You heard it here first: Ezra Furman’s a big deal.
Actually, if you’ve been paying attention, you heard it in Europe first. Though he’s been working as an artist for nearly a decade now — in Boston, in Chicago, in the Bay Area — the Oakland resident is touring Europe this summer, with special attention paid to the United Kingdom, all to meet a public demand that took root last year.
“It was kinda wild,” he says. “They increasingly care about me and my band,” he says of his snowballing fame on the other side of the Atlantic. He’s speaking from the Columbus International Airport, in town for the Nelsonville Music Festival — his sole live appearance between European tours.
You’ve likely never heard of the Nelsonville Music Festival. You might have, however, heard of Roskilde, which he is playing in July. This latest tour has seen him playing to larger — far larger —– crowds than he typically plays to in the States, and during the day, making appearances on major-market radio shows in Europe and the biggest televised music show in Britain: Later…with Jools Holland. “(I was) very out of my comfort zone,” he says of his first major TV appearance. “It almost blew out my self-consciousness.”
These days, he’s one of two Ezras, depending on where in the world he is. At home in Oakland, he’s largely anonymous; just another Bay Area trend-bucker with a taste for classic rock and thrifted clothing. But overseas, there’s an emerging — small in the grand scheme of things, but definitely growing — fandom being erected in his name.
Neither Furman, nor anyone else, really knows how Ezramania got so big, so fast over there. And he’s not really interested in finding out. “It’s important to me not to care about how or why. (If you do), you just start making terrible music. They like you or hate you, but you wanna keep it really high quality.”
He’s being a little modest — he and his band, the Boy-Friends, sold out a few U.K. dates in a matter of hours and are playing the 2,000-seat, national-landmark Shepherd’s Bush Empire in October — but Furman is always some degree of modest. And though ‘Ezramania’ is a bit of a stretch, his fan base across the Atlantic is still markedly bigger than it is in America. “I’d be wary of assuming he’s a breakout star,” says Michael Hann, music editor of The Guardian. “Those who’ve seen him love him, but it’s still not that many — his biggest U.K. show so far was in an 800-cap room. He’s not Coldplay. But there is something growing.”
The story, it seems, is that Hann caught wind of Furman’s last record, Day of the Dog, when it ran across his desk one day in 2013. “I had never heard of him before, but the sleevenotes and the press release made it look compelling enough to pull out of the enormous stack of CDs,” Hann says in an email. Around the same time, a BBC DJ — Radio 6’s Marc Riley — fell hard for the saxophone riff in “Tell ‘Em All To Go To Hell.” Shortly thereafter, he received the full album and unleashed it upon his listeners. “I ended up playing it more than any other LP that year I reckon,” says Riley. “I think its probably fair to say I was relentless.
“I remember Ezra came in and he was very cautious,” says Riley of the first time Furman was on his show, in February 2014. “The session was great. Then they went on to the Soup Kitchen venue in Manchester which held about 200 people — which was sold out.” Furman dropped by Riley’s show again this May.
All of that almost didn’t happen. A little more than a week later, Furman is on the patio of a nearly-empty café on College Avenue in Berkeley; his attention fixed on the hardcover in his hands. He’s wearing a precise layer of pink-red lipstick and chipped nail polish.
“Honestly, I had moved on,” he says from under a pair of flashy, white-rimmed sunglasses. “After that tour, when Day of the Dog came out, it broke me. I was like, ‘No….this is not my life. (Playing in) Boise, Idaho for four people; this is not my life.’ Cause I had already done that for six years.”
After establishing his first band, the Harpoons, in Boston while a student at Tufts, he fell into the rhythm of the road. “We finished school and we…basically went on tour for a year or more. We sort of lost touch with the idea of having a place to live.
“It didn’t go particularly well. It was a rough year.” After it was all over, he returned home to Chicago. He moved into a house with a guy, Tim Sandusky (now sax and percussion in the Boy-Friends), who had a studio in the attic. “Eventually I was like, ‘I need to go up there and make a record.’ (A record) where I make all the rules; not under the rubric of the Harpoons.”
After cutting his first solo record, he decided, like so many before him, it was time to head west. “I…followed a significant other,” he admits, but his relocation was also out of a need to make a new start. “This was the place that was always like, ‘Come to meee, live heeere.’ As it does.”
Yes, Furman’s existence as an Oaklander started the way so many Bay Area stories start. “I’m one of them,” he says, acknowledging this. “One of those renewal junkies.”
It was early 2014 when word of Day of the Dog‘s resonance in U.K. made its way back to him. “They were playing it on the radio, then The Guardian gave it five stars, and I was like, ‘Oh. Maybe I should just go over there.’ I still thought it was all over. I thought I was gonna quit…I felt like people didn’t really care. But then (I was thinking about the band, and I thought), ‘Well, these guys have never been overseas and I have before. It’s not a must-do for me, but I guess we should go on this one last tour.’ And it wasn’t ‘til I got to the U.K. (that I realized what was going on).
“I remember after our first show in the U.K. — it was in Manchester — me and Tim stayed up late and were like, ‘Maaaybeee this should actually continue.’ And, like, ‘Maybe we’re a really good band.’”
Oakland and Chicago. U.S. and Europe. Shrinking violet and screaming frontman. Reinvention seems to be a reflex for him.
“I don’t know if I would attribute it to moving here, but maybe it’s moreso than I think,” he says of what’s changed for him since the last record, and since arriving in California. “I’ve (become)…sort of a more whole person. Happier and calmer. Also had a real sort of increase in showing myself. Showing, uh…
“So, there’s a couple of things,” he starts over. “Being…an observant Jew, I was always sort of embarrassed; afraid to insist on it. I accept it more now that it’s something I’m permanently interested in. So that’s been important.
“I also started dressing more feminine, and that feels like a big thing that I was avoiding facing for most of my life, because I found it inconvenient. Even though, like, my friends knew that I was bisexual; queer… I was still closeted in some ways. Being a…I don’t know, I avoid those labels, but I think of it as some kind of gender fluidity. Masculinity all day, every day, all the time doesn’t really work for me.”
His California self has taken the reins on the new record, and is even reflected in the title: Perpetual Motion People, out July 10 in the U.S. on London’s Bella Union. On this record, he seems more self-assured than he’s ever been — what was once a panicked stream of self-loathing asides now reads as a personal motto; a swaggering pride; a challenge. It’s the same subject matter — insecurities; lover’s quarrels — but backed by the the fuller band, the slicker production, and the slight serenity he’s found since coming here, it sounds like it’s coming from a more confident place.
He’s gone from playing for four people in Boise, Idaho to being on the receiving end of gushing praise from all over the globe, from journalists and fans alike. “I understand that they mean it and that means a lot to me. But, like, I had already gotten that praise from people who weren’t journalists, and that was the real dream.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m being a brat about it or something,” he says. “I think I’m trying to act real casual about the exposure, because if I don’t do that…I (start) overanalyzing the things that have worked, what might work next, et cetera. I…might go crazy. I’m really prone to self-consciousness and nervousness, so I have to go all the way over here to remember what I actually care about.”
His next metamorphosis? Who knows. There may never be another — though he holds his limbs close and looks down and away in conversation, he says himself that he’s pretty happy where he’s at. Until the second leg of this tour starts, the plan is to focus on “taking deep breaths and being calm.”