Ezra Furman is a songwriter from Chicago, Illinois.
He is currently playing brilliant rock ’n‘ roll music with his band The Boyfriends.
I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to make him the first person to appear in my „In Conversation With…“ section, which hopefully will be filled with lots of interesting talks and debates in the near future.
Location: Vienna, WUK backstage
A conversation about the up- and downsides of music business, spirituality and the perks of being a misfit.
I: What would you like people to know about you?
Ezra: (thinks for a very long time) mhm… I guess that I’m… I’d consider my main job to be a songwriter. The thing that I’m most proud of that I do is write good songs. I’ve gotten good at… I’ve gotten decent at making records and pretty good at performing a lot because I’ve been doing it for ten years, but the craft that I care about the most is writing good songs. That’s what I always wanted to be good at, so that’s often the first thing that I say about my job. That’s the job I want to still be doing if people stop coming to shows or whatever happens, I just want to still write good songs.
I: Do you think that there’s maybe something that is being misunderstood about you or ignored or something that doesn’t come across? Some judgment that people make that isn’t right?
Ezra: There’s a lot of little things that people get wrong from time to time. A lot of writers have written that I was raised in a very religious upbringing, very restricted. And that’s not really true. My family is very… not restrictive, you know? They are very liberal and my parents aren’t even really religious, they are just interested. They wanted to educate their kids… you know, allow us to know what’s going on in a synagogue service. They didn’t make us do anything; we had Friday night dinners that’s all. We went to a religious school, but pretty liberal for a religious school, so I’m the most religious person in my family. Much more so than my parents or my siblings. So, yeah, some people are like ‘he was raised in this religious environment, he couldn’t be himself, his parents were so conservative’, no, that’s not true, at all! I just happen to be really into religion and to be really into being queer which is not true for any of my family members exactly. I don’t know, that’s what came to my mind. People get stuff wrong all the time though. I go back and forth like “how much should I manage that”, “how much should I care about that”. It’s better to just not to read the articles, I think. I should just stop reading them, cause they’re just… (laughs) you know.
I: Yeah. I guess it would make me really, really upset, to read something about me that isn’t true.
Ezra: Yeah, actually what makes me madder than that is just bad writing. Most people who write about music are just very bad writers.
„Writing can be a wonderful thing. It doesn’t have to be dumb, just because it’s about Rock ‘n’ Roll!“
I: Yeah, that’s why they became music journalists and not… real journalists.
Ezra: I guess so but I wish… I love good music writing, I read good music writing, I just… I’m like, this is your JOB, you just ask what you want to write, you’re a writer and this is what you wrote? Writing can be a wonderful thing, it doesn’t have to be dumb, just because it’s about Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s like .. Sorry, I don’t mean to put the pressure on you.
I: yeah, but you’re right, that’s exactly what I aspire as a music journalist. I think it’s not WHAT you write about, it’s HOW you write about it and I think you can see something meaningful in everything if you look for it. You can write about politics and have nothing to say at all and you can write about music and say a lot of things, actually.
Ezra: Yeah! I’m trying to write … well I’m writing about music lately also… so that’s on my mind.
I: Is there an incident you can recall, where you became completely aware that music is what you want to do?
Ezra: aha, yeah. (thinks for a long time) Well, there’s maybe a couple of realisations. Because there is this realisation “Yes I WANT to do this” and that was many years before I actually thought “Oh, maybe I actually COULD do it”. I thought it was just a dream that could never happen. When I was eleven or twelve I started to get really into punk music. I was like “I am in love with this stuff” and like „I could do it“. It’s the first identity that made sense for me to take on. When I was twelve years old and heard punk bands I was like “oh that is me”, I’ve never heard someone so proud to be unpopular and weird and alternative. I just hadn’t thought of that before. It was very important to me, because I was very sad… I was sad, because I was an unpopular kid and then these punk ideas where the fact that you’re a misfit could be like a “badge of honour”, you know? I was like “I wanna do that” and started getting obsessed with music and started listening to punk bands and then I was listening to my parents records and playing guitar and stuff, but I was still like „I can’t actually do that“, because… one in a million people can have a successful life playing music so I don’t think that’s realistic. But then I just started doing it, I couldn’t stop doing it and I kept doing it enough and then it was like “oh, now I have met people who wanna be in a band with me” and then it goes up to “oh I met this guy who wants to set up some shows for us” and then I was like “I guess I’ll do this for a short time” and then I’m really doing it and then I was like “Oh, maybe I can keep doing this” it was very slow like “this actually could be my main job”.
I: Did you ever get lessons? Music lessons?
Ezra: Not really. I got a guitar and then I took a couple of lessons with this guy who taught me some chords and how to place my fingers on the guitar but I was like “I don’t like having another teacher in my life”. This is my place to do this on my own, so I just did it at home and I think I was lucky, because I was so excited to be playing guitar that I could barely hear myself, I couldn’t hear how bad I sounded and how I couldn’t sing at all. When I was thirteen, that is what I’m talking about. Now I can sing a little bit. Not that I’ve got a golden voice or anything, but I was really bad for a long time and I couldn’t even tell. I was like “I’M FUCKING PLAYING GUITAR and I’m actually playing songs“ and so I would just do that all the time. And my parents almost took the guitar away because they were like “he’s so bad, we can’t allow him to keep doing this, because he has no musical talent!”
I: Haha, yeah, that reminds me of my guitar lessons. It wasn’t my parents though, it was my guitar teacher who told me that I have no talent.
Ezra: That’s brutal!
I: Yeah I know! Well, she didn’t really say that about my guitar playing I think about that she said something like „well, you can improve“…
I: But whenever she heard my singing voice she was like “Sorry, but you’re an anti-talent and that there’s no way you’re ever gonna be able to sing.”
Ezra: WHAT? Oh my god!
I: Yeah, but she’s right.
Ezra: Did you stop singing, I mean do you still not sing?
I: I mean she was sort of right, my singing voice is terrible and I can’t really catch a tune or carry it, it’s really bad.
Ezra: Yeah, but… I disagree with her.
I: but you haven’t –
Ezra: I haven’t heard you that’s true, I mean I guess if what you want to do is sing in a broadway musical, then maybe someone can tell that you’re not going to be able to do that. But there’s all kinds of singers in the world, especially if you get into punk bands who really can’t sing, but they’re in a good punk band and people love it and they figure out another way to … I don’t know… all singing is … expressively and loudly making noise with your mouth. And there’s a lot of ways to do that that can be compelling in different ways. I’m glad that… that’s why… that’s a good reason, that’s a good advertisement to not take any lessons from anyone and just stay home and try to make something YOU like. Cause other people’s standards… I don’t know. They don’t matter.
I: Yeah and they don’t realize, like, especially teachers they don’t realize how much power they have over you
Ezra: Yeah I know!! The young person–
I: It happens so often that teachers crush people.
I: They have a passion or a talent and teachers are like ‘no you can’t ’. At that age you’re so vulnerable to criticism and to people who tell you what you can do and what you can’t do, so I think it’s pretty… I don’t know, dangerous.
Ezra: Yeah, I have friends who kind of just quit music because of a teacher who was like “no… you’re not. You’re bad at this.” It’s so…
„Just stay home and try to make something YOU like. Because other people’s standards… they don’t matter.“
I: Yeah I know. So how was the whole experience of school for you?
Ezra: (thinks) Mhm… I was… I mean I didn’t have a lot of friends really, but what I found out later is… you know, as a teenager I thought of myself as very unpopular and I had two or three friends at school, basically. I was sort of being a non-conformist, wearing strange clothes and I would bring a guitar to school and play guitar in the hallways all day and I found out later everybody knew me from that. I wasn’t friends with any of them but they were like “that guy is awesome”. Which is kind of cool. But yeah, I didn’t have that many friends. I had more friends outside of school. I was in a Jewish youth group, called BBYO, it was all run by teenagers and there were hardly any adults involved. We made our own social life, you know? It taught me some social skills, I think. To have this group of guys who… accepted me … and girls too, I guess.
Yeah, I was a bit of a misfit. And I was into punk bands and had some of these really punk rock friends, but I wasn’t really one of those people. And then I was into some hippie kind of music a little bit, because I had some friends who were hippies, but I wasn’t one of those hippies and I was like ‘I’m not gonna join any of those groups’, I’m just gonna be a person you can’t categorize.
I: You know… that’s exactly the thing – sorry for interrupting – but you know what I realized is that people who have a lot of friends when they are younger… well, they grow up to be exactly that, just a part of a group and not outstanding in a way and everybody I meet who kind of impresses me or is interesting says about him that he or she didn’t have any friends at school.
I: It’s like the same for me, not that I’m saying that I am interesting or something, but I didn’t really have any friends when I was like eleven to sixteen I guess and it was horrible back then, but it kind of forced me to spend a lot of time with myself and to
I: and to become my own best friend
Ezra: ha! yeah!
I: and I needed to fill myself with interesting things because I was the only person I could spend time with.
Ezra: Yeah, yeah…. yeah! I mean I have a… maybe because of that social life when I was younger I have a problem with group identity
Ezra: When I become a part of a group or… participating in a community, I think I have a… well, I’m not quite totally part of this and I’m really doing my own thing. I’m just here, but I’m not really part of this. And I feel that way on many different levels, even from small social groups to a kind of religious congregation and to my own country to the whole world society in general and I’m like ‘I am here’ but I’m not… I can’t fully… I can’t really participate, I can’t see myself as… a part of this world.
And there’s maybe kind of something narcissistic about it. I think being in a group is a quick way to not living your principals, because you
I: Yeah! Because you have to give up a part of yourself to fit in and
I: or kind of not living something out and –
Ezra: But also, I don’t know, then there’s groups that actually… reinforce your principals and help you be more the person you are being
I: That’s true.
Ezra: So I’m not like totally against group identity actually it just
I: It just has to be the right group I guess
Ezra: yeah and I always have one foot out the door in case it all goes south (laughs) …
„When I become part of a group it’s like ‚I’m just here, but I’m not really part of this‘. I can’t really participate, I can’t see myself as… a part of this world.“
I: You mentioned before already that you actively kind of practice your Jewish belief. What does being Jewish mean to you?
Ezra: mhm… (thinks… and thinks) It’s a tricky one, that. I mean again I’m like a little bit like ‘Am I really part of this community?’ or like ‘do I really wanna show up and be with people?’, because Judaism is very communal. It’s also very individual. I think actually I just heard someone say that Judaism is one of the rare examples of a belief system that is balanced between individual responsibility and collective responsibility. I don’t like Western Democratic society for instance, it’s very heavy on the individualism and there are problems with that, because it becomes self-obsessed and irresponsible to other people. And then there’s Communist Russia or something, which is too far on the collective responsibility which oppresses people and erases individual identity. I think it’s important to have both of these things in balance with each other. I think Judaism is kind of good at that. I spend a lot of time not really part of a Jewish community, but… just reading on my own, praying alone, learning things from people and then practising them in solitude. I’m trying to be more communally participatory and show up to things more. But yeah, I think one of my favourite things about Judaism is its elevation as a mundane. It’s not a place that you go once a week ideally and like you go into this special place where you get to feel spiritual and then you go back to your regular life.
I think authentic Judaism is like every time you eat something you say a blessing over it. Or you walk through a doorway and you kiss the mezuzah, the thing on the door, which maybe you have seen in Jewish homes. There are just all kinds of things in the most mundane situations that are intended to make you aware of the… transcendence in the present moment. That’s what I really like about it, that’s what really got me the most about Judaism when I was a teenager and getting philosophical about life. You could just spend your whole life… you could just not … notice, and that’s what I became worried about. Boredom and insensitivity to how amazing the world is. And for me Judaism is like ‘Hey, wake up!’ For me it’s like saying a blessing over eating an apple. Like how marvellous is it that I have a body that works and that there are things in the world that nourish my body and I can take this action to feed myself, it’s just… rather quite incredible, you know? And it gives me a way to notice how amazing the world is. So that’s my… I mean I could go on forever about… you know I’m addicted… I’m in love with the Jewish tradition, I’m in love with it! Even though I have major problems with it all which are legitimate and not to be tossed aside, I just will never not be in love with it. I think I’ll just always love it!
I: Do you think there’s like something… specific in a way about art made by Jewish people?
Ezra: Like… what do you mean? Like sp-
I: Do you think there’s some identity that is being transported, like some collective identity
I: Like I realised that a lot of art I like is made by Jewish people… and it sort of leaves you with the question what came first, you know?
I: Like why is it that there’s so much art in Jewish culture and –
Ezra: Yeah… I don’t know. You do start… You do kind of notice that all these famous songwriters are Jewish, all these…
Ezra: Artists… visual artists. And there’s a lot of successful people who are Jewish and it’s very disproportionate, it’s very surprising. Kind of. I’m very hesitant to say… There’s an ethnocentrism in Judaism and a narcissism like “we are so special! Look at all these Nobel Prize winners! Look at this! It’s so amazing! God’s on our side!” or something. That’s a very, I don’t know, messed up thinking. I don’t like to think that way. I would sooner attribute that phenomenon to like… well, I don’t know, I’m not sure what it is. It’s some Jewish feeling of feeling ‘out of place’ in every society that they go to and it’s like we have to assert ourselves and show the world that we are legitimate and like we can be taken seriously as legitimate parts of this society. It’s almost a fear-based thing, a competitive thing of “I’m part of this nation, but I’m sort of not part of it and what does that mean?” In America especially. The drive to assimilate in America is very strong, but Jews are like… if you’re gonna be Jewish and people know you are Jewish then you are like “Am I a real American or am I not? Is this my nation or is it not?“
But I don’t know. I’m very wary of like… Jewish exceptionalism. I’m not into that. I think it’s a bad habit. It just feels like a lineage of great Jewish songwriters in the last hundred years. There’s a lot of them. It’s really… like yeah, it’s a challenge, to be honest. I’m like if I’m gonna be on this list, I have to at least… I gotta try to get close to get as good as… Leonhard Cohen is, or Randy Newman… or Joey Ramone, Bob Dylan and stuff.
I: You’re doing good, so far.
Ezra: Well, I’m working on it. (laughs)
I: So how do you cope with the “public eye” on you, with people that don’t know you judging you? How… how do you cope?
Ezra: How do I cope…mhm… It’s a weird thing. (thinks)… the most of it is just a lot of positivity thrown in my way and it’s really great, you know? People who pay attention to me and my band and albums we make and songs that I write, they are people I don’t know and they are very special to me. They are on this journey with me of thinking that I have something worthwhile or pleasant to say. And I just become more and more grateful for those people who are interested in what I have to offer.
There’s some negative side to having fans. Sometimes people feel a little bit entitled to talk to me. A lot of times I see people after shows and they’re drunk or whatever, they’re excited and they’re… not everybody has boundaries. They think they know me and they think they are entitled to pull me by the arm over the way they want me to be to take a picture with them or something… that’s messed up. That’s pretty unpleasant for me. Even people who are being nice. When there’s too much at once it’s just really overwhelming for me and then… I’m really a shy person in a lot of ways and to talk to people… is… yeah, it’s really hard for me sometimes. Especially after a show I’m quite exhausted.
And then there’s people you know, saying mean things about me, that’s a whole other category. You have to shut it off, shut it out, not pay attention. Cause it doesn’t matter. I was actually very excited when I got my first bad review. That means that this person didn’t like my music, but they felt they had to review it anyway. Like, that’s a good sign. Yeah, not bad reviews, bad reviews are fine. That’s a helpful advice a lot of times, sometimes I actually really enjoy reading those because I think “yeah, that’s kind of true” or “yeah, this could be better that way” or something, but people on the internet are just bullies sometimes and they say awful things or say really homophobic or transphobic things to me or say that I look ridiculous or something. I’m so sensitive to that. That’s my fear about how I look and how I dress and present myself, that sometimes people will think that I’m like… I don’t know, think I’m ugly, basically. It’s just a primal, not very rational thing drilled into me over years in the closet and only a few out. But like any person who treat people badly they’re just like fucking strangers, fuck them, I don’t care, it’s a… you know, they don’t know me and they are… wrong. I’m embarrassed for THEM, that they are such shitty people.
„I was actually very excited when I got my first bad review. That means that this person didn’t like my music, but they felt they had to review it anyway.“
I: It must be hard to like… I can’t imagine how I would cope. I’m very sensitive to criticism too and like even when I hear just one person say something about me and… it could be anyone like it doesn’t matter if I think that this person is entitled to have an opinion about me
I: It doesn’t matter! It still goes straight to my heart!
Ezra: A lot of the time, yeah, it does. It can just ruin a day.
I: Yeah, you think about it and at first you’re like “well…”, but then you start thinking “could he be right?”, it kind of makes its way through your brain
Ezra: Yeah you got… well I have a weak spot, it’s like having a bruise and someone presses on your bruise… psychologically (laughs).
I: Yes, they’re like key words or key… things, basically…
Ezra: …that trigger you, yeah…
I: …yeah, especially the things that you… that are kind of rooted in your childhood or your youth
I: which was always something… which made you feel vulnerable and then you think you’ve overcome it, but then people are commenting on it you’re like “what? I thought I was over that”
Ezra: yeah! yeah, I know!
I: and then they bring it all back.
Ezra: uh… yes… so… yeah, that’s some of that. The funny is and I think that’s true for many performers, that we are kind of shy, socially shy. To me it’s easier to have a rehearsed thing to perform in front of people in a room and I don’t have to really speak to them, but then after, just hanging out with people is harder for me. And to improvise. I mean sometimes I’m socially fine, but a lot of times I’m just… it depends on my mood I suppose. I’m just not good at talking to people, who I don’t… who I’m not close with already. Although… you know… we’re doing alright. Here, today.
I: yes… so, what keeps you going on bad days? Do you have like a thought or a routine to make you feel better?
Ezra: well… I mean I don’t know. For me, religious practice is really good for that. It clears…
Ezras night manager comes in. We’re now almost forty minutes into our interview.
Ezra: Hi! Are they getting impatient?
Manager: Yeah, well I just wanted to check on you. There’ll be dinner later.
Ezra: Are they going somewhere else?
Manager: They’re deciding at the moment. Will this take you much longer?
I: We can make it fast if you-
Ezra: We can make it like… seven or nine more minutes?
I: I don’t want to keep you from doing… whatever you’re supposed to do.
Ezra: Yeah… which is actually eat real food. We need to kind of nourish ourselves. Sorry, what I meant to say is that… that was that… yeah, bad day, yeah… well, I guess meditation and like prayer are… they clear my mind of the small… I mean to make… to remember… for me to remember that life is larger than these like small bad feelings… is very helpful. I was thinking of my bad days and my bad feelings as even though they’re very intense, I think they’re very small. It’s like I’m in a small, crammed room when I feel terrible. And if you can knock down the walls… the whole world is strange and beautiful! There’s so much possibility and anything could happen today. Those are probably the clusters of thoughts. And gratitude, you know. That’s all clustered around. Just various kinds of spiritual things like saying blessings over food or ritual acts or a daily prayer. But I mean other than that… just this sense of largeness of life…makes me feel better. Often. Also people who love me. And who I love. That is very helpful. Beause I actually, you know, I have problems with depression. I have bad days and I have really bad anxiety, sometimes. Like really, really bad. And I don’t take any medication, maybe I should… but I don’t yet. So I mean… some of these things are… important. Especially the people. The good people, you know?
I: Yeah. Also, I know what you mean, it helps to sort of zone out sometimes to see yourself…. in the bigger picture
Ezra: I think for some people, that makes them feel worse.
I: Yeah… because it can make you feel insignificant, if you think of it the wrong way
I: I guess if you see the beauty in it that we’re all just… you know… stardust. And all the little things we worry about, they’re just so… not relevant.
Ezra: Yes, it’s… small. I feel like the bad mood is very self-centered and small.
I: Yes, but-
Ezra: yeah, it’s different for different people.
I: You know the thing is like… I don’t know… It doesn’t matter if you’re … you shouldn’t think that you’re not entitled to feel depressed, just because there are people who have it much worse. If you feel pain than that’s real and that’s YOUR pain and nobody else’s pain can like… outweigh your pain.
Ezra: Yeah I know, it’s not a way of dismissing pain as… yeah, I don’t mean small like “unimportant”… I mean pain is very large and is very intense. I don’t know, for some reason that’s a useful metaphor for me to describe… with the smallness versus largeness… let me just cut myself off there.
I: Alright, so do you wanna finish?
Ezra: Any other… burning questions?
I: No, no burning ones. We can actually… finish.
Ezra: Okay! We can be done! Yeah… I don’t know… Is there any…
I: Anything you want to add?
Ezra: (thinks)… I guess not. I mean, there’s a lot of things I could add. But… no. Well… No. No, that’s good. Thanks for talking to me.
I: Thank YOU!