Ezra Furman on why it’s OK to feel like shit

The bold rocker’s punk-ified new album Twelve Nudes is all about embracing the pain of modern life.

September 10, 2019
Ezra Furman on why it’s OK to feel like shit Jessica Lehrman

“I’m a Jew through and through, and I’m about to write you a Bible.” This all-time great Ezra Furman line, from her 2013 solo debut, also has served as a mission statement. Four albums later, Furman is still challenging perceptions of faith, queerness, and love through old-school rock ‘n’ roll songwriting and what she calls “spiritually queer” music. It’s hard not to root for Furman, who recently composed the music for Netflix’s Sex Education and wrote last year’s 33 ⅓ on Lou Reed's Transformer, and with Twelve Nudes — her latest, most aggressive, and most accessible album yet — Furman's latest mission is as a rock ‘n’ roller who writes a straight-up punk record.

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“It feels like somehow my first instincts when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll.,” Furman says about the album during a Skype interview. Originally from Chicago, Ezra moved to Oakland a few years ago, and it was there that she quickly recorded Twelve Nudes while living near her childhood heroes Green Day and feeling sick of all the bad news happening around her. In sound and purpose, the album is a more primal twin to last year’s ambitious Transangelic Exodus, and now residing in Boston, Ezra is settling in and ready for her new record to come out.

“It's interesting, because I know what the album is, but I don't actually know what it means yet," she opines. Furman is confident, however, that this will be many listeners' first record of hers that they hear. “It’s a good place to start,” she says. “It's a record that has to do with where I began. The first music I loved on my own was punk. It's important to me that it's not just Misfits karaoke, and that I have something original to add to punk if I dare to take up its mantle. It's a grand tradition, and I'm humble about it, but also a little bit like, ‘Fuck it.’”

While Transangelic Exodus was a heady, escapist record about the pain we romanticize to make life more dramatic and interesting, Twelve Nudes posits that being in pain just sucks — not so much an escape as a confrontation with how everything is not OK and that it's OK to say that out loud, too.

Ezra Furman on why it’s OK to feel like shit Jessica Lehrman

Twelve Nudes is your “punk” record, yet I've always considered all your records to be punk in sound or attitude. What makes this album the most punk?

“Punk rock” is a sound. I've heard a helpful distinction drawn before between punk rock and punk — punk rock is a kind of music you can mostly know when you hear it, while punk is a strand in art, style, and philosophy, like Romanticism. It's attained a level in the history of art that can be drawn on in diverse ways. It's one of the guiding philosophies of my life — not fearing any authority on earth.

Another theme is being OK with admitting that things are not OK. Was there a specific moment when you wanted to explore this idea?

It's about feeling desperate to say something is really wrong — the idea that things have gotten to a point where there's so much pain and trauma that's not been dealt with. Those feelings of rage, despair, fear, and suffering are alarm bells. I wrote “My Teeth Hurt” in April 2018 when my teeth hurt and I didn't have dental insurance. I was like, "I'm just going to have to live with it, I guess." But the pain was getting worse, and it started to feel like I was doing the same thing to a bunch of things in my life and in the world around me. If I admit it's a problem, then I'm going to have to do something about it, which is difficult, so I'll just pretend it's not. It's really crazy to watch people refusing to admit the emergencies that are happening.

This new record sounds like punk music you can swing to. What is it about a song that makes you dance?

The rhythm section. My bassist Jorgen Jorgensen opened up my life to a lot of great, obscure old soul records. It's soulful science to him. Listening to tons of Chuck Berry taught me that the lyrics are their own rhythm section. You hear it in songs like “Maybellene.” That's a secret weapon — the way the singing interacts rhythmically.

Ezra Furman on why it’s OK to feel like shit Jessica Lehrman
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Jay Reatard and Anne Carson are both influences on this album.

Jay's old band the Reatards had this crappily recorded tape I loved so much, with this great song called “I’m So Gone.” He's got this big discography, and he didn't wait to record this stuff. I didn't want to wait either. It's funny, because the last album seems a lot more Carsonian in terms of blowing open what it means to tell a story. The title of this album was inspired by her long poem “The Glass Essay,” where she starts meditating and has these visions she calls “nudes.” I wanted to steal that idea — “nudes” as a way to talk about visions of pain, which is what these songs are. There's something appropriate about pain as something naked. It's a raw thing when it hits you, and it can be embarrassing, intense, almost sensual, or satisfying.

Were there any specific challenges to scoring Sex Education?

I never wrote music for somebody else's project before, which caused an interesting problem. Is my goal to give the show what it needs, or to make tracks that will be part of my output in the world? It changes what you want to try. They invited me back to do a second season, and I feel a lot less nervous, now that I've seen the show.

Did you learn anything new about Lou Reed or Transformer from writing the 33 1/3?

My favorite bit is when he quit the Velvet Underground. He'd already decided to quit and didn't tell the band, and only he knew it was going to be their last show. Then he went outside the club, where his parents were waiting to drive him to Long Island. That's how he moved out of New York City — he moved back with his parents and started working for his dad for a year and a half. It blew my mind. It's so uncool, so defiant, but such a huge failure. I'll always love people like that.

Ezra Furman on why it’s OK to feel like shit