“This is Ezra, leave a message, there’s no one here but you and me,” Ezra Furman’s voicemail message softly rings out on my second try – a sure sign of the musician’s busy schedule. His voice is gentle, almost emitting a childlike innocence, which serves as a surprising contrast from the electric energy we’re used to seeing from him on stage; for a moment, I’m thrown. This is not the voice of your traditional rock star – but then, Ezra Furman is far from traditional. Terms like ‘genderfluid’ (which the 31-year-old Chicagoan would later tell me he no longer identifies with) have been attached to the artist in the past, and reflecting on his on-stage persona it’s easy to see why. His shows are well-known for pushing boundaries, whether that be gender, rock’n’roll or lyricism, his willingness to challenge expectations earning him a legion of fans on both sides of the Atlantic, and a headline performance in this month’s Brighton Festival.
By the time I get through, I’m not sure what to expect, but Ezra is as polite and charming as his call divert would have you believe. He’s also run off his feet – but then his seventh album, Transangelic Exodus, only came hot off the press in February. “It seems like longer ago but that’s because I’ve been working so hard,” said modestly. “We’ve been playing a of shows in Europe, and across the world. It’s been wonderful. I’m so grateful for a lot of things that have been happening, We made such a complex record and we weren’t sure that as a live band we could play it. But we’ve played shows across the States and in Europe already and could play every song, it was really exciting.”
To say Transangelic Exodus is a complex album is something of an understatement: there’s far more in terms of electronic elements than we’ve seen from Furman before, and he’s branched out far beyond the standard rock outfit of guitar, bass and drums to include more strings in the cello-led track Love You So Bad, and synths in Driving Down to LA. He added: “I’m grateful we have such an audience, people who are willing to come along and see us as we change as a band.”
It’s a band which has seen many different faces over the years, beginning as Ezra Furman and the Harpoons at University in 2006, then morphing in to Ezra Furman & the Boyfriends in 2013. There have been solo stints along the way too, with his 2012 debut solo album self-released with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. He’s presently solo again with a touring band, The Visions, marking a transformative decade for the singer. But he’s keen to emphasise it makes very little difference in his musical approach. He said: “I don’t actually feel there’s a lot of transition between being in a band and being a solo artist – at least for me, as I’ve always written the songs. It’s the same project as before really, so I’ve had some practise. I’ve had plenty of time without gaining too much attention to get ready for now, and now I’m getting more recognition… It’s come at a good time.”
Furman has always been known for his lyrics, which err on the edge of confessional and candid, covering topics of sexuality, depression and politics. However, for someone so lyrically verbose, I’m surprised to find he takes time to form his responses, as though he’s being careful about what to say. But when he explains a little more about his writing process, it becomes easier to understand the contrasts in his personality. “When I write [songs], it’s not something I actively think of; it’s an indescribable process, it doesn’t feel like it comes from any part of my brain that I have direct access to. I like to say they come from God. You couldn’t just ask me to sit down and write a song. I couldn’t do it – or at least not a good one. It completely comes from outside of me.”
Raised Jewish, Furman’s religion has always been an important part of his identity, and Transangelic Exodus is the most demonstrative album of his background yet. Though no stranger to writing protest tracks, his frustration with corporate greed and a perceived epidemic of moral absence shines through more clearly now than in any of his six predecessing albums. “These are my most explicitly religion-referencing songs to date. For me, for many reasons, religious activity is a form of protest. I’m also trying to be more serious and address my own deepest concerns in my songs, and my experience of trying to be a person of moral substance in a world that would prefer you were constantly entertained and buying things and not caring about who you were hurting.”
In a world where Donald Trump is President, the overriding message Ezra Furman is currently trying to convey is something that will ring true in every liberal’s hearts: the importance of getting people out to vote. He said: “It’s one of those things that you can convince yourself that it doesn’t matter if you do it. But it’s the best thing you can do. There’s so many things that are wrong in the world. But ultimately people who vote are the people who decide what happens on a larger scale.”
In our entire half-hour conversation, it’s the first time Furman addresses the expected. It’s the familiar showman we know – the one who unapologetically speaks his mind, who will grace the stage of Brighton Dome’s Concert Hall at the end of the month. But it’s short lived: when asked if we can expect more of his trademark energy upon his visit, the enigma returns. “Expect nothing and we will give you everything.”