Ezra Furman has a thing about time, dates and places.
She remembers Feb. 17, 2017, as a day when “I am shattered, I am bleeding, but God damn it / I’m alive” on “Peel My Orange Every Morning” from 2018’s Transangelic Exodus
. She recalls that she and her first band opened for Margot & Nuclear So and So’s on an April 2012 tour stop in Tallahassee.
“I keep a diary,” she says. “I think my little OCD tendencies might be one explanation — liking to have everything organized and know exactly when things happen … the other impulse is to make a story out of my life. It’s both to try to organize chaos in a way that comforts me and to keep track of the grand narrative.”
Part of the grand narrative of Furman’s life can be found in her 2018 contribution to Bloomsbury Academic’s 33 1/3 book series, a 40,000-word study of Lou Reed’s 1972 album Transformer
“The idea to write that book came from getting really fascinated with Lou Reed and particularly him at this moment that was paralleling the moment I was in turning 30,” Furman says. “I was dealing with the strangeness of being seen and having to make a public-facing self in a bigger way … I was publicly figuring out my gender and queer identity, when I still really, really didn't feel solid on any of it.”
Furman’s journey in finding that identity is one she's shared publicly since her days putting on the guise of a macho, indie-rocker with Ezra Furman & The Harpoons. One can hear her identity in the lines of one of her earliest songs, “Bloody Knuckles,” in which the 21-year-old Furman sings, “My mouth’s all full, full of blood / It looks like I’ve got lipstick on / Little boys don’t grow up to be men / No, there’s something else that happens to them.”
That was four years before Furman ever wore a dress in public. Singing really is confession.
“That's something that Lou Reed said about ‘Satellite of Love,’” the Transformer
scholar says of the album’s seventh track. “He was like, ‘I didn't know what that song is about, but then it hit me like 20 years into singing every night.’”
Looking back over her own catalog, “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” stands out to Furman as a song with an unintended dive into her own subconscious.
“Did I really know when I wrote it why I was singing about a secret compartment, hiding in the maintenance closet at the grocery store?” she asks rhetorically. “Now, I can more clearly see how closeted I felt, and I don't think that, like, reading that resonance into it is wrong just because I wasn't consciously thinking about that.
“I think ... I would think other songwriters would agree with me,” she continues. “You don't know. You're just grasping the darkness of your subconscious and your dream life and looking for the stuff that, you don't even know why, but that's the thing that I need to say in front of people or into people's ears.”
On April 20, 2021, Furman came out as a trans woman publicly on social media
after living life as a trans woman and a mom for over two years.
Furman released her last studio album, 12 Nudes,
in August 2019, which included the song “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend,” where the singer ponders “ditching Ezra, and going by Esmé.” Clearly, Furman has chosen to keep her birth name.
“Because that’s my name,” she says plainly.
“There's many different tactics for trans people to feel better and take more control of their lives, and each one of us kind of chooses our tactics," Furman says. "I spent a long time wondering if that would be a step toward freedom to use a different name. And I think to me, in that particular case, I feel more free keeping my birth name, which means ‘help’ in Hebrew, by the way.”
Slow, sloppy, undefined, defined and redefined as the coming out process has been for Furman, she is happy to report she feels stable in her identity as a trans woman and will not be changing her mind anymore.
With the world frozen as it is right now thanks to the pandemic, Furman says that's how she is approaching her upcoming tour.
“I feel a little frozen, especially in terms of ‘out-ness’ because nobody sees me,” she says. “I'm a little nervous to have to really present myself to strangers again because I'm out of the habit of it. Maybe something really has changed in terms only for me since I last was on tour. My status as trans is more firmly established, but it's a question of should I be thinking about that. Does that affect the way my voice sounds or whatever?”
Furman pauses, realizing she is falling down a hole of self-conscious questioning even now, two months before the beginning of her tour.
“What I tend to do when I’m self-conscious,” she says, “is think about it, think about it, think about it, and then just say, ‘Screw it, I'm not going to think about it anymore,’ and then do everything on instinct.”
Doing everything on instinct has gotten Furman far enough. She still isn’t quite sure how she ended up composing an original soundtrack for the Netflix series Sex Education
, but she is happy to be stretching her creative muscles in new ways.
“Not having, like, assignments and specific coaching through the whole process is probably better,” she says of writing original songs for the show with only a bit of information about how they will be used. “I know they wanted us to sound like us, so we made stuff that we thought sounded like us.”
Two songs from her time with The Harpoons were used in the show’s third season, but it's unlikely that those songs will come along with her on tour.
“At some point, we stopped playing songs,” she says. “It's like baby pictures to me. … My musical goals have evolved. I feel like that band was a success in a lot of ways at what it was trying to be. Me being 21, it sounds like I felt then.”
Furman briefly pursued an education in rabbinical school before realizing that the demands of motherhood were more of a priority for her.
“Some parents are into going to school, but I found it basically logistically impossible,” she says. “I thought I was going to do the semester and then sort of see how a semester went and take 2022 entirely off of going to school and doing music, but it was not really doable. So I just took one class last semester, and I loved it so much.”
Furman grew up in the Jewish tradition but did not take it seriously until she was a teenager. Since then, she has found the parallels between Judaism and punk philosophy to be a source of strength and acceptance.
“Despite the difficulties that it poses, I'm more into traditional Judaism’s, let's call it then more ... liberal quantities, and I guess because I wanted to be more different than American culture,” she says. “Judaism just all over is like a destabilization of human authority and concern for the poor and against the abuses of power. My devotion to the divine, human dignity of every person completely supersedes any allegiance I might have to country, leader or corporation, and I just wish that was the first thing everybody thought.”
Furman has found the queer-led Talmud study of SVARA
to be particularly helpful in finding and accepting her identity.
When Furman plays Tulips
in Fort Worth on March 14, it will be the first time playing a show in North Texas since her days with The Harpoons back in 2008 (aside from some weird festival she played in the daytime in Dallas returning home after SXSW one year).
Furman doesn’t like going on long tours, so she tends to prioritize the places that seek out her attention the most.
“I suppose I just don't hear enough Texans trying to send me flowers,” she says. “Let it be known that I encourage people to bring flowers and throw them on stage.”
Since the tour has been dubbed “On the Attack in Lilac & Black,” the band’s unofficial team colors for the tour, Furman says lilacs “would be ideal, but I would accept any of the non-poisonous flowers.”
In the past, Furman has involved activists in her shows, offering an open mic and booths to help people in need.
“Sometimes, we have people speaking specific local political issues on stage to say their piece — maybe before we play an encore — and I want to keep I keep doing that,” Furman says. “All I can think about is troubles with democracy in Texas. So, if you'd like to do that in Dallas, anybody who might appreciate a minute on stage for a good cause, I'm interested in it.”