Ezra Furman may indeed be a cross-dressing Orthodox Jew, but all that pales when he starts singing a song. Then he is just a gender-bending rocker, a stunning amalgam of a kinder, gentler Lou Reed, a de-machofied Bruce Springsteen and an even mopier Jonathan Richman who carries the rock, folk and soul tradition to places rarely visited these days.
The 29-year-old Chicago native and 2004 Birthright alumni is riding high on the strength of his latest album, Perpetual Motion People – described by Pitchfork as “a playful, hefty romp through folk, blues, and plain old rock & roll,” as he readies for his debut show in Israel with his band on June 21 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.
Skirting (no pun intended) the fine line between cultural stereotype and original artist, Furman is well aware that his unique lifestyle choices have a tendency to overshadow his musical skills.
“You have to make a character of yourself if you’re going to be known to strangers,” he said recently in a phone interview with the Post from his home in Oakland, California.
He sounds younger than his age, and speaks quietly and deliberately with liberal gaps between sentences as if he’s weighing every thought in his head before verbalizing it.
“But, at least my stereotype is not one that particularly existed before. So, at least if they’re going to put me in a box, it’s my own box that I built myself. No matter who, there’s going to be disconnect between your image and who you really are. I just try to show some humanity... I feel an urge toward honesty.”
That on-the-surface emotion, combined with a musical scope that sounds like he’s devoured and synthesized the entire works of The Ramones, Phil Spector and ’50s doo-wop, has propelled Furman from an obscure indie act who released a handful of albums on his own and with his former band The Harpoons, to a less-obscure indie buzz singer/songwriter on the cusp of semifame.
The unassuming Furman admits unabashed fandom for both the late punk icon Reed and punk rocker-turned eccentric folkie Richman, but discloses that he was well along in his career before he heard of the latter.
“The manager of the band I formed in college, The Harpoons, gave me a copy of [Richman’s) The Modern Lovers album and said ‘you probably already have it.’ When I told him I had never of this guy, he was amazed and said, ‘I thought that was your whole thing!’” recalled Furman.
“So, it was like discovering that I was descended from royalty. I started listening to much of his music, and yeah, we have something in common, but not everything.”
Furman’s allegiance with Reed runs deeper, and in fact, he is writing an installment on Reed’s Transformer for the praised 33 1/3 book series in which contemporary performers discuss seminal albums that influenced them.
“Lou Reed is one of my guiding lights...
The Velvet Underground is probably the best band that’s ever existed, assuredly the best American one,” said Furman “I’m writing about Transformer which I love, but it’s not my favorite Lou Reed album at all. I find it really interesting though, and Reed is a fascinating figure – it’s more him than the record itself that draws me in.”
Writing and singing openly – like Reed – about his faith, sexuality and emotions, Furman has been described as the restless sound of a genuine one-off in a generic world. And as one who has publicly grappled with identity and religion issues, he has been thrust into the unexpected role model position for other searchers.
“I’m not trying to be that, but I have talked to people who have taken some consolation and strength from my visibility and how I am open, and sort of trying to be unafraid and brave about declaring my...
idiosyncrasies out loud,” he said. “It’s my favorite thing to get to talk to someone who uses our music or the fact that I exist to help them through their lives... it’s the best thing we can do.”
Furman’s journeys with both his sexual identity and his Judaism have taken him all over the road, with a Reconstructionist and Conservative background gradually making way to an interest in religious observance, but on his terms.
“We’re all a continuing process of self-improvement, and for me, being observant is my way of self-improvement,” he said, adding that he no longer performs on Friday nights and reads the weekly Torah portion.
As per his spiritual quest, Furman’s website is called A Guide to the Perplexed, after Maimonides’ major work.
“I’m definitely not hitting all the check marks of total Orthodox observance. I try to put on tefillin every day but there are days I certainly pass... I’m figuring it out.
I’m trying to be true to the Jewish tradition and true to myself as well.”
Furman’s quest – as well as his current European touring schedule – brings him back to Israel for the first time since a college Birthright trip in 2004. He said he’s looking forward to discovering how he feels about coming back with very different baggage this time.
“I’m curious about visiting Israel again, because, I guess, as someone who is ‘religious,’ it’s supposed to feel special there. At least I feel like I’m supposed to get a special feeling... and I wonder if I will,” he said.
Regardless of the feeling, Furman certainly understands Israel and acknowledges that he has been put in the position of being the Zionist defender more than once within his musical or LGBT community.
“Once in a while, I’ll have that conversation talking about Israel with someone.
And I’ll meet some people who feel uncomplicatedly opposed to Israel. And it’s like...
you have to be somewhat complicated about Israel – it’s a complicated place!” said Furman. “That’s a signal for me – if someone feels that there’s no moral ambiguity regarding Israel, then it’s a sign that they don’t get it.”
One place everyone gets it regarding Furman is onstage. Coming off as a cerebral introvert rather than a wild rocker, Furman admits that he’s gone through a process to become a live performer. But like every rock nerd before him, from Buddy Holly to Elvis Costello to Rivers Cuomo, he’s exploited that dorkiness to create a riveting and rollicking performance.
“I get stage fright really bad sometimes, so touring has been hard on me in a lot of ways. But despite that, I love performing,” he said.
“There are places that you go onstage that you get to at any other times in your life.
I was always too afraid to be one of those bands that doesn’t write great songs but has a cool sound – because it’s the songs that hold you up. I write good songs out of fear...
fear of failure. Because if they’re not good enough, you feel yourself starting to fall.
“But when you feel the audience lift you and know that you built your songs sturdy and wooden with paper wings to fly on, it launches you. And if the songs are good enough, you won’t fall.”
If that’s the criteria, then Ezra Furman should stay aloft for years.