Ezra Furman reflects on the human condition and this generation’s turmoil with Twelve Nudes
Bluebird Theater | February 22
By Chris Bjork
Photo by Jessica Lehrman
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed today with omnipresent news media regularly revolving around the country’s sense of division and normalized political corruption. In many ways, the worsening political climate seems to be having a greater impact on day to day lives. And, obviously, it’s in these times that music can serve as a powerful tool, providing a voice for the voiceless.
For the Chicago-based songwriter Ezra Furman, living in these strange times fueled a sense of urgency and a unique call to awareness expressed through his latest full-length project, Twelve Nudes. “For me, it’s important to react honestly to this stuff. I think there’s temptations in a couple different directions to make yourself feel better and not really look at how bad it feels to read the bad news. And I think that’s a bad way to go. You should feel like an emergency is an emergency,” said Ezra Furman during a recent interview with The Marquee.
Like every album before it in Furman’s discography, Twelve Nudes provides listeners a deeper look into the most volatile and compelling thoughts the songwriter is currently experiencing. From his folk-punk roots performing with The Harpoons back in the mid-2000s, to the alternative and indie rock ballads on his first solo album, Year of No Returning, every project reveals a new playing style and a different overall message. The message on Twelve Nudes is not hard to decipher; something is clearly wrong and it’s understandable to be pissed off about it.
“I’ve just been trying to admit that things feel bad in all different parts in my life when they feel bad. Because I have a tendency to say, ‘Well, it’s not so bad. It’s not a real problem and so I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to change much.’ And that’s almost as suicidal as turning into your enemy,” Furman said.
Furman is no stranger to creating art that advocates for a better world while also communicating the struggles and triumphs of his personal journey. The two however, he explained, do not have to be mutually exclusive and it’s not always the artist’s role to support political ideas and defend certain ideologies.
“I think that an artist has an obligation to their own soul and to know what they have to offer from where they’re actually at as an artist. We’re allowed to do anything we want. There’s different purposes for art. Not all art is a wakeup call. Art can be used for a bunch of different things. What I needed to say with this record is something is wrong because that’s where my soul was at and I make soul music in the sense that I check in with my soul and try to put it onto a record,” Furman said. “I reserve the right to make escapist art, or to make absurdist art. There’s a lot of different things you can do of value. The way I do art is sort of blurring a little bit with activism or I’m trying to work some activism into it, but making the art isn’t really activism. I don’t think that qualifies.”
It’s appropriate that the punk spirit and political lyricism on Twelve Nudes took the musical form of energetic and aggressive foot stomping garage rock. The album was recorded in October and November 2018 in Oakland, Calif., and consisted of a more lax and quicker recording process compared to Furman’s previous solo efforts. Assistance with some of the album’s mixing was provided by John Congleton, whose work has crossed paths with the likes of Sharon Van Etten and St. Vincent.
“The process of recording was much simpler and quicker than the last couple records had been. We did it on instinct and we didn’t do a lot of takes. Basically, in sharp contrast to Transangelic Exodus, with this one our first instinct was usually what we went with. The idea of it was more immediate and all about not overthinking it. Whereas in Transangelic Exodus we made four demos of every song and changing it completely each time and letting it take months to do it because I wanted it to never have our first instinct,” Furman explained. “I really am proud of both of those approaches and what they yielded. It’s cool to see them be super effective and compelling from totally opposite approaches.”
The album’s short song lengths, occasional low-fi production elements and absence of any labeled backing band name behind Furman aid in highlighting the personality of Twelve Nudes. The record has a distinct atmosphere that sounds like stepping into a very specific place in time. Moments like the opening, “Calm Down aka I should Not Be Alone” and “Evening Prayer aka Justice” find Ezra screaming his heart out as if it is the only moment he can voice these important grievances. It’s because of these components Twelve Nudes resembles a defining moment for Furman — an album he’s referred to as his “Spiritually Queer” record.
“It’s really got a strong dose of a certain aspect of being queer, which is the feeling of ‘it’s us against the world.’ The mainstream is an enemy. It wants to hurt and degrade us. I think it’s a queer thing for me and part of queer culture being dead set on turning your deep convictions about human dignity into outward actions. Most queer people get drawn into some political awareness because they’re making laws about what kind of sex we can have or who we can marry or who can fire you for being queer and all this kind of stuff. You just get drawn into it. For me, everything becomes spiritual because I’m a spiritual person and I live daily with reference to my soul and how to honor god and how to honor the divine and other human beings. I’m also trying to desegregate these things in my life. My spiritual life and my queer life, those two cultures, they belong together,” Furman explained.
Shortly after the release of Furman’s 2013 album, Day of the Dog, the topics and themes of gender began manifesting themselves in Furman’s work and personal life. Furman started exploring gender fluidity on and off stage and the lyrical subject matter started to reflect this life change. It’s also what makes the simultaneously personal and political content on Twelve Nudes so potent and relevant.
Rather than slowing down while living in a world of conflict and growing prejudice, Furman has channeled his talents into several other endeavors. In January 2019, he and his band provided the score for Netflix’s drama-comedy show Sex Education. The soundtrack released digitally just last month and the physical release on CD and vinyl will hit shelves on April 10.
Throughout February this year, Furman will continue touring Twelve Nudes with ten live performances across the U.S. before the band hits Europe in April for another handful of shows.
Bluebird Theater | February 22
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