Feature music interview: Ezra Furman at Ace of Cups

Andy Downing

On Transangelic Exodus, the most recent full-length from Ezra Furman, the musician makes repeated reference to traversing the open road, singing: “And we're driving in a car that won't slow down”; “Drive with me into the great unknown”; “And then we're back on the road before the sun's even up.”

Initially, Furman envisioned this ongoing highway scene as a flight from shadowy forces rather than a journey toward some distant paradise — he's described the loosely conceptual album, centered on a protagonist's escape with his angel-lover, as a “queer outlaw saga” — but the idea morphed along the way.

“Something happens in flight: you change,” said Furman, who joins his band in concert at Ace of Cups on Wednesday, Feb. 28. “The exodus from Egypt, as far as the Hebrews knew, was just an escape from oppression. But out in the wilderness they found transcendence beyond anything they'd ever imagined.”

For Furman, this transcendence arrives amid the hymn-like “God Lifts Up the Lowly,” where he stumbles upon a revelation that, even cast to the road and deprived of any safety net, he's far from defenseless. “I've looked deep into this frail human body,” he sings, “and I know that I carry a power.”

“There is a sense in which having your power stripped away gives you a new kind of power, the strength and spiritual muscle that comes from having to fight for your existence and legitimacy,” Furman said. “I believe that all people have an inborn dignity that is their birthright. You can take away other kinds of power, but not that one.”

Strong spiritual and humanitarian threads run throughTransangelic Exodus, which, despite its rough conceptual framework, is strongly informed by both the current social/political climate and Furman's experiences publicly coming to terms with his own sexuality. In 2015, Furman, who still uses masculine pronouns, came out as gender-fluid, though he more recently described his identity in an interview with British newspaperThe Telegraph by saying, “I guess I just do being a man different than some.”

According to the musician, the new album's themes started to come into focus as he penned songs exploring these experiences.

“I was trying to write about certain topics that were troubling me, like queerness and coming out and feeling kind of raw about having a public identity,” he said. “And then I suddenly wrote the first verse of what became [the album-opening] ‘Suck the Blood from My Wound.' … Then I had this whole world to play in, because there's so much suggested by that first verse.”

As on past albums, Furman populates this world with the outcasts and overlooked peoples with whom he's always closely identified — “To them you know we'll always be freaks,” he sings in the spirit of brotherhood on “Suck the Blood from My Wound” — though the current mood in the country has lent the relationship more weight.

“This political climate has brought the way some people are vulnerable, and have been vulnerable for a long time, more into the public conversation. But it's done that by making them more vulnerable, and by making it more legitimate to be openly callous to their troubles,” Furman said. “I'm talking about refugees and immigrants and people of color and queer people and poor people — others, too. So I guess I'd say that identifying with outcasts remains essential as ever to my humanity. And it's being in touch with one's humanity that makes good art.”

Furman doesn't shy from exploring the darker side of humanity, however. “No Place,” for one, deals with the fears that set in as one is forced from their home (the song was informed, in part, by the current rise in the neo-Nazi white nationalist movement), while “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill” explores the mental strain one might endure being “othered” while trying to do something as simple as shop for clothes.

At the same time, a sense of hope pervades even in these discomforting moments, much of it informed by Furman's Jewish faith, which has remained an anchoring point from childhood. Witness “Maraschino-Red Dress,” which opens with the narrator attempting to shrink from the judgmental gaze of a shop clerk and ends with a repeated line of praise. “But I thank God,” Furman recites, “who gives strength to the weary.”

Furman said he came to his current understanding of God — a sympathetic figure who offers comfort to the downtrodden rather than glory to the powerful — through his study of the Torah.

“The idea of God as being the creator of the universe who is also concerned with human affairs — and particularly with the troubles of the poor, the brokenhearted, the marginalized — is biblical in origin,” Furman said. “Frankly, I don't know what anyone who reads the Bible and doesn't concern themselves with the plight of the marginalized is thinking.”

The constant presence of God further strengthens what Furman views as the central tenet of his new record.

“It's crucial that the heroes of the story are not alone,” said Furman, who stressed that the record's narrator makes his escape alongside an angelic traveling companion rather than in solitude. “This album is about solidarity as much as it's about fear. We've got to stick up for each other when times get tough.”

Ace of Cups

7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28

2619 N. High St., Old North


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