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Ezra Furman: ‘All my music is protest music’

How can you be anti-corporate and feed your family? Make great art with a message of trans solidarity? Ezra Furman is searching for answers.

It’s harder than ever to be an anti-corporate musician, says Ezra Furman. Once, alternative music had a powerful seam of revulsion against ‘selling out’, but that dogged purity has faded as it’s got harder and harder to simply make a living by making art. In a post-pandemic, Spotify, Brexited world, there’s a lot of reluctant pragmatism about. 

In Furman’s case, the emphasis is very much on reluctant. “I feel an anti-corporate streak flaring up recently,” the 36-year-old Chicago-born singer tells The Big Issue, speaking from her living room via video call. “All my music is protest music. I’ve always had my roots in punk music and trying to live a non-mainstream kind of life.”

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Furman’s been navigating that non-mainstream world since she formed Ezra Furman and the
Harpoons at university in Massachusetts, back in 2006. She’s played with various band incarnations since then, but at the heart has always been Ezra Furman: one-off. A punk rocker with a Bruce Springsteen feel for melody, an observant Jew who’s “obsessed with God”, a trans woman who lifts up her community.

We’re catching up a couple of days after Taylor Swift’s latest release has sent everyone into a tailspin, a couple of months after Furman’s excellent latest album All of Us Flames came out, and a couple of weeks before Furman goes on tour in the UK. The convergence has prompted some… consternation. “Do we need to go back to the era of furious disdain for big corporate-friendly pop music? I’ll do it, so help me, just see if I won’t,” Furman tweeted just before we speak.

Ezra Furman. Photo taken by Buck Meek
Ezra Furman. Photo taken by Buck Meek

I’m pretty sure I can work out what’s prompted the question/threat. But just in case I’m wrong, can Furman confirm? “It seemed like everyone around me, in person and on the internet was talking about the new Taylor Swift album.” Ah, yeah. There it is. “And I was listening to [garage rockers] The Bug Club.

“And also, Kanye West was being super antisemitic. I was just like, why are we paying attention to pop stars when we have The Bug Club? When we have just all kinds of wonderful music that doesn’t have this baggage and is way more interesting than most pop music? 

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“It’s blowing my mind everyone’s talking about these giant pop albums as if they’re interesting. I’m like, ‘eh, they’re not.’ There’s a bunch of interesting stuff that’s not popular at all. I humbly submit that I’m on that side of the spectrum. Under-appreciated.”

Of course, under-appreciation has always been a risk for those brave souls who practise “furious disdain for big corporate-friendly pop music”. Principles have a cost, and sometimes something has to give. Inspiring, dare I say it, a dose of pragmatism? “Musicians’ incomes have been so crushed and decimated. You gotta eat, you gotta get money to record your next album… I’m a parent and I got bills to pay,” Furman allows.

“I wish everybody would just cancel their goddamn streaming service subscription and spend that money buying albums and going to shows. But as it is, I work for Netflix. I took the corporate gig.”

Furman’s referring here to her soundtrack for critically acclaimed Netflix series Sex Education. Accepting the Netflix dime wasn’t a decision taken lightly. 

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“I didn’t just take any old gig,” she assures. “I grilled them. I read scripts. I was like, is this going to be exploitative? Is it going to be like the teenage sex comedies of my youth that were just hellish, like American Pie? This show really is the first thing I’ve ever really seen that is the absolute antithesis of that kind of rape culture. So I’m proud to be part of it for that reason.”

There’s the lesson: even if you have to occasionally do the corporate gig, there’s a way forward without feeling like you’re shilling for The Man. The key is remembering the core purpose of the artist. Sure, in bringing people together and “dealing in spiritual and emotional truths”, great music can shape our politics and our society – but that’s not the main point.  

“A musician’s main responsibility, towering above all others, is to make good music,” says Furman. “Good music is its own justification. It is a joy to behold. A great love song is so much more useful than a crappy song with good politics. 

“I feel like my stance is already clear, I’m like: trans solidarity, fuck the system. I don’t really need to say that in all my music all the time. I feel like just to show up matters the most, just to show up and be great. 

“The impact for trans people might just be that I’m trans and following a dream and doing it really well.”

Ezra Furman tours the UK from November 16-21 ezrafurman.com

@laurakaykelly

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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