Baroque indie pop artist Ezra Furman has had quite a year on the heels of his debut LP, 2018’s Transangelic Exodus. Dubbed a “queer outlaw saga,” the breakout set earned Furman widespread critical acclaim, as well as a gig curating the soundtrack for Netflix’s breakout series Sex Education, which included a guest spot for Furman and his band in one episode.
The artist begins his next act Thursday (July 18) with the release of two new singles, “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” and “Evening Prayer” — both from his forthcoming new LP Twelve Nudes, due Aug. 30 via Bella Union.
Described as a “romantic song of transgender longing,” the former fits inside his “‘I Wanna’ songs” series in the tradition of The Ramones. “I thought it was time we had an ‘Earth Angel’ for the queers. Of course because it’s an Ezra Furman tune, there’s a little bit of desperation, religion and body-talk.”
Adds director Alix Spence, who helmed the track’s visual: “Listening to the song and speaking with Ezra, I saw our two dancers, Brandon Mathis and and Jobel Medina, as physical manifestations of internal suffering. I wanted to literally have us wrestle with ourselves and the complexities of our personal struggles.”
Furman penned the second new single “Evening Prayer” as a “rallying cry” for his fan base. “We music fans go to shows for transcendence; it’s like being called to prayer,” he says. “But as Abraham Heschel said, ‘Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood.’ I want all our fans to become activists. We punk fans have so much energy to give to the fight against injustice, i.e. the abuse of the poor by the rich, i.e. climate change. So this is one to get you in the mood.”
Recorded “quickly” in Oakland last fall and with additional mixing from producer John Congleton (Sharon Van Etten, St. Vincent), the forthcoming new LP counts two spiritual heroes in the “late great punk” Jay Reatard and Canadian writer and philosopher Anne Carson, according to Furman. “The title stems directly from Carson, who used the term ‘nudes’ to describe the meditations she used to deal with intense pain in her life,” he adds. “This is our punk record. We drank and smoked then we made the loud parts louder. I hurt my voice screaming. This was back in 2018, when things were bad in the world. The songs are naked with nothing to hide.”
To fete his next album cycle, Furman curated an exclusive mix for Billboard’s Summer of Pride comprised of tracks that tell “just how it feels to be queer,” and featuring Japanese Breakfast, Magnetic Fields, Tristen and more.
“They’re not trying to tell straight people to accept us or to leave us alone or anything like that. They don’t have much to do with the mainstream at all,” he says. “They’re addressed to me, and that’s why I love them.” The artist notes that “not all the artists on the list are queer,” but that they kind “sum up” some aspect of his own experience as a bisexual trans-identifying artist.
The idea of Pride is a “funny, loaded thing” for Furman, who admits he isn’t sure what it really is. “Sometimes I think I don’t have it, shouldn’t have to have it. Learning that someone is gay, queer, trans, doesn’t tell you much by itself,” he says. “They could be any kind of person aside from that particular slice of identity. How can this make up a community? I really love smoked Gouda cheese, but do I want to convene to hang out with all the other people who like it too?”
It seems, to him, to be more of a response by LGBTQ-identifying individuals to a “persisently hostile” world. “Does Pride have anything to do with me if I don’t feel like reacting to the straight world, if I just want to live my life without reference to the mainstream?” he asks. “What do I really have in common with any other queer person besides being viewed as an aberration by certain spiteful fools whose opinion is totally uninteresting to me?”
And yet, he describes the “inescapable” straight-cis world as “our context.” “That there are so many forces that would have all of us queers be less free, if not dead, makes us a community by default. Pride is a torch that needs only to be lit because of the darkness, and the darkness is not going away any time soon. I wish I didn’t have this in common with all these various people. But I do.”
The artist wouldn’t have come out as bisexual or gender-non-confirming without the “joyful, furious force” that is the gay rights movement — something he will “never” take for granted. “I may not have the team spirit some in this community have, but I am grateful that others are willing to cozy up to and actively attack the straight world—to react directly to oppression,” he says. “I’m more of a soldier-on-authentically-while-working-hard-not-to-give-a-damn type of queer: I try to ignore the hate, the social undermining, the threats to my safety, rather than hit back. I believe this is a valuable approach that takes a lot of courage and does vital work: continuing to build queer cultures that will be that much more robust for future LGBTQ people.”
Throughout his lengthy career, which included support from an array of backing bands — from the Harpoons and the Boy-Friends to The Visions — one of Furman’s goals in creating music has been to “make the world seem bigger, and life seem larger,” he says. “I want to be a force that tries to revive the human spirit rather than crush it, to open possibilities rather than close them down. Sometimes a passionate negativity is the best way to do that.”