Ezra Furman Is Listening (And Crying) To Sharon Van Etten, Cat Power, and The Pixies

Published February 12, 2020

Photo by Jessica Lehrman.

This is “Add to Queue,” our attempt to sort through the cacophony of music floating in the algorithmic atmosphere by consulting the experts themselves. Our favorite musicians tell us about their favorite music—the sad, the happy, the dinner party-y, the songs they want played at their funeral. 

A few years ago, the makers of Netflix’s Sex Education approached the musician Ezra Furman and asked her to be “the Simon & Garfunkel to our Graduate.” For the queer artist, whose taste for ’60s and ’70s soul and folk is rooted in her parents’ music library, the opportunity to build the soundtrack for a show about teen angst was a dream come true.

Sex Education, now in its second season, is a jubilant, era-transcendent celebration of the confusion and desire that characterize our adolescent years. As such, the plot dovetails beautifully with Furman’s emotionally layered work and self-described “exuberant vulnerability.” The soundtrack has everything a good high school dramedy requires: it’s clever, sentimental and wry, and draws from ’80s punk and ’70s funk alike.

The recently released Sex Education soundtrack features a mix of Furman’s early work, original compositions, and several incredible covers (notably LCD Soundsystem’s “I Can Change” from 2010, and The Clovers’s “Devil or Angel” from 1956). These covers amplify the timelessness of the show itself, which has one foot in the 80s (high schoolers in fishnets and combat boots, rich and saturated colors), and the other squarely in 2020 (leaked nudes, Otis’s embrace of the gig economy as a sex therapist). With Furman’s music, you never know quite where you are, but you know how you’re supposed to feel. 

We sat down with Furman to discuss her undying love for The Pixies, playing Prince at dinner parties, and the power of a good cover.

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MARA VEITCH: What was the last song you listened to?

EZRA FURMAN: I think I can check this accurately if I look at my phone. One second. Oh yeah, it was a song called “In My Tenement” by Jackie Shane, who is really good. You know Jackie Shane?

VEITCH: I don’t!

FURMAN: Jackie Shane is a transgender soul singer from the ’60s.

VEITCH: This is going to make a good playlist. I can feel it. Okay, so who was the earliest musician to influence you?

FURMAN: Well, the biggest reason I got a guitar was to play Green Day songs.

VEITCH: I like your honesty. What was the song you were trying to play?

FURMAN: Like, all of Dookie and Nimrod and the rest of the early Green Day records.

VEITCH: Got you.

FURMAN: It was this song called “She.” I learned it because I wanted to impress this kid at summer camp.

VEITCH: We all had a Green Day adolescence.

FURMAN: They had around three albums in the 90s that still blow me away, actually. Insomniac‘s my favorite.

VEITCH: Do you have any other early influences?

FURMAN: ‘60s Bob Dylan.

VEITCH: Old Bob.

FURMAN: I asked my parents, who got me my first guitar, to get an acoustic guitar. They told me I should learn some Bob Dylan. I got really into that album, Blonde On Blonde.

VEITCH: Your parents are into folk music?

FURMAN: Yeah. They had some really good records that changed my life, actually.

VEITCH: Do you remember your first concert?

FURMAN: Yeah, it was Barenaked Ladies. I was 14.

VEITCH: Who did you go with?

FURMAN: Who did I go with… All I remember was there was this girl who I had a crush on who was going also. It was a big part of what got me to want to go. I don’t know why I didn’t go to concerts earlier than that.

VEITCH: Do you have a favorite movie soundtrack?

FURMAN: That’s a good question. I’m still a big fan of Harold and Maude, the Cat Stevens soundtrack to that. It’s of one of my all-time favorite movies, so let’s go with that one.

VEITCH: How about your all-time dream collaborator, living or no longer living?

FURMAN: No, dead people aren’t usually good collaborators. I can’t help but think that there’s some small chance that my answer here could lead to such a collaboration happening, so I want to make the right choice.

VEITCH: This is your moment.

FURMAN: I would say Patti Smith, my hero. 

VEITCH: That was smart.

FURMAN: I think she’s just magic, and she understands poetry. I watch movies with Patti Smith for inspiration, and I think we would understand each other right away.

VEITCH: Let’s hope she sees this. Do you have a song that always put you in a good mood without fail?

FURMAN: Oh yeah, “Pressure Drop,” by Toots and the Maytals. I have used this song almost medicinally at times.

VEITCH: Love. It does have medicinal properties!

FURMAN: I’d be lost without Toots.

VEITCH: What are things you might put on your road trip playlist?

FURMAN: I’m tempted to look at my phone and see exactly what I would put …

VEITCH: You’re welcome to consult.

FURMAN: … on such a playlist. Let me just think about it. Oh, I know. In my experience, the greatest thing is to blast “Head On” by The Pixies right when you hit the highway. It’s like, what a feeling. So I’m going to choose that one. And then…Motel. I wonder if this album is even available anymore. If we want to get into driving at night, I love the album Transfiguration of Vincent by M. Ward. It’s got that cinematic, hit the road, big drums and harmonicas feel, and I really love that. And then definitely some Sharon Van Etten. I like everything from her new record. I guess it also works because the album cover is her sticking her head out the car window. But there’s one she did that made me cry like 20 times …it’s her cover of “Drive All Night” by Bruce Springsteen. It’s not even a Bruce Springsteen song I ever noticed or liked, but her version of it destroyed me.

VEITCH: How about if you’re having a dinner party?

FURMAN: What do we always put… I have a record player at my house. I don’t know. I just put on stuff I never get enough of, like Loaded by the Velvet Underground. Easy to listen to, but not too slick.

VEITCH: I like that. What if you were having a house party?

FURMAN: Oh, I don’t know, “Kiss” by Prince. That’s the first thing that came to my head.

VEITCH: It must be right then.

FURMAN: I mean, what’s good to dance to? I don’t know.

VEITCH: I think you know.

FURMAN: It’s “Kiss” by Prince.

VEITCH: We’ll just play “Kiss” on a loop. What would you put on a “crying in your bedroom” playlist?

FURMAN: That might depend what kind of crying I’m doing. Am I angry, am I fragile?

VEITCH: Let’s say a breakup cry. I think we’re all secretly building that playlist all the time.

FURMAN: Let’s Get Out of This Country by Camera Obscura is the dominant record of my life. And then, I really can’t stop listening to Cat Power, and I’ve just got to admit it. I’m completely obsessed with the album Jukebox, which is one of her two albums of covers. And I don’t even know where to start with that one. One of the best songs on there is called “Breathless,” which is a Nick Cave cover. Is it really a breakup song? I don’t know. Not really. It’s more like being in a state of awe at some kind of love or god or something.

VEITCH: I don’t know if you partake, but what might you put on a high playlist?

FURMAN: I don’t do that getting high stuff that often. It’s sort of a rare thing for me.

VEITCH: I would venture that it’s the non-smokers who make the best smoking playlists …

FURMAN: My instinct is Electric Warrior by T-Rex. It’s just too intense. It’s too majestic. I lose track of reality.

VEITCH: Okay. Now let’s pick a couple songs to play at your funeral.

FURMAN: [Laughs.]  That’s a dangerous thing. What if I die tomorrow, and it’s like, well, she did just tell a journalist to play this at her funeral.

VEITCH: This is a big opportunity. You get to dictate how you want to go down in history. You could choose the National Anthem, and be the great patriot of our era.

FURMAN: Good god. Who would choose the National Anthem? All I can think of is “What is Life” by George Harrison.

VEITCH: Oh boy.

FURMAN: Is that cheesy? I don’t know.

VEITCH: If your life were a TV show, what would the theme song be? Maybe you put in Sex Education already.

FURMAN: Might be “Debaser” by The Pixies.

VEITCH: That’s a show I’d watch. Do you sing in the shower?

FURMAN: I don’t usually. That’s my day job.

VEITCH: I see.

FURMAN: Why do you ask?

VEITCH: Because I’m interviewing you.

FURMAN: [Laughs.] Oh, that’s right.

VEITCH: What is your go-to karaoke track?

FURMAN: Oh, “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra, if they have it.

VEITCH: Whoa.

FURMAN: Yeah, I get into it. Lots of hand motions—

VEITCH: I’m picturing a lot of high kicks.

FURMAN: Yeah, and I drop to my knees, you know?

VEITCH: Is there an instrument you want to learn to play?

FURMAN: Well, the greatest instrument is the cello, right? Everyone knows that.

VEITCH: Everyone knows that. Is there a song that reminds you of your youth?

FURMAN: My youth?

VEITCH: Your bygone youth.

FURMAN: Oh, I know. The first song I remember hearing, which is “May the Light of Love” by Anne Hills.

VEITCH: What’s one song that, if everyone listened to it, it would change the world?

FURMAN: I don’t know. In a world where Paul Ryan says his favorite band is Rage Against the Machine, you’re like, wow, music can’t do anything.

VEITCH: Lord.

FURMAN: But maybe I’d say, “Ten Things” by Paul Baribeau—one of my favorite songwriters who never wanted a lot of exposure because he’s so punk.

VEITCH: What’s your favorite of your own songs?

FURMAN: I don’t know. I’m proud of a number of them. “I Lost My Innocence,” I think. I listened to it the other day, and I was like, this song is insane! 

Listen to Ezra Furman’s “Add To Queue” playlist below, and follow Interview on Spotify for more.