Multi-layered punk rocker Ezra Furman talks suffering, faith, Bob Dylan

Ezra Furman

Ezra Furman

Ezra Furman has needed to say something since he was 14 years old; he just didn’t know what form it would take. As a teen growing up in Evanston, Illinois, he filled Word docs with his writing, eventually realizing the creations were songs, even though he had yet to pick up a musical instrument. “Punk music was my way in,” the Chicago rocker says. “When I started listening to punk, I thought, 'I can do it.’"

And he has. His latest full-length, Perpetual Motion People, is a study in extremes between body-shaking punk rock and achingly emotional songs. With a voice reminiscent of Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes, the 29-year-old Furman — a devout Jew who identifies as gender-fluid and occasionally dons dresses and red lipstick — is a whirling dervish of sound as well as a deft and endearingly vulnerable lyricist.

Furman spoke to City Pages in anticipation of his show Wednesday at the Turf Club, the first stop on his next tour.

City Pages: Bob Dylan’s music influenced your development as a musician early on. What was it about his music that appealed to you?

Ezra Furman: It was a different way of declaring yourself. There was a little more craft to it. Punk songwriting is the basics — and that’s what’s good about it. But I heard Blonde on Blonde, and I was like, “There’s a whole world of ways to make music — and ways to be.” That utterly free, mid-‘60s Bob Dylan, operating at peak performance, I got a real sense of freedom, extreme freedom. His voice draws a line in the sand, like, “I am over here, where no one else has ever been. Who’s coming with me?”

CP: Do you feel you have an innate talent for songwriting or does it develop as a result of listening to other artists’ music?

EF: It’s developed. It’s not innate at all. I work on it really hard. If I could be good at one part of this, that’s the part that I’d want to do. I want to be one of the best.

CP: You have a lot of energy in your live show. Is that something you bring to the stage or is it an exchange with the audience?

EF: In the old days, it was only me bringing that energy. I always had it, even if nobody cared or was paying attention. I still went all out, in empty rooms. I do bring something regardless of who’s around. Of course, if there’s a lot of it in the room, you can soak it up and use it and let it course through you.

CP: Do you have that kind of energy in your everyday life? Or is it onstage only?

EF: There’s nothing really in my real life that is analogous to that. That particular thing only happens there. It’s the real magic of it. It doesn’t happen every time. You can feel it sometimes — you’re taking a leap towards something, a kind of living that most people don’t do. On good nights, that’s where you go. I like it there. But you can’t live there all the time.

CP: It’d be exhausting if you did.

EF: Yeah. It’s exhausting even if you don’t.

CP: Your song “Hour of Deepest Need” is really powerful. Can you tell me where it originated?

EF: What makes you ask about that song in particular?

CP: It’s quieter as far as instrumentation goes and the lyrics are very heartfelt. I think it speaks to loneliness, having someone to confide in, and being able to share your secrets.

EF: Yeah. It’s a yearning, looking-for-a-cure-for-loneliness song. It seems like a song where a guy is calling up somebody late at night, trying to get them to come over. And I do that. [Laughs] It’s also the fear of abandonment. I’m a person that sometimes, things get real bad, and that’s when you need someone around, when the low lows of whatever mild mental illness or illnesses I have strike.

It’s a fear of, like, “I just hope you won’t leave.” The real image in my mind is getting real drunk and falling asleep and waking up and things feel horrible and there’s nobody around anymore. Of course it expands to grand metaphorical proportions.

CP: Do you think artists have to experience suffering to make great art?

EF: Yeah. If you’re going to be alive, you’re going to suffer some. I don’t think you need any more than the normal amount. Even for us — Americans who have enough money to live — you don’t need to seek any extra suffering out. There’s quite enough to drive art to certain places. You got to have some joy and energy for living. People with depression and alcoholism and drug addiction must have done their work when they were feeling OK. In my experience, when you’re really in torment, you can’t do good work.

CP: There have been mentions of bipolar disorder in other interviews you’ve done. Do you suffer from that? Or is it a reference to living on the extremes?

EF: There are a few people in my family that have experience with it. I think a doctor once told me, “Maybe you have this,” but I’m not really diagnosed. It hasn’t become an issue that’s unlivable or needing to be hospitalized. I don’t take medication for it. I suspect that I’ve got some trace of it. It’s also a spectrum. You can have a little bit of it and you live life OK except sometimes things get a little crazy. 

CP: Does music help you with that?

EF: I don’t think so, no. I don’t think it helps at all. It’s just what I do. If I was a baker or breaking rocks with a hammer, people would probably be like, “Oh, that probably helps you. Knead your problems into the dough!” Being troubled and being an artist sometimes goes together, but there’s no causation.

CP: Your brother is also in a band, Krill. Have you ever made music together or do you plan to?

EF: We show each other stuff. We’ve never done a collaboration. I think we have real different approaches.

CP: How so?

EF: I wanted to learn chords and songwriting and simple music and Jonah is interested in experimenting and making music that doesn’t sound like other music. The way his band, Krill, makes songs is totally stunning to me. It’s like they’re from another planet. I would like to be able to see what we can do together sometime.

CP: When did you start — I’m not sure what the proper term is — cross-dressing or dressing in drag?

EF: Dressing feminine. I was always drawn to looking feminine but I was afraid, like a lot of people are. I did it very occasionally in private. Then finally, I was like, “I’m gonna wear a dress onstage. It will be a rebellious thing. Like a performance thing. I won’t be embarrassed because onstage, all the rules are different.”

That was my way to test it out in public. I’ve started to feel more OK about it. You’ve got to act the way you want to act and people tend to catch up. If they don’t, if it weirds them out, they get used to it or you don’t want them around. Now I’m half the time, feminine; half the time, not so feminine. A lot of time in between. Onstage and off.

CP: Has the Jewish community been accepting of you? Or are your identity and your faith at odds?

EF: There’s multiple Jewish communities I’ve been involved with. Honestly, I haven’t really broached this situation with the Orthodox places. I go to liberal synagogues and I’ll wear whatever I want, and they’re okay with it. It’s a thing that hurts a little bit because I either don’t go there or change before I do.

I don’t want to freak them out too much. Maybe I should. It might be borderline rude. I’m still confused about that side of things. If I know people will look at me askance, I often avoid it. At the same time, I get onstage and wear whatever I want. I’m working on bravery.

Ezra Furman

With: Whitenoise

When: 8:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 7

Where: Turf Club

Tickets: $10-$12; more info here