BASED in Chicago, singer-songwriter Ezra Furman has released seven albums – the latest of which is this year’s Transangelic Exodus. He is known for his energetic live performances and often personal lyrics, which have tackled themes such as sexuality and mental health. Furman identifies as bisexual and frequently wears traditionally female clothes at his gigs. Before his festival show, he tells EDWIN GILSON about getting politically active, his Jewish upbringing and why he has a “siege mentality”

How pleased have you been with the reaction to Transangelic Exodus?

I’m delighted that a lot of people get it. Not that there’s that much to get, but I was worried it was too scary and weird for some fans. Most people are on board with this strange vision.

You’ve said this is a more “serious album” than your previous work. How do you define serious?

I knew I wanted to have a change of tone. Perhaps the tone matches the times. Public life has become scarier so my music has become a bit scarier. There was a lot of agitated darkness, fear and solidarity in the songwriting. The last couple of records had a lot to do with early rock and roll that I felt driven to make my own version of. With the new one, the goal was to step into the realm of the great musical minds of the 21st century.

You started writing the album around the time of Trump’s election victory. Was the writing influenced by the fear of what America could become under his leadership, and specifically for vulnerable groups?

It’s an apt time to talk about fear and stigmatised, vulnerable groups, but I think I was interested in that already. It’s a childhood nightmare of mine to be forced to leave your home in the middle of the night. I grew up with a lot of education about the holocaust and my grandparents were holocaust refugees. That was in my brain, and I’ve always been thinking about, “if this society starts to get scary, am I ready to stand up for people who are threatened?”.

Studying the holocaust makes you wonder what would happen if something like that happened in your backyard. We can see shades of it now in white supremacy being government sanctioned. It aggravated those nightmares.

Do you feel like you’ve dealt with the topic of oppression in your music over your whole career?

Yeah. The restlessness that was fun on previous albums has become a fearful compulsion to be groaning. It doesn’t seem like the time to be a fun band. We had a lot of sarcastic songs and I couldn’t keep singing some of them. They seem a little cute to me right now, like “everything’s screwed and what can you do?” That kind of thinking doesn’t work for me anymore. You can’t sit back and blow smoke rings and be like, “well, everything sucks”. Right now, you have to find what you’re going to do about the things that are scaring you.

Was there a nihilistic attitude to your older work?

It was just a little more helpless, like thinking it was enough to point out from a distance what’s wrong. I feel more involved in the decay of society now. I want to be part of the fight against that decay rather than sighing about it or smirking about it.

What’s a musician’s role in that, though, can you bring about change?

You can be an activist. I know so many people who are doing that. You don’t have to change your identity to do that, you can just show up as a protestor or a voter.

Do you see a lot of resistance in America’s youth at the moment? If so, does that make you more hopeful?

I don’t know if I feel more hopeful or not. I just feel more involved. I’m obsessed with trying to get people to vote. I don’t know the process in the UK, but it’s very easy to register to vote in the US. Just doing that can potentially address a lot of the problems we have.

You’ve said you wanted to “leave the cartoon version” of yourself behind. Do you feel people have focused too much on your outward appearance?

It’s hard to know how much it’s in my head, or if I take representations of myself in public too seriously. It’s a very weird thing to see yourself made into a hooky internet story. Journalists get a bunch of stuff wrong or get the tone of who you are wrong, and to see that is uncomfortable.

What do they get wrong?

Just little things like saying I’m on orthodox Jew and I was raised as an orthodox Jew – that’s not really correct. I was brought up in a very liberal Jewish family that was very different to the kind of observance that is practiced now. But even now I’m not orthodox – that’s a very specific thing. I don’t think orthodox men present themselves as feminine, usually. It might just be the fact that it’s hard to talk about me because I’m an unusual person.  It’s different to have yourself advertised than it is to be a person just hanging out with their friends and applying for jobs.

What can be done about that? It seems inevitable you’ll have a public self.

There are some things that make it better, like being more careful to say what I mean. I made music that tried to reflect a lot about who I am, and it only takes a couple of years for that to no longer feel like who you are. But it’s still advertised like “come see this person who you know from one photograph”. I don’t look like that any more.

You were once playing Lou Reed’s Heroin at a gig and Reed himself was in the audience. How did that feel?

It was so early in my career as a musician, at the first musical festival I ever played at. It was kind of shocking. Lou Reed has this public self that is kind of shapeshifting. He always feels uncomfortable with everything people say about him. You can see it in interviews, he gets angry almost any time people call him anything. I think I have some of that instinct, too. There’s no real logic to it, I just don’t like the way it sounds when somebody uses words for me.

How do you stop yourself from getting angry at being pigeon-holed in that way?

Well, I like to be nice to people. What I used to do is just be nice to everyone and say, “yes, whatever you say about me is true”. I’ve worked on not agreeing with every statement about me. I tried to talk about it a bit in my song Compulsive Liar – I always have a siege mentality and I’m defensive and I lie to people and keep secrets even when I don’t have to. It’s just habit. It comes from having a history of feeling unsafe or about to be laughed at. That comes from growing up queer and closeted in a homophobic, transphobic surrounding.

Is that defensiveness tiring?

It is sometimes, but it’s also helpful. Sometimes you shouldn’t pretend to be best buddies with someone has a lack of respect for you. You’re doing fine, though. I don’t hate you.

Ezra Furman

Brighton Dome, Saturday,

May 26, 8pm,