Ezra Furman on Making Music For the Broken-Hearted

Categories: Q&A, Show To Know

erza_furman.jpg
Rosie Wagner
Ezra Furman plays Café du Nord Tuesday, Nov. 19.

Ezra Furman still believes in the power of music to change lives and save the world. He's a driven artist and, in the last seven years, he's released six albums, two of them this year -- the bare bones effort The Year of No Returning and Day of The Dog, an intense excursion with his new band The Boy-Friends. "My goal is to be prolific," Furman says from the back seat of a van driving towards Salt Lake City for another one night stand. "I try to write a lot, but I'm still not as prolific as I'd like to be. The Year of No Returning was released this year, but I actually made it last year, so I'm not as productive as it might appear."

Despite his protestations, Furman -- who hits Cafe du Nord Nov. 19 -- has already created an impressive body of work. Between 2007 and 2011, he made four albums with his first band, The Harpoons, all noted for Furmans's insightful lyrics, primal vocals and upbeat melodies. On Day of the Dog he's even more intense, exploring the barren landscape of modern life with an almost Biblical outlook that combines the skeptical poetry of his lyrics with bright, upbeat melodies.

"I like music that's full of contradictions," he says. "[The album] is fun to listen to, but if you listen closer, you're startled by the darkness and desperation. I enjoy music that appears to be happy, but is really a cry for help. That [ambivalent] sense goes back to the blues, which is at the root of all rock'n'roll. The blues comes from slave songs and is always about the underdog and people on the fringe. You can hear secret messages in songs that you can't hear in the way you speak in your everyday life. That's what songs are for; to express things too raw and deep and painful to say in speech.

"The Biblical images [you hear] are there throughout the songs. I read the Bible a lot, especially the portion of the Bible we call the Torah. I'm interested in Jewish thought and it's a goldmine from a songwriter's perspective. In terms of language, it has some of the oldest, most suggestive and associative stuff ever written. It has the weight of centuries. I don't want to abuse it, but I often borrow phrases because they have more substance than any of my made up phrases will ever have."

Furman Made Day of the Dog with his touring band -- Ben Joseph on keys, bass player Jorgen Jorgensen, drummer Sam Durkes, sax player Tim Sandusky, who gives a hint of old time 50s rock to many of the tracks, and Furman himself on guitar and vocals.

"This album is dedicated to the rejected, abused, destitute, misunderstood, bullied, forsaken, broken-hearted, hopeless, hopeful, sick, strange, lonely, alienated, widowed, or orphaned. I believe music can make a difference. There's a temptation for a songwriter to be polite and erudite and academic in some way, but the best I can offer is a wild thing, an upper cut to the jaw that isn't carefully studied. When I started recording, I was feeling self conscious about my performing and songwriting. I didn't think I was good enough to keep on doing it. Then I read a quote from someone in the Unknown Mortal Orchestra. 'Don't care about the audience. Just do what you think is good and please yourself.'"

Taking those words to heart, Furman put the Boy-Friends together and recorded the album in a week and a half. "I wrote the songs, but the band created the arrangements that added all the wonderful delicious details that make the album work."

The intensely emotional songs on Day of the Dog are driven home by Furman's visceral vocals and his gift for evocative melodies. Where does he find his inspiration? "At my local flea market," he says. "There's a whole bin of musical ideas they sell at three for a dollar. They might sound a little old fashion, but as long as you're not writing clichés, there's nothing wrong with that. Besides, I never wanted to be a musician in the first place. When I was 13, I started to hit the strings of a guitar in a rhythmic manner and write songs. In college, I sang at frat parties with an acoustic guitar, but I was ignored and underappreciated, which was my goal. My favorite songwriters were always underappreciated, but a friend talked me in to joining his band. We started out playing covers. Eventually we became The Harpoons, so that was a good thing."

After The Harpoons ran out of steam, Furman continued on as a solo artist, although he still fronts a band. "All I want to do is try to be an artist and make good records. If this band blows up, I'll make a new band, make no mistake. That's why I put my name on the record, even though it's a band album. Patti Smith, Paul Simon, Elvis: they're 'solo artists,' but they couldn't make music without a band."

In his brief, but intense career, Furman has lived in Chicago, Boston, and Oakland, where he currently resides, although he says his physical location never influences his music. "Nothing around me has any influence on my music," he concludes. "Where I live is unimportant and uninteresting. All I want to do is try to be an artist and make good records. In this moment, I like the sound of you typing [your notes], but it is unnerving to know I'm saying words and hearing the sound of them going into your ears, through your brain, and out of your fingers to become something else."


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