe not like Prince or something {laughs} – are like, ‘Oh, I hate this’. You hate whatever you do. And you only hate it because you were there for the whole stupid, humiliating process of trying to come up with it. Which I do think is humiliating. I always feel that way. I always hope nobody’s listening when I’m making sounds in here.”

I mention to Ezra that the combination of lyrics and music on ‘All Of Us Flames’ gives me many different feelings: resistance, hope, strength, and empathy. When I mention that there’s also a bit of resentment, she indicates that I could probably turn up the level on that dial.

It seems oddly less personal for me. But I guess, in a way, it’s very emotional, without being very confessional – leaving aside the last song, which is hyper-confessional. That’s a quality I think that I aspire to. It’s my dream that I could write iconic songs. Songs that are portable that somebody else could sing. And you wouldn’t have had to have heard of me or heard anything about me. I think there’s more of that quality on this, you know? I feel competitive about songwriting, actually. I don’t talk about this much. You know, I always thought that if you don’t like some kind of music that’s not for you – you just missed the point. But anytime somebody makes a corny-ass song, I’m like, how are you letting that through?!  Like, that’s corny and not up to par, you know?

I won’t name names, but it’s people who’ve done good stuff before. I’m like, ‘Just wait. Just wait another two years and keep writing; just don’t put THAT out!’  Be like Fiona Apple. She makes you wait until she’s written something on fire, you know. I just think about that because I’m like, yeah, of course, I’d wait ten years to write ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ or Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’. Why don’t people try for that? I’m secretly quite ambitious and a little petty even about this stuff.

Giles: In the last issue, we featured Alice Nutter (who was in Chumbawamba and is a screenwriter now). She said many things that resonated with me, but one in particular of relevance to you and the new record, perhaps. She said they felt like they were in a gang together because they all dressed in black, they looked different from the rest of the people in their town, they lived in a squat, they ate together, they went everywhere together, and they shared all their money. She said that the feeling of being in a gang is so powerful. Even as outsiders, they felt invincible. 

Ezra: What a wonderful thing they existed – and then went to the top of the charts!? I love their anti-Nazi song “The Day The Nazi Died”. To your point, I think Alice’s experience is part of a related but maybe different thing – being in a band is such a little tight group. But I get it. With the new record, I was trying to bring across the feeling of being in a community that is threatened or has to look out for each other, or might not look out for each other, but has an insurgent will to change the world. You destroy and fight back. And, I mean, that feeling is like why punk happened. Punk music was the first music I loved as my music, not my parents’. I was 12 years old; I’d heard Green Day, and then somehow, Green Day led me straight to the Sex Pistols. I feel lucky about that. I don’t know how it exactly happened – maybe they were the next band on VH1 or something {smirks}. So, I guess I started to understand that we’re going to need that sort of feeling. Like, for one thing, being Jewish: we have a legacy of that feeling that it’s us against the world, and especially being trans, I don’t know, you just hear about trans people getting killed all the time. Or death by suicide or death by poverty. And then, of course, America – just like everyone in the West – has become obsessed with trans people. Our healthcare is now a political wedge, which is a nightmare situation. So, it puts you into this mode of ‘If anyone tries to hurt my trans friend, don’t hold me back,’ you know. Especially because I see my friends get hurt, that’s why we’re starting (the new record) with Train Comes Through and Throne, and that’s why I would write a song about the violent queer girl gang with gang colours called Lilac and Black. I knew I was writing well on this topic, and I had something to say. But I hate that being trans and out sort of self-selects a personality that’s willing to be like, ‘Fuck everybody, this is what I’m doing’ and ‘It’s me against the world’, you know? I do have that myself by necessity, and it’s also in my blood a bit, which is why I liked punk rock when I was 12. But my point is that I don’t want to be like that all the time. I’m not a stridently angry person normally. I don’t want to walk into a room and cause chaos or something. I know some people do want that, but being in the public eye makes my personal life into a miniature war, you know?

Giles: It’s got to be mentally debilitating to live your life where it’s confrontational all the time, and even more so when you are in the public eye.

Ezra: {laughs ironically} What was I thinking?

Giles: But at the same time, some issues need addressing for trans people and marginalised people, issues that need fighting for – you mentioned health care, there’s also education and jobs. The sort of things that many people take for granted and assume are fundamental human rights. The capitalist ideology and fear that generates has gone so far down the track now that the ruling elite are so overtly ‘fuck everybody else apart from number one’.

Ezra: Yeah, that’s the guiding ethos of capitalism – fuck everybody else and make as much money as you can, regardless of whom you hurt. And it might end the species. You can’t talk about it without sounding alarmist, but it’s gotten to like, I don’t know, we’re on the verge of civilisational suicide at the hands of very few people – the most powerful, nihilistic people. And some of them know that they’re evil, and some of them, well, I don’t think they know how evil they are, and I don’t think they know the difference between good and evil. And that’s the kind of thing that makes me want to be a spiritual person and make sure that right and wrong still get taught to our youth. 

Giles: One area that causes tension is when corporates and brands get involved in such social issues or “causes”. On one hand, I am cynical about their true motivation, but on the other hand, I am sympathetic to those employees who want the values of their employer to be aligned with theirs.

Ezra: If corporates are helping, I don’t think they’re not helping very much. I wrote that lyric at the end of our record: “What do your rainbows do? What do your bright flags do? What do your rainbows do here on the ground?” Corporate promotions are just like cities: I was thinking of the historic neighbourhood in Chicago called Boys Town, where rainbow flags are now hanging up everywhere. And it was just always gay bars in this neighbourhood. And okay, now they have rainbow flags hanging up, but there are still homeless people asking me for a handjob, and we’re both in desperate pain. That’s what I am often thinking about. They got the profit motive going on, and you need to look no further than that. There might be plenty of people who work there who genuinely care about queer issues and have queer relatives whom they love, but the company would not be doing anything that didn’t make it more money. I want to bring back early ‘90s style, corporate scepticism, you know, I almost want to bring back the term sellout because that was there for a reason. It was like a culture among artists and punk rockers and weirdos and queer people to be like, ‘do not trust that corporation, you don’t matter, they’re gonna kill you. Like literally, they’re gonna kill you.’ I’d like to encourage courage in your readership.”

This reminds me that I have failed yet again to tell Ezra about the origins and ethos of MU. And not for the first time, she hoists me from the depths of embarrassment.

Ezra: I like that you didn’t tell me about the magazine till now because you can trust that I just said all that stuff about encouraging your readers to be courageous without any influence, so I hope I encapsulated it! I used to love print magazines. I mean, I still get the New Yorker. I always pick up music magazines when they have any value, content wise. There are probably some that are still decent, I guess. Maybe.

Giles: I often think that age is another area where we have been divided by “the system”. Products are advertised with a subtle or not-so-subtle exclusionary bias. I think this tends to create these unconscious biases in our own mind, which makes us sometimes dismissive of what other generations have to offer. Imagine if we were allowed to think for ourselves….

Ezra: Yeah, that’s insane. I toured with Nada Surf in, I think, 2012. I’d never met them before, and I was touring for six weeks {laughs}. It was phenomenal. They’re quite a bit older than me, but I really valued that chance to hang out with them and learn some stuff. I mean, I hang out with a lot of young people, too. It’s kind of important to me to not just hang out with people my age. It’s almost baked into us that you’re almost supposed to disdain older people when you’re younger. It’s like, tradition. The dumbest slogan of all time from the 60s is “Don’t trust anyone over 30”. It’s phenomenal. Like, 26-year-olds are saying this, you know! It just blows my mind whenever I hear that slogan. And like, their heroes are John Lennon! Anyway, it’s ridiculous. But it is funny because people take corporate culture and think they thought it up as music fans – no, hang on, it was marketed to you in that category! My music career started when I was a teenager, and my parents or dad would take me to open mic nights. As an aside, my dad – and I feel like I don’t say it enough – is one of the biggest influences on my becoming a professional artist. They always were rooting for me from early on to make music, even though they didn’t do anything like that.

Anyway, so my dad would take me on these open mic nights, and I played my first teenage songs. I liked it because, like, you know, going to open mic nights, it’s just like dudes in their 20s playing Imagine, and it’s horrible, and then they see you. They come up to you, and they’re like, ‘that was actually good’, you know, and I’m like ‘hell yeah, fuck you, everybody, I’m the best, and I’m a 16-year-old brat’ {laughs}. But at one of these open mic nights, the guy who booked the venue – Mitch Marlow – was watching. And he came up to me and was like, ‘Look, I manage this other band around here. If you want to do music – ever – you can give me a call’, and he gave me his phone number. 

I waited over a year – I was probably 18 then – and I called him. And I was like, ‘I think maybe I want to do music’. And then, he became my first manager and one of my most trusted best friends. He was in his 40s, and I was a teenager. He got someone he knew who was vice president of a Chicago indie label to come to our show. And they were like ‘let’s sign this artist’, you know? He basically got us our first gigs – a tour when we were 19. Anyway, so knowing this person changed my life. I learned so much just from talking to him for hours and hours about the history of Chicago alternative, punky, art rock, you know? And from that moment on, I was disdainful of anyone who didn’t want to get to know older people.

By speaking out about the lack of role models for trans parenthood and a scarcity of visions for moving through adulthood as a trans parent, Ezra has put herself at the centre of the obsession with and hostility towards trans people. I can sense the weight of the competing factors that she shoulders: increasing public awareness of the many issues facing trans people; being seen as a role model; support and solidarity for trans people; personal privacy and security; living a happy life; thriving as a musician. It’s a lot to deal with.

Ezra: The actual argument is about bodily autonomy. I don’t understand how this conversation about abortion and the moves that are being made by the government are not being fueled by anti-trans groups. If you’re not allowed to follow doctor’s advice to take care of yourself as a trans person, if you don’t have that right anymore, then the right to abortion is not far behind. It’s one step away; you know what I mean? And I do wish people understood that, especially anti-trans feminists. I also think that CIS people who haven’t heard from a trans person about these issues – which are in the news every day – should maybe do that once in a while. 

I had a tough time deciding how to present myself to the world image-wise. I think you’ll notice I’m not appearing in my music videos, and I’m not on the album cover – not the front cover anyway. So, I’ve been feeling self-conscious and afraid. Talking shit about me on the internet, like, a vomiting emoji under a picture of me or something, doesn’t make me not want to be transgender. It just makes me weaker. It just hurts me. It makes me less able to go out in public; maybe that’s the idea. But it fucks up my day. I know I’m not supposed to care. I’m supposed to be like, ‘it doesn’t matter what anybody says; keep going, you do, you girl’. But it hurts me. A lot of that stuff really got under my skin, and it’s still under my skin. So that’s part of how I’m feeling, you know. Part of me sounds alarm bells like, ‘Why do you want to be seen in public? Why do you want to do that to yourself again?’ 

Giles Sibbald: Do you feel like you’re coping better?

Ezra Furman: {Pauses} Yeah. In a way. I mean, I’m a lot better at, like, just turning away from it or not scrolling down to see any YouTube comments and stuff like that. I feel way better walking through the world than I did two years ago. But yeah, on a large scale, you know, being on a magazine cover, a news website, or something. I’m just, like {shakes head}, that’s a lot. It’s punishing. 

Giles: Are you ready?

Ezra: Yeah, I’m ready. I can take it. And I will take it; I will continue to take it as long as it’s worth it. And I think it’ll continue to be worth it. You know, something that was impactful on my mindset was while we were in the desert – actually making the doing demos for the album – and I made that social media post which went something like, ‘Hey, I haven’t told anyone this, but I’m a mom, I have a kid, and I’m a trans woman. I wasn’t going to tell anyone about being a parent, but we never see, you know, different kinds of futures and possibilities for us. When I became a parent, I had never even seen a picture of a trans woman mom. So, here’s a picture of me.’ Of course, I’ve been morbidly reading about suicide rates among trans people, but I was like, okay, I think it’s worth telling people this. It’s still utterly baffling to me that it got picked up by, I think, the Guardian first. And then it was like Fox News and People Magazine. And then, on TV – the Today Show. I don’t understand it. I’m very mildly, a tiny bit famous. I’m not like Fox News or CNN famous at all.

Anyway, so then a waterfall of like transphobic comments came in from just people because the algorithm just brought it up into their feed like trash in the sea. So, it was dragging me down, but the mission, which was to get a picture of a trans parent in front of as many people as possible, was fulfilled tenfold. So, I internalised everything, you know, like if I weather the punishing bullshit, then I win. But that’s also a horrible pressure to put on myself. So, we made the album right after that while I was dealing with it. You know, I’m doing vocal takes on this album, and I’m looking at my phone, and I’m like, ‘you’re going to hell’. So, it does seem like it’s in the DNA of the album or something. I felt this had to be a record that trans women can wear as armour. I hope that was what we made.

By Giles Sibbald 

All Of Us Flames is out on 26th August on Bella Union Records.

Photography Tonje Thielsen

Words Giles Sibbald

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