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Transformer: Ezra Furman’s Songs of Innocence

In the spring of 2016, Ezra Furman rediscovered the title for a potential song on his phone, which acts as his digital notebook. “Suck the Blood From My Wound,” which he had written down earlier that year, was just a phrase — the note on his phone didn’t contain any chord structures or lyrical ideas. But he couldn’t get the words out of his head for weeks.

When he finally sat down to write the song, a wild allegorical story poured out of him: A narrator, who has woken up bleeding in the “crock of a tree,” and his angelic lover with feathery wings are on the run from a violent government. They race away in a red Camaro from a hospital the angel had been held in, a pair of queer outlaws uncertain about their fate but determined to defy their oppressors.

“[The song] suggested a whole world and a whole situation,” Furman says on the phone while backstage at Montreal’s Bar Le Ritz. “I was like, well, either I could put this in a drawer somewhere and be like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what that was,’ and say, ‘That was probably too ambitious.’ Or I could actually see it through.… I had to finish it, and it really kind of turned into the whole record.”

The song, which mixes epic E Street–sized chords with a crunchy electric bass sound and affected drums, ended up as the first track on Furman’s recently released record, Transangelic Exodus (Bella Union). Furman refuses to call it a concept album — he refers to the collection of songs as “a cluster of stories on a theme” and a “half-true memoir” instead. Some of the tracks hem more closely to the fictional narrative (like “God Lifts Up the Lowly,” in which the narrator and his angel stop in an alley for the night and tear a tracking device out of their car), and some are more grounded in reality (like “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill,” which evokes the anxiety that comes from eyeing a dress as a male in public). But they all explore the feelings that come with being persecuted and marginalized as an LGBTQ person in modern America.

Furman, 31, often wears dresses and lipstick onstage and off, but he identifies as queer, not transgender — despite the clear nod to trans people in his album title. Over the phone, he often talks slowly and can sound at times as if he’s zoning out, but he’s actually just choosing his words very carefully. He admits that his gender identity can be hard to encapsulate, and he adds that he’s used to having people fit that identity into a neat narrative box.

“For a few years now [I’ve watched] who I actually am in the real world be the story, and nobody ever gets that story quite right,” Furman says. “I briefly went with this term ‘gender fluid,’ and then it became kind of the tagline about me. And I didn’t fully grasp what it means to most people who call themselves gender fluid. I think I just do being male different.”

Furman grew up in Evanston, Illinois, an idyllic suburb north of Chicago, as the son of a stock-trader father and technical-writer mother. He and his two brothers all caught the artistic bug: Younger brother Jonah was the singer of the indie punk band Krill, which broke up in 2015, and older brother Noah is now a visual artist. Ezra’s parents introduced him to classic rock and folk songwriters like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but he quickly graduated to an obsession with punk bands ranging from Green Day to the Clash. Around age 14, he discovered Lou Reed, who has become his idol — as a songwriter, lyricist, and bisexual icon who shifted through a variety of identities throughout his career (Furman also wrote a book in the 33 1/3 series on Reed’s seminal 1972 album, Transformer).

Furman formed the Harpoons as a student at Tufts in 2006, taking cues from Dylan and blending them with more standard 2000s indie rock. From 2012 through 2015, he released three solo albums, which refined his retro rock sound and featured more aggressive lyrics that hinted at the inner anxiety he was feeling about his sexual identity.

The sound of Transangelic Exodus, by contrast, is dark, even murky at times, to fit the thematic mood. Anchoring it all is the lead single “Driving Down to L.A.,” which starts with an eerie guitar line and drops an explosive fuzzed-out chorus that is the musical equivalent of a shrapnel bomb. The harmonica, strings, and saxophone of his older records have been replaced with drum machines and thick distortion.

This increasing sense of artistic exploration and expanding musical palette correlates with the fact that he’s becoming more comfortable in his skin each year. He didn’t wear a dress onstage until 2011, a few years after graduating and while still with the Harpoons — and even then, he downplayed the concept as a rock star alter ego that he only embodied in front of a concert crowd. Now he’s clearly out, and though he still idolizes Reed as a songwriter and lyricist, he’s more interested in achieving new sonic textures. In a statement announcing the release of the album, he noted that he aspired to match innovators in an array of genres, such as Kendrick Lamar, Beck, and Tune-Yards.

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That’s not to say that the influence of his hero is totally absent — the cello on “God Lifts Up the Lowly” would fit comfortably in a Velvet Underground set, and album closer “I Lost My Innocence” sounds a lot like Fifties bubblegum pop. But most of the retro sounds, from the sax to the occasional vocal “oohs” and “wahs,” now sound like they’ve been sent through some kind of futuristic robotic filter.

Furman wrote all of the record’s thirteen tracks on a guitar, but over the course of eight months, he and the four members of his band — formerly called the Boyfriends, now called the Visions — meticulously reworked each song. They recorded the album in a Chicago studio built by Tim Sandusky, who engineers most of Furman’s output and plays multiple instruments in his touring band. Furman calls Sandusky — who has also worked with the electronic r&b group Lolawolf — the group’s “secret weapon,” and he’s constantly digging to find sounds not heard anywhere else.

“We’d change chords, change the entire approach, and then after doing that throw that version out and start again,” Furman says. “I was afraid to do it, because I was like, ‘Are we going to overthink these songs and just take the life out of them by rehearsing and arranging them to death?’ But we had an active goal the whole time never to do that.”

“Exodus,” the other word in the album title, is not just standing in for escape — it’s also a nod to Furman’s religious side. He’s an observant Jew who aims to stick to the Orthodox tradition of praying three times a day, and he keeps kosher when he can on the road. Jewish themes and references are becoming more common in his songs. On his last EP, Big Fugitive Life, from 2016, one song titled “The Refugee” chronicles his grandfather’s escape from Nazis in Poland during World War II. At the end of “God Lifts Up the Lowly,” he sings part of a Jewish prayer.

So does Furman plan to fight back in real life against the forces that confront the hypothetical trans angels? His answer is an emphatic “yes,” and these days he’s “obsessed” with getting people to register to vote. He had planned to set up voter registration booths at every concert on his tour (partly inspired by the rise of Donald Trump, whom he groups together with others in America who “disregard the plight of the vulnerable”), but logistical complications delayed that idea.

Although he’s frustrated and often frightened these days, he’s also hopeful. On the album’s poppy closer, “I Lost My Innocence,” he’s confident and defiant in the final verse: “I found my angel on a motorcycle/I’m a queer for life/Outlaw, outsider.”

“At the same time as fear and paranoia were growing, a need for solidarity and hopeful togetherness was also growing in me, and I think the record has both of those,” he says. “As you’re more afraid, you look more for a guardian angel who can help you. Or who you can help.”

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Between Two Furmans: Indie According to Brothers Ezra and Jonah

Like so many younger siblings, Jonah Furman latched onto his big brother Ezra when Ezra received a gift that made him instantly cool: a brand-new acoustic guitar for his bar mitzvah.

“I was nine, and suddenly I had this guitar in the house I could fuck around with,” Jonah recalls over the phone. Ezra joins him. “Do you remember the time I was trying to tune the guitar, and one of the strings broke, and we both started crying?”

Fast-forward to Passover weekend, 2014, over a decade later but still at their childhood home in Evanston, Illinois. Jonah once again found himself verklempt over guitar strings, but this time it was more serious. The singer/bassist of the cult-status punk band Krill showed his siblings his bank account. The balance read $12. “This is when Krill was actually doing well,” clarifies Jonah. “That was my 2009 to 2010,” adds Ezra, by that time also a working musician. “I was living in Brooklyn and I knew the pizza place that sold four garlic knots for $1 and five garlic knots for $1.” They both laugh.

The Furman siblings, each two years apart in age, have long turned to one another for commiseration, because their parents can’t really relate to their artistic lives: Their father is a stock trader and their mother a technical writer. Noah, the eldest and now a visual artist, had a record collection — the White Stripes, Smog, the Grateful Dead — that informed his younger brothers’ tastes. “I remember sharing a room with [Noah] when I was eleven. We’d go to sleep listening to Nine Inch Nails and I was just lying in bed terrified the entire night,” Ezra says with a chuckle.

Ezra broke into music first. He was a dispassionate English major at Tufts University until Minty Fresh Records — whose roster has included Veruca Salt and Liz Phair — signed his pop-rock college band, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons. Unlike the niche DIY network that would eventually support Jonah, Ezra’s career involved mainstream industry adults who were both a blessing and a curse, offering resources and propelling a false hope that the struggle would eventually amount to something.

Now, Ezra’s striking onstage persona with new band the Boyfriends channels a young boy trying on his mother’s clothes: black tights, bedazzled shades, smeared red lipstick. He identifies as gender fluid and draws parallels to avant-garde frontmen of the Seventies like Jonathan Richman and David Johansen. He jokingly describes his performances as “like Bruce Springsteen, but insane,” embracing his twin loves of classic rock and inventive arrangements. Playing to a packed Bowery Ballroom in February, the Boyfriends, blazed through a manic hour and a half, playing emotionally charged takes on Fifties doo-wop and classics like the Violent Femmes. Ezra growled about Boston (“Ordinary Life”) and breakfast foods (“Haunted Head”), later covering Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”

Jonah’s band could hardly be more different. Krill, which broke up last year, was all neurotic guitars and winding character narratives, told through postmodern prose and inside jokes. They were finally making it, too: Album sales picked up and Rolling Stone profiled them. To keep up with the growing attention, Jonah moved from Boston to Bushwick to be closer to his bandmates. The band broke up two weeks later. At a loss for what to do, Jonah enrolled as a graduate student at the City University of New York to study labor, something he gained an interest in when living on a near-negative budget as a musician.

“[At my day job] I’d sit in a windowless room, where no one cared if I was there, and got paid,” said Jonah. “Then I’d go out on tour where people go crazy and tell us how much the band means to them, and be paid nothing. So everyone cares about this thing you can’t get money for and you get money for the things no one cares about. It’s wild. And it was happening while Krill was getting all of this praise and —”

“Validation,” Ezra says pointedly.

“I went through a confusing time. I still am,” Jonah continues. “It’s like graduating college, but instead I’ve graduated my whole identity.”

Following the brief flash of his brother’s success with Krill, Ezra released a solo album, Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union), which made him a breakout artist, too: The record was named one of the Guardian‘s top 25 albums of 2015, in the company of Kendrick Lamar and Grimes. Björk dropped in on his soundcheck before a London show. The success amuses him, if only because this time last year he was determined to quit.

“You can hear how badly I wanted it in the title of my first solo album, Day of the Dog — I really thought this was going to be it,” says Ezra. But unlike Perpetual Motion, Day of the Dog went unnoticed, and things got worse from there. Lou Reed, a hero of Ezra’s, passed away while Ezra was on tour, and he took the news as a bad omen. It proved true at a show in Boise, Idaho, far from Ezra’s home in Oakland, CA. “There were eight people there,” he remembers. “I was just like ‘I’m 27. This is not my life.’ I didn’t tell anyone at the time, but I was 100 percent done.”

Except he wasn’t. Within weeks of that decision, a five-star review from the Guardian for Day of the Dog gave him a change of heart. His label told him a BBC radio DJ was stoking a U.K. audience for him. His band nudged him to tour Europe. So he went, but the experience of coming so close to the end loosened his artistic approach. Quitting — even just in spirit — taught him to sacrifice less. “I don’t say yes to everything anymore,” he says. “And I observe Shabbat on tour, which I didn’t think was possible for any band.”

“I loved that moment in Boise,” says Jonah to his brother, “because you do not experience brutality like that in a lot of other work. [Other] people experience having no future and there’s bleakness to that for sure. But there’s nothing like coming out blazing for a show and nobody is there.”

But it wasn’t that kind of night at the Bowery Ballroom, where Ezra was surrounded by friends, relatives, soul-baring fans, and his two brothers. Outside the exit, Noah scooped Ezra up by the torso and kissed his scruffy brown hair. Jonah pulled him in for a hug. The makeup Ezra wore at the beginning of the show was long ago sweated off.

“I saw the full arc of my musical career with Krill,” said Jonah. Two weeks into graduate school, he was sporting a shorter haircut, buttoned-down shirt, and a pocket pen at his brother’s show. But he appeared more willful and content than he had at any point in the last four years. “It’s like a branching task,” Jonah said. “My band broke up and stopped; Ezra’s band broke up and kept going.”

Jonah Furman performs at Shea Stadium tonight.