An interview on thrift shops and escaping
Photos by Jason Simmons
“It’s nice to be home…Sort of.” We’re near the end of Ezra Furman’s 75-minute marathon at Chicago’s Thalia Hall, a show that’s as close to homecoming as possible for the 31-year-old singer: born in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, he spent most of his childhood in adjacent suburb Evanston. With plenty of family and friends in the crowd, it seems like the perfect chance to have a brief moment to pause and feel rooted in a familiar place. But with the band set to play another show the next night in Indianapolis, Furman admits, “There’s a lot of here and then gone again feelings.”
As Furman’s captivating new album Transangelic Exodus captures, he seems most alive on the road, in exile, constantly in pursuit of something. Over the course of its 13 tracks, Furman and his angelic lover flee a hospital, cross state lines, and turn off their phones to evade the authorities. It’s a haunting ride, one that channels his queer and Jewish identities, positing the act of escape as sometimes the only recourse for those shunned by the world around them. On “No Place,” Furman references the ancient Babylonian Exile in which many Jews were forced to flee Jerusalem, thinking to himself, “Something tells me I’ll be singing this song a long, long while.”
One on one, Furman is pensive, careful with his words, finding just what’s needed to make himself known properly. In concert, the music provides all the cathartic energy necessary, allowing him to howl, yip, and otherwise debase his vocal chords so thoroughly that I’m glad we spoke before he went onstage. In the middle of his last song “Tell ‘Em All To Go To Hell,” Furman – sporting a pink and blue checkered dress, red lipstick, and bare legs – asks the crowd to channel the image of some authority in their lives, whether a bad boss, an unsympathetic parent, or just the whole rotten system holding back so many from living to their fullest potential. Building the tension, chord by chord, Furman and his band finally launch into the closing notes with the crowd repeatedly hollering the song’s title, providing the perfect release at the end of a supremely emotional performance.
Taking to the road behind an album about the need for escape isn’t the only thing that’s kept Furman busy. In April, he’ll release a 33 1/3 book on Transformer by Loud Reed, someone that he admits is a “complicated choice for a queer role model.” He’s also trying to figure out how to have a voter registration table at all of his concerts, although dealing with the logistics has proven difficult as he’s simultaneously “trying to transcend myself on stage every night.” Chatting before the show, we discussed thrift shopping, the place of the fragile body in his songwriting, and what it means to be a queer role model.
TANNER HOWARD: Something I really felt on your new album is the theme of the fragile body, the imagery of falling-off angel wings, feathers disappearing. That’s something that’s helped me understand myself within queerness is to be able to see myself more vulnerably and be kinder to my own body by accepting its fragility. How does understanding your own body and its fragility been a process for you, being a masculine-presenting person that dresses more feminine, and the things that people see in that?
EZRA FURMAN: I have long had the instinct to use visceral bodily imagery. I put that down not entirely but at least partly to the influence of Lucinda Williams, who’s a great songwriter who I recommend.
I locate a lot of the biggest emotional pain, I suppose, within parts of my body. I think we feel our emotions in our bodies, and it feels correct to talk about feelings in terms of the body. I also think it’s a thing about being queer is that you have to address the problem of your body, whether that’s a gender thing, or how you use your body to have sex. Like, your body is a big part of what’s stigmatized about you. And then there’s blocks to queer people having adequate healthcare. You could also say a lot about a queer mindset of the body as compromised – well, I don’t know, I hesitate to get too abstract.
I suppose that on this record a lot of what I was thinking about was people who are targeted or stigmatized for their bodies in all different kind of ways, having this inconvenient body. Yet somehow that’s where I still wanted it to be like, somehow, that’s where power is located and found. I guess a lot of what’s going on in this record is the thing that makes you powerless also makes you powerful. You’re disadvantaged, but then it gives you this outsider’s power to look at the mainstream that most people are given and can’t see because they’re so in it.
I definitely feel that on the album, and I also think about it in terms of being open emotionally, and then also having to guard yourself, like on the song “Compulsive Liar.” Having to guard yourself, and also not wanting to do that anymore.
That’s a complicated song that I have some kind of fear that it will be heard a little too simply. Cause it’s like a come out of the closet song, but it’s not really about that as a thing that will solve the problem. I mean there’s something life-saving about it for some, sometimes, but it’s really more about what having been closeted does to somebody. I mean like, I’m out, in the song, and in life, I’m out of the closet and I’m a compulsive liar, I have this instinct to dodge, keep myself falsely convenient. Also be shifty, I feel like I’m shifty to some degree – I’m trying to shake it, to stop, but it still feels like self-defense.
Having grown up in the area, what’s your favorite thrift shop in Chicago, or maybe just a memory of one in Chicago?
I’m so utilitarian about my clothes a lot of the time because I have an emotional block about it. So I don’t have a favorite anything. It was a journey to even have like a fashion sense. So I don’t catalog the shops. I used to go to Ragstock as a teenager, I’d go to Belmont. So I’ve got some fond memories of that, I suppose. But it’s whatever is cheap, man! I don’t like these fake thrift stores, it’s not really thrifty – it’s used, but it’s still expensive. I go for the under $10 kind of dresses.
Did you ever go to Village Discount?
Oh yeah. That was actually the one I was kind of thinking of. I got some good things there. Also Crossroads, there’s one in Evanston. I mean, when I sing that Maraschino red dress song [“Maraschino Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill”], I’m thinking of the Crossroads in north Oakland. But you know, it’s a fable, it’s a timeless tale, really. My sense is that’s a well-known experience of trying to buy feminine clothes when you look masculine, and being paranoid about it.
You just feel that you’re out in public and wonder what people are thinking about you. But a lot of people at thrift stores are the nicest about it, and give you compliments, you know? It’s such a good, surprising feeling.
I suppose that on this record a lot of what I was thinking about was people who are targeted or stigmatized for their bodies in all different kind of ways, having this inconvenient body. Yet somehow that’s where I still wanted it to be like, somehow, that’s where power is located and found.
I’m curious maybe some queer musicians that you grew up listening to that gave you strength, and to think of you being in the position now to tour and to let more people see themselves in you and your music, and what that might feel like for you as a musician.
It is the greatest honor. I didn’t have a queer role model when I was a youngster, really, except maybe Lou Reed, but he’s sort of a complicated choice for your queer role model. But I wish there’d been more visible gender non-conforming people in my life when I was younger. I talk to people sometimes who have found my work as a performer, a public person to be useful to them, and sometimes they say it’s kind of life saving. I feel so honored about it, that’s the best thing about this job, I think, is to see that people have found my career useful to them somehow.