Protest music in the Trump era has ranged from self-congratulatory gimmicks to moving, heartfelt creations. Regardless, nearly all efforts have felt deeply inert — deluded about the scale of the threats we face, unabashedly cynical, or plainly sanctioned by the powers that be.
The white noise makes Ezra Furman's airhorn of a new album Twelve Nudes intensely gratifying. The 33-year-old singer-songwriter, an under-the-radar indie darling for the past decade who recently gained a new audience on the soundtrack of Netlflix's popular Sex Education, rails against the wealthy and powerful with lyrics that could be straight out of the Little Red Songbook and feedback-rich punk riffs straight out of CBGBs.
"What makes a man take a hammer in his hand/ Shatter every last window of the company store," she spits on "Trauma," adding later: "The empire's in its autumn, when it's built from the bottom and the bottom won't build."
While artists like SOPHIE use futuristic sounds to destabilize the present, Furman's prototypical punk is rooted in anti-authoritarian traditions of the past. Yet it doesn't sound dated. Even when singing in archetypes and marching chants, Furman addresses unmistakably modern dilemmas. Her confessions of complacency on "Evening Prayer aka Justice" ("I wasted my twenties in submission/ I thought I was outside the system/ But I was rollin' over for wealth and power") will sound familiar to any working twentysomething.
For that reason, her plea to a generation that can't decide whether to revolt tomorrow or just ask for a promotion, feels like one people might actually answer: "If you've got the taste for transcendence/ Translate your love into action/ And participate in the fight now/ For a creed you can truly believe."
Furman didn't set out to make a protest album. Rather, she says she tried to think about "what is concerning me on the deepest level and make an album about that." As a trans woman and observant Jew, Furman's daily anxieties have political implications. When she aches for a boyfriend on her moody slow dance "I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend," and shrieks "TRANS POWA" on interlude "Blown," both moments explode scripts of palatable queerness. When she distills a panic attack into song form on "Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone," serenades the void on "Transition from Nowhere to Nowhere," and describes living with a constant low-grade fever of anxiety on "Thermometer," Furman denormalizes the daily struggles of marginalized people living in America. In doing so, she suggests that an alternative is possible.
Activists can't be cynical. Behind Furman's wry smile, Twelve Nudes is a deeply earnest album. Both the love songs and the rallying cries are unmistakably hungry for liberation. "I refuse to call this living life," Furman sings on "My Teeth Hurt," "but I refuse to die."
PAPER got Furman on the phone to talk Twelve Nudes, the new season of Sex Education, and the unexpected links between punk rock and Judaism.
It feels like there's two big threads running through this record: a personal struggle with gender and a political struggle with class.
Despite the fact that this record is openly political, and despite the fact that it's written with care and attention, it is above all an emotional document. By which I mean, I'm talking mostly about my emotional reaction to politics and social realities. The more I think about it, the more I think I don't have much to say about politics or gender or class or any of it, except the plain, brutal stuff. Maybe it's a political thing to say, "it seems like the rich are killing the poor and getting away with it." I think that it's true and I don't think it's very nuanced. It's not political analysis. It's just the brutal fact.
There's something purposely ham-fisted about my writing on this record. Like, the line: "I wanna be your girlfriend." It's not a nuanced comment about gender. It's not a sharp analysis. It's just a naked statement of what I feel. There's a lot to take issue with, in these blunt statements, like me saying I want to be a heterosexual monogamous cliché. There's a lot of footnotes you could give to it. But it feels necessary to just say the simple, blunt thing.
Yeah, the footnotes don't tend to make as good rock songs.
—don't make as much impact.
Or protest songs. Twelve Nudes is some of the best contemporary protest music I've heard, especially given a lot of contemporary political or protest music feels empty or toothless. What do you think is the secret to good protest music?
I feel like I don't hear much open protest music, or many people calling their music protest music. I've been calling my music protest music pretty much the whole time I've been writing songs. But yeah, this stuff is more obviously protest music. I really didn't set out to make a protest record, any more than usual. I just did what I usually do, which is to be in touch with my soul, what is concerning me on the deepest level, and trying to make a record about that. That sometimes turns into love songs and sometimes into political songs.
So, you didn't set out to write a protest record, but you did turn to a distinctly punk sound. I've read you talking about the album, as if "the time had come" for you to make a punk record. Could you explain what you mean? Why did you always know you'd make a punk album?
It was the first music that I wanted to make when I was young. I joined a band when I was 14 that was trying to be a punk band. I never ended up playing a show with them, but it was the first music that was mine. I thought that if I managed to be a musician, I would be in a punk band. Probably not the singer. I thought I would be a guitar player in a punk band, maybe contribute some songs. Then I got into all kinds of other music. So it feels like a bedrock thing.
If I made the most intuitive thing I could, it would be like a Buzzcocks-type punk tune. It's almost weird that I never made a record that sounded like punk before. I guess the reason is that I worried it would be like karaoke. You know, making something that already existed.
"I've been calling my music protest music pretty much the whole time I've been writing songs."
What finally fell into place for you?
It was brewing a long time. There would always be some punk-y songs, but I'd never think they were my strongest ones. Like the song "Tip of a Match" is an example. But they never coalesced into a group of songs. Our records were scattershot, sonic-wise, until this one. Even this one a little bit. The actual answer is just, rising anxiety and anger. I felt more anxious and angry in the past few years than I have before. Since I got a smartphone, really, cause you just get terrible news. It just comes at you so fast.
That went together with a boost in confidence of some kind. Our last record, for me, Transangelic Exodus, proved something to myself. I was able to accomplish a lot of things I wasn't sure I was capable of. I found my voice in a deeper way. And that made me think if I made a punk record, I could make it my own. I would have something to add. Like, I was a strong enough a writer to justify making that loud noise that we've heard for so many decades, that sounds like other bands.
That's funny that you felt like you needed to prove yourself to make this music that's supposed to be raw and primal and amateur.
Yeah, that is how I think of it. Part of me is like, everyone can make a punk record — punk thought everyone deserves to be heard. But I needed the confidence, because the other voice in my head is like, "that record's already been made." Doing something weird and hard to categorize is more obviously worthwhile to me, because you might not have made a perfect album, but you made something that doesn't exist already.
Once you'd committed to this album, was it exciting to play around with the genre, and draw on the history of punk?
It was exciting. A major factor in making a punk record was that I wrote a book about Lou Reed. That was an opportunity to explore a lot of things. At the end of the book, the question I found myself asking was, "What is a punk? Is Lou Reed a punk?" In the final scene in the book, it was when I saw him live at SXSW and all these artists did covers of his songs. [Reed] ended the performance triumphantly saying, "I love punk rock. And I was the first one." I was like, "what?" Something was off about that to me. 'Cause I had never heard him say anything so positive and unambiguous before [laughs]. I'm saying too much there, but it left me wondering, what is this thing, punk, at its deepest root?
Lou Reed might be one of the best articulators of the deepest root behind punk. Ending the book on that question felt like it was pointing me towards, "Why are you into punk? And how come you look so different from so many punks?" I've been trying to write lately about why I do a traditional Jewish practice, and why I'm super into punk rock. I've been into both of those things since I was about 15. And why they seem to go together for me. I was in this mode of asking: "Why does it seem so vital?" That pushed me to listen to tons of punk all the time. Then I found myself writing Twelve Nudes.
"Doing something weird and hard to categorize is more obviously worthwhile to me, because you might not have made a perfect album, but you made something that doesn't exist already."
What do you feel is the thread between punk rock and your Jewish practice?
It's hard to say. They are both counter cultures. They were the voices I found at a young age that were saying, "What most people are doing is not the thing you should do. You should do this uncompromising other thing, that is fiercely loyal to certain principles and ways of thinking." Judaism also... on some levels it sounds crazy to say, but Judaism immediately seems anti-authoritarian to me. It just rings that way instantly. I know there's a lot of counter-examples of that from the real world of lived Judaism. But on deep intellectual levels, it's for the underdog, for the minority in a larger culture, for the poor against the rich, the royalty.
Does that understanding of Jewishness comes from the history of Jewish rebels and activists, or the actual tenor of Jewish spirituality?
It comes most of all from the Bible. From the texts and spirituality… how Judaism looked to me when I was a teenager, and how it still looks to me sometimes now. But especially, it comes from when I was a teenager, reaching for a way to be furious and not just talk about television all the time. I knew a few kids who were obsessed with God and justice and transcendent, hard-to-say-things, and I was like, "That feels right." They were also doing it in a culture where nobody wanted me to do that. Nobody wanted me to end every Saturday not using electricity. I sensed that something like [practicing Shabbat] was a kind of declaration of independence from the culture around me, which was leaving me cold at the time.
Spiritual Judaism itself becomes resistance, when there's such rigid expectations for how you're supposed to live your life and say, spend your Saturday.
And a lot of religious Jews really have a stance of like, "the world is crazy, the world at large is crazy." I think it is too, and I just don't want to be adapted. I don't want to be well-adjusted to a world that's crazy.
What is your Jewish practice like today?
The most notable and, I guess I'd say, intrusive — the thing that people around me notice — is that I observe Shabbat. From just before sundown on Friday to when the stars come out on Saturday night, I have a day of rest and no work. No writing, no use of electricity, no use of money, no travel, all this stuff. All these observances so that I have this day dedicated to the spirit that is totally different from the rest of my week.
Is observing Shabbat, having that day of rest and differentiation, a part of your creative practice?
I wouldn't say that's in the top ten things that it does. It means more than it sounds like it means, I've determined that to be true. It's a day of freedom that is quite deep. It's more like the rest of the week is the fuel for it. I want to make the world better and to enjoy the world. Shabbat is the day that I enjoy it, I don't try to change it at all. It satisfies the urge to go be a monk away from all society. It's not solitary at all, but it's solitary from technology and capitalism. It's like touching utopia, weekly. It reminds us of what we want the world to be like.
On the record, there's a number of references to a period of your life when you "drank the Kool-Aid." You sing that you "wasted your 20's in submission." When and what was that time for you? When did it end?
Well. [laughs] It honestly feels like on this record, I'm trying to figure out, "Am I trying to be well-adjusted or not?", "Am I doing well at being a serious fighter, at noticing what's wrong and what needs to be said and what needs to be done?" It's me looking back at my whole adult life, and saying: "I have not been taking what's wrong seriously enough." You could probably say the same of me now. But I'm trying to say, as a citizen, that what I used to think is sufficient is not.
"I don't want to be well-adjusted in a world that's crazy."
What did you used to think was sufficient? What did you realize was wrong with that?
I thought that I was doing the work that I needed to do by being an artist. It seemed like a mighty thing not to get a normal job. I thought it was activism just to not work at a multinational corporation. I thought it was enough to be an artist, like, not getting a 9-5 is my cry of dissent. But it's not. That doesn't do that much. As an artist, I was still part of the hyper-capitalist plan for all of us. Just 'cause like, I never did a Coke ad — I wish I had something smarter to say about this. It's really just saying, "No! More! I need to dissent more! I've been cooperating when I thought I was not cooperating."
How do you approach being an anti-capitalist artist? The music industry makes that hard.
What I want is for objection to participation in hyper-capitalism to be legitimate and widely seen that way. It's really hard to know how to phrase this, I've been noticing that people don't think it's legitimate to object. People don't think... the word sellout is not used anymore.
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Should we bring back the term "sellout"?
I think we should bring back calling people sellouts. [laughs] No... I don't actually think we should bring back "sellout." But I would say we need to recognize that there is a real, urgent impulse beyond just catty elitism behind calling someone a sellout. Bands get their song on a Corona beer commercial and they just don't mind. They sell it for nothing. So many artists are just so delighted to get $5,000 from a billionaire. I was so delighted to get $6,000 from the Billabong corporation when they used my song in 2012 in some ad. But to be honest, I have no idea what I would have done if I didn't get that money. So it's a hard argument to make. That's why "sellout" doesn't seem like a word anyone wants to use anymore when we're all starving and such. I'm babbling, but I want the impulse to be taken seriously. If we must take their money to survive, I would hope we do it with nausea, not with glee.
I think people feel really helpless. Artists and fans. When you see a band do something you wish they didn't, it does feel empty or useless to criticize them for trying to survive, or because everyone does it.
I mean, I buy DP gasoline. Right now, I don't have a good alternative. But I don't, like, use their social media hashtag [laughs]. That's what starts to creep me out, the culture around it. Not that you're keeping your money at Bank of America, but that you'll willingly advertise for companies the way they want you to.
It was really cool to see a group of bands drop off of that Amazon music festival and take their music off the streaming service. Obviously it's a drop in the bucket, but it makes you feel a twinge of hope. How do you deal with despair, and with cynicism?
You can legitimately say that for Amazon, it's a drop in the bucket. But then you see it five years later, when a bunch of stuff is different and people are spending their money differently and living and voting differently. Our enemies are doing that kind of change in the darkness, too. By the enemy I'm usually thinking of hyper-capitalism and white supremacy.
I guess it's just getting older. I used to just think it takes 50 years for the world to be different. Then I saw the world change so much in seven years. The way people talk about change and the kind of people that we support and the ways we spend our money, I mean... it's inarguable that everything looks quite different than it did seven years ago. I don't believe in upwards or downwards change at large. Specific things get worse and better all the time, all at once. This kind of thinking is why I talk a lot about what I care about. It changes the culture in my audience, it changes the culture around my band. That kind of stuff affects people who take in art. And those kinds of cultural changes, change everything.
Tell us a bit about working on Sex Education season two. Were you inspired by the show?
We just made a bunch of music and let them choose what they liked. They sent us all the scripts, and that did influence us a lot, but I think they hired us because of what we're already like. So we made music that sounds to us, like us.
What do you think attracted the creators of this show to your music in particular?
I think I've maintained a connection to the angst and honesty of the teenage years, of most people's teenage years. They might see the vulnerability in my music, a kind of sweet vulnerability really comes through, and that resonates with some teenage stuff.
I was going to ask if you revisited your own teenage years to write for the show, but I think you answered that.
Yeah. The human heart doesn't change that much. We also feel all the feelings that we think of as teenage. They come out like they did in high school, but all that raw stuff is still there.
Photos by Jessica Lehrman courtesy of Pitch Perfect