Ezra Furman writes simple songs “for the mind to stretch out in”
The constantly evolving singer-songwriter joined The FADER Interview on Amp in July to discuss her new album, All Of Us Flames, out today.
By Raphael Helfand
August 26, 2022
It’s rare nowadays to find sincere protest music worth listening to. Even those elite artists who do make legitimately radical statements in their songs — Downtown Boys, Moor Mother, Special Interest, et al. — mix their full-throated activism with experiments in form. But on her recent single “Book Of Our Names,” Ezra Furman takes a direct swing at capitalism in the style of the earnest folk rockers who shook the structures of power over half a century ago. “I want there to be / A book of our names / None of them missing / None quite the same,” she sings in the track’s bookending refrain. “None of us ashes / All of us flames / And I want us / To read it aloud.” Her words hit with a refreshing honesty, like opening a gift you’ve been expecting but are moved by nonetheless.
All of Us Flames, out today on ANTI- and Bella Union, will be the final installment in a trilogy of albums that also comprises 2018’s Transangelic Exodus and 2019’s Twelve Nudes. Their serialization was retrospective, determined by Furman after Flames’ recording was finished, but it makes sense: Unlike her earlier, equally brilliant but less emphatic work, these three records play as direct challenges to a patriarchal system teetering on the precipice of extinction.
Ezra Furman announces new album All Of Us Flames
“This is a first person plural album,” Furman wrote in a statement accompanying the release of the project’s fourth single, “Lilac and Black,” earlier this month. “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, how you work as part of a larger whole. I wanted to make songs for use by threatened communities, and particularly the ones I belong to: trans people and Jews.”
With all this in mind, Furman and I went live on Amp Radio in late July for a special episode of The FADER Interview. Our conversation moved from her new songs to our favorite artists in the protest music canon (Nina Simone), the best Jewish musical storytellers (David Berman), and the societal value of songwriting.
The FADER: Ezra, how’s it going?
Ezra Furman: How’s it going? Wow. I prefer to start with smalltalk, but if you really wanna get heavy so immediately… It’s very intense to be a human being, very intense.
You’re in London, right?
Yes. Just currently, by chance, so it’s late at night. Have I had a frozen margarita? I have.
That’s one good way to deal with the heat. How else have you gotten through this wave?
I played with a toddler in a kiddie pool, and we sprayed each other with a hose in a little backyard… And just pure American grit, because I’ve got that on my side.
You’re releasing a new album next month called All Of Us Flames, and we just heard what will be its fourth track, “Forever in Sunset.” I heard some shades of Springsteen and a bit of Arcade Fire. It’s very open-ended.
What usually happens is I write the songs as finished pieces, and then I bring them to the band, and then we collaborate and make them into a full production. This one came from my drummer and dear friend, Sam Durkes, who recorded those chords and that riff. It sounded great because he makes these cool demos with guitar pedals and plugins, and when I heard it I was like, “Okay, I know what to do.” It’s a rare co-written song in my catalog.
A lot of your career has been defined by you being a very solo, auteurish singer/songwriter. Would you say this album was generally more collaborative than your previous ones?
Well, I’ve had this band together since 2012. We just hit our 10-year anniversary. So, in a way, they’ve all been quite collaborative, but there is something more so about this one. I unclenched with the control freak aspect of my musicianship.
I developed that tendency to be a little too controlling, too obsessive about all the details being just how I want them, and I let go a little bit [this time]. I think it’s both that I’m so comfortable with these three guys in my band and that I was so confident in the songs we wrote. To toot my own, of course, I’ve got good taste. I know when things are good. Somehow, I can even tell when my own things are decent. I do think I’ll get better at this as I go, at least by my own standards. I’m better at meeting my own standards, which also keep getting higher and higher.
You’ve said you see your last three albums, from Transangelic Exodus to Twelve Nudes and now All Of Us Flames, as a trilogy. What do you see as the connective tissue between them?
I only realized it was a trilogy in retrospect, once the third one was done. I didn’t plan it out that way or anything. When we made Transangelic Exodus, my whole focus as a writer became more widescreen. It wasn’t only a personal document anymore; it started to be a kind of spiritual and emotional check-in with civilization at large. That’s the only thing I really did on purpose — follow the content of my soul. And it stopped just being about who I was dating and started to be more about… Nazis.
“Book Of Our Names” is a pretty straight-ahead protest song. You don’t hear too many of those nowadays, or at least not too many good ones. It reminds me especially of the Woodstock-era records my parents would play when I was a kid, but obviously, there were great protest songs made long before then, and long after, too. Do you have a favorite?
The first thing that comes to mind is “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone. In terms of protest singers — and singers in general — I can’t really think of anyone better than her. She’s one of the great lights of 20th century culture, full stop, and such a huge inspiration to me.
When I think of the best protest songs, I want them to not only be incisive and have something important to say about what they’re protesting, but also have other things going for them and be extremely inventive. There’s things about “Mississippi Goddam” I’ve never heard other songs quite do. The version I know best is where she’s doing it live and she says… Oh, shoot, I can’t remember exactly, I’m gonna misquote it. I like how strident it is, but it’s also despairing: “I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” “You’re all gonna to die and die like flies.” It’s so angry and so sad, and also funny. It’s the best of all those emotions, rapid fire. How do you write something like that? I’m so stunned by it.
This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written yet.
That’s the one I was trying to remember!
Speaking of all-time one-liners, there’s one on “American Soil,” from your first solo album: “I’m a Jew through and through, and I’m about to write you a Bible.” Tell me the story behind that one.
That was a long time ago now. I probably wrote that way back in 2010. I guess I was trying to be bold. I was getting into those people who can really throw down a line. There’s a lot of different things that can be good in a song, and one of them is a line you’ll never forget. I heard this one Warren Zevon song recently called “Empty Hearted Town,” and this opening line just blew me away: He says, “Ain’t life strange? Ain’t it funny? / Nothing matters much but love and money.” I was like, “How do you write that? How do the greats do it? As literature, what is a song?” That’s the mystery I’m working on understanding.
As a Jew myself, I see you as part of the great, long tradition of Jewish storytellers. My favorite songwriter from that is probably David Berman. I would assume you’re a big Silver Jews fan, but I don’t want to assume. Are you?
Huge. This album was very influenced [by David Berman]. After he died in the summer of 2019, it started to dawn on a lot of people that this was one of the great writers we had, and the closer you look at his work, it just gets richer and richer — a beautiful mind, a great writer.
Do you have a favorite Silver Jews or Purple Mountains song?
I love “Smith & Jones Forever.” I was particularly inspired by their last record, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. A great thing about that one is — and he talked about this in a lot of interviews — he said he had a dream of writing songs that only used the 1,000 most common words in the English language. 1,000 sounds like a lot, but when it comes to language, it’s very, very few. He has a song on that called “What Is Not But Could Be If,” and to me it represents a pared-down vocabulary and a spartan use of language that I think is much more difficult than your hyper-literate, David Foster Wallace style. It’s appealing to me how sometimes simpler writing can contain so much more because its simplicity leaves it open for the mind to stretch out in.
That’s what got me into blues and country — simple stuff that can be so powerful. I don’t think I’ve attained anything like that stark, spartan, almost heroic simplicity, but I think it’s a good influence to take in sometimes if you went to freaking college. When I was an English major, I learned too many words — more words than I needed.
Back to classic one-liners and David Berman for a moment, he has one in almost every song. One of my favorites, from “Frontier Index,” is “Robot walks into a bar / Orders a drink, lays down a bill / Bartender says, ‘Hey, we don’t serve robots’ / And the robot says, ‘Oh, but someday you will.’”
He’s so funny. It’s good to put jokes in songs. It makes them better, usually. But there’s a line on “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” the first song on his last album, Purple Mountains… It’s so beautifully constructed, it leaves me gasping: “And when I see her in the park / It barely merits a remark / The way we stand the standard distance / Distant strangers stand apart.” It’s the kind of thing that just goes by the first time you hear it. But if you look at it as an appreciator of poetry or as a writer, it has a symmetry that I am just like, “I need to know, how do you do that? Did that just come out all of a sudden, or does that take six months to finish?” That kind of thing is just such a jewel. It’s like a piece of origami. I want to get like that as a writer somehow. That’s my dream.
Berman’s music wasn’t usually as directly political as yours has been lately, but he did quit music cold turkey in an attempt to right some of the wrongs that his father — an anti-union lawyer and a lobbyist for industries like alcohol, big tobacco, and guns — had done to the world. Have you ever had a moment where you felt that way, that the music wasn’t doing enough?
I feel that often. There are lots of ways to answer that anxiety. I think the anxiety that you’re not doing enough is useful to the point that it makes you effectively do more. If it’s not having that effect, if it’s just making you anxious, there’s no point in it at all. It’s slowing you down. I think artists… Well, I think a lot of people tend to denigrate the value of their work. They look at activists or politicians, and they’re like, “Well, those people are doing something that matters, and I’m doing my stupid work, and who cares?” But it takes all kinds of work to hold civilization together, and I don’t think we should denigrate the work that people do so easily, so swiftly. It’s starting to feel disrespectful to other people that I would disrespect my own work as vacuous in that way.
Now, having said that… If you look globally, I’ve got more money than most. I’ve got more spare time than a lot of people. I’ve got more power than a lot of people, and I’ve got more reach than a lot of people. Those are things you have to use in a positive way to do something for somebody else, and I try to. I do something like my best.
As I said when you asked how I am, it’s an intense situation, and I like to remember that. I like to refuse complacency with that. I think the idea for a religious Jew, which is what I am, is to try to continue growing throughout one’s life, keep learning how you can be more of a healing presence and do more to honor God’s world and the precious, irreplaceable people that God puts on the world. Everyone is precious and irreplaceable and infinitely valuable, and I’ve tried to live honoring that idea. The other part of it is that we all fail at that task, no matter how hard we try. Failure is a part of life.