I fell in love with Ezra Furman's music the first time I heard it. Probably for once I have to thank the fact that I seem to live in a hopeless and forgotten region in the southern North of Germany, where the last bus heading for our village leaves at approximately 7 pm. This means that I have to spend a lot of my evenings in front of the station in the car, waiting for a train from Hamburg to arrive in order to get my sons home when they are late from school. It is not a good place, as I am willing to demonstrate here:
One of these nights in 2015 I did what I rarely do: I listened to a broadcast on the radio. And there it was. An Ezra Furman show. I felt struck by lightning. Happy. Understood. All kinds of things. Suddenly I knew there was someone out there feeling like I did. And unlike me, he was able to express himself. Through music. He speaks so many languages fluently, like Punk, Doowop, Country, Rock 'n' Roll... His lyrics are very much worth listening to. For me, Ezra Furman instantly became one of my greatest heroes, standing in a line with David Bowie, Tom Waits, Joan Armatrading and Bob Dylan. It felt like an awakening. I do not even care that he cannot really sing. It's the spirit!
I am listening to Ezra Furman all the time. My family thinks I am crazy. When I had finally managed to get a ticket for his Frankfurt show in February, 2016, I contacted the US american singer/songwriter to ask him for an interview. This took me a lot of courage. I did not expect an answer, I just had to try it. To my surprise and delight he wrote back: "I'm excited to meet you!"
Frankfurt is only a few hours away and I have been there before, but the way old and new buildings are fit together keeps astonishing me. I took a long walk in order to to calm down before I went to the Zoom Club.
We met before the show. Of course I had been planning everything ahead. I prepared loads of possible questions, I even wrote down some kind of conversation guide (which, to be honest, was to be a guide for my master thesis and all the following interviews I did as well, but Ezra initialised it. A year later now, I am still working on it). The only room we found after I had introduced myself was backstage, and the only light sources we had were the emergency exit sign and my voice recorder. I had to let go of my plans and just went with it. These are the questions I came up with.
How do you work? From the lyrics, you could be a poet, you could just print the things you write. What does it make you turn it into a song?
"Oh wow. There is a lot of different ways I have done it, honestly. There is just a lot of ways, there is just no rules to it. I wish there was a formula I could always generate a good one. One thing that I do is I keep phrases, I keep writing stuff down, lines and phrases, just words that I like and I just keep it on notebook and I can keep notes on my phone and I just keep a bunch of scraps of language around. I think of them. A lot of times I am like listening to music and thinking about what could happen: What I could do? What if I did this music that I am listening to but did it in this other way? Or it could be better in this way or something. So then I have this library at phrases and then I guess I sit down at an instrument at some point and start to play and see if I can get anything good to come out. It' s really intuitive and I just start playing and see what I start singing. And sometimes I look at those notes, or like grasp from there and sometimes I just need those later on in the process when I need to finish it. When on that it's like I am like sort of constantly a little bit on the lookout: Can I use something? I am always trying to write a song. Or just trying to write something. And if you have that just going as a constant, more or less constant thing, then your brain just kind of does it for you. If there is anything you think about all the time, suddenly it emerges. You don' t have your Eureka-moment like a scientist or like an inventor. If you think of it all at once that is because you have been thinking about it all the time. And you don't just have an idea out of nothing, it is like you put all this stuff in your head for ages until it combines and comes out. So a lot of times when I write a song it will come out really fast and just be like there. It is like I found it."
You seem to capture so many different speeds in your songs. How do you determine it? Does it come from the words or does it just emerge the same way?
"I have no idea. I don't know. I just start doing something, it seems to work or not work. That's a musical element, how fast the words are going, how fast the tempo is going. You are trying to make it fit with whatever mood you have left on to."
As an example you can watch Ezra Furman and the Boyfriends perform one of his faster songs here. "Walk On In Darkness" is one of my favourites.
I was listening to Frank Zappa on the way here and he gave me a great question to ask you: What's your conceptual continuity?
"I maybe don't have enough of one because I am a little scattered musically. And I have sometimes been criticised or criticised myself for not being focussed enough and create one mood for a whole album. But at the same time, the mood is like being all over the place and life being something large and your heart containing multitudes, your heart containing many things at the same time, that's what I think what my life is like. I feel a lot of different stuff within an hour. I mean I just get mood swings, that's part of my life. I am very volatile. (laughs)"
How does being an artist help you with that? Or: Is there a connection?
"Mm, it doesn't help. (laughs) You have asked me before: Is it therapeutic to kind of express yourself, and I think the word is cathartic. It's cathartic to perform these emotions in a very intense way. But it doesn't actually make them go away. Essentially the really therapeutic thing about it is that it's something to do that I can do. Usually when I am in a really bad mood I can't really do anything. I can't get any good work done. That's not always true. I have been in terrible mental states and just used the task of writing a song to say: Okay, I am going to do this! I know, this is something I can do! Which is certainly better than doing nothing. I have been to therapy and I have ways that I calm myself. A lot of times it is just seeing people, talking to people who I like, being social. It is really important."
I know that you „give it all“ when you are on stage. How do you regenerate when you are on tour ?
"The days are harder than the nights, because to wake up and kind of do stuff, load all the gear into the venue and you are tired from last night... But it's really the adrenaline of the show being about to start and meeting and seeing all those people there that you have never met and who are excited to see what you did. That just gives adrenaline. That's actually part of the problem though, because it just gives you so much adrenaline, that you still have adrenaline at the end of the day. You probably should go to sleep but you are still talking to people."
You sing a lot about beauty. I would love to ask you what beauty means to you?
"Wow! That is quite a question! Like in „Ordinary Life“, yeah, beauty is in that one. I probably in songs use the word beauty to mean things, like everything. To me it's very very beautiful that anything exists. And that's like my core position as a human being, that life is a gift, that the whole world is a gift and you get numb to it too easily. So I say: „The human mind gets sick of beauty“. Life is beautiful and you just just forget it so quickly. I am always trying to remind myself. Music does that thing of going beyond words, and beyond ideas, it has a spiritual and emotional uplift, that kind of reminds you about the grandness of existence. (laughs). I know I am being very flowery here. That is what I use it for. That's what music does for me at its best: makes me notice that I am alive. That's all, soothing and beautiful."
This is the official video of "Ordinary Life".
I told you I was trying to be like an artist when I am working with people who need my help. Can you give me something to cling on to: What could that mean?
"Oh, I mean to me an artist is someone who does something because it is beautiful or satisfying, that is the essential difference between someone who is doing things as an artist or - there is other kind of people I gather, like a religious person – they do things that are not useful but they are just gorgeous. They are gorgeous and they kind of live this hard weird life where you don't necessarily make money, you don't necessarily have any peace. You just work really hard, not for utility, not because it gets you ahead in some way. But actually just because of the thing, because you want the thing to be beautiful or good in this certain way. I think a lot of people actually do that with their work. To me that's how you be an artist, regardless of what you are doing. You could be an artist about being a locksmith. If you really have the kind of lock that you want to work on and the way you want to do it and you turn down jobs because you have to go to certain doors and help certain people and make it beautiful. You know that? I call it, that's an artist! So, that's my answer to that question! Yes!"
Ezra even asked me if he had said something "useful". Afterwards he signed the three record covers I had brought, and he told me that my questions were the best questions he had ever been asked. Seeing that "Perpetual Motion People" is his album number 8, I left feeling very proud.
Then the show started and I enjoyed it very much. I got to know a lot of people in the audience who traveled as far as I did to get to see him. Ezra Furman is not only a very special person who seems like a fish in water when he is on stage - and, as I was able to observe until nearly 2 pm, when he is dancing, too - he seems to attract a special kind of fans aswell. I had a great time and I decided then to keep going to wherever he appears, if possible.
In Frankfurt, I was especially touched by his cover of "Heroine". I saw Ezra Furman again in London in June, 2016, where he gave a speech about Lou Reed and Velvet Underground at the British Library. Sadly, the recording of the evening is not online because of copyright questions. Around that time Rough Trade must have done the following interview. Another reason to just love Ezra Furman is his answer to the question: "What advice would you give your teenage self?" His reply: "I don't know, I'd probably ask my teenage self for advice."
You can find Ezra's homepage and blog here, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter. There will be only one appearance in Europe in 2017, at the Barbican in London. Please, Ezra, if you should ever bother to read this blog: I want you to know that there are people in Germany waiting for you to come back aswell! Thank you for everything!