When the producers of streaming’s buzziest drama briefed their musician of choice, they only went and referenced one of the greatest soundtrack commissions of all time, from a towering highpoint of Sixties cinema.
“We want you to be the Simon & Garfunkel to our The Graduate,” Netflix told Ezra Furman.
No pressure, then. In our interview Furman was far too modest to claim that any of the music she’s supplied for two series of Sex Education approaches the giddy peaks of The Sound of Silence or Mrs Robinson, the latter Paul Simon’s timeless ode to Dustin Hoffman’s older seductress.
But contextually and relatively, the music for the blisteringly modern show is right up there. The Graduate and its folk-rock song selection were of a time and place (1967, Greenwich Village and Los Angeles). So, vividly and evocatively, are Furman’s songs for an unfiltered British series about sex and all its sticky bits. As lead actor Asa Butterfield told us approvingly, Sex Education bristles with “punky, a bit retro, coming-of-age tracks”.
Not wrong. If you don’t get your rocks off to the clattering energy of Furman’s Restless Year or experience something of a delirious post-coital slump when listening to her acoustic cover of LCD Soundsystem’s I Can Change, you’re watching the wrong show.
Now Furman’s songs for both series have been gathered on the 19-track Sex Education OST. It comprises beloved songs from the prolific musician’s catalogue, choice covers (see also: Devil or Angel, a 1956 cut by doo-wop act The Clovers) and new songs written especially for the drama. As a companion to the show, it’s as colourful and entertaining as the sexual (mis)adventures of Otis, Maeve, Eric and co.
All of which is even more remarkable given the haphazard manner in which Furman came to be working on the show.
“I don’t know,” was her first faltering answer when we asked how she got the gig. “I know it was partly because someone producing the show went to university with a friend of mine. I still don’t know if that friend recommended my music to them for the show, or if they had already heard it and asked for that connection to get me in touch. I should really ask him what happened there.”
She really should. In the meantime, though, she’s answering these questions…
Did your approach to this album differ to how you approach your regular albums?
Yeah, it felt totally different to make something for TV. I didn’t realise how popular the show was going to be, but I still had the notion that this would probably be heard by more people than anything I’ve ever created. So I felt a little freaked out and the pressure was on. But what they wanted from me was to sound like myself – and that, I know how to do. It’s a little surprising when you realise: “A TV show wants me!” Like, actually me. At first, I thought I’d have to clean it up, make it more legitimate sounding, learn to sing or something. But they wanted me as me. And when I saw the show, I was like: I get it. It has a who-gives-a-damn, punk, fun spirit.
So the producers gave you a lot of freedom?
Almost too much. I kept calling them and asking: “What exactly do you need from me?” They said: “Make your music. Make what you think is good.” I was like: “Are you sure?” By the time it got to doing the second season, I had a little more confidence.
What’s your favourite song on the album?
Wow. I haven’t thought about that. The first one I think of is Care, which plays at the end of the second season. A lot of the music I made is emotional and a little fragile. We made a pretty loud punk album which came out in August [Twelve Nudes], and there wasn’t much room for sadness and yearning and fragility on that. I think I put a lot of that into the Sex Education soundtrack.
Who’s the character you connect the most with on Sex Education?
I’m for Eric all the way. He’s the most energetic and loveable, and that’s obvious. He’s got this whole journey going on, wondering whether to please people or please his overflowing, over-the-top self. I have that going on with me, too. There’s a people-pleasing instinct in me. But I’ve got this, “screw you guys, this is who I am” thing, too.
What’s an “Eric song” to you?
I wrote this song that we didn’t end up recording, I don’t know why. But that was the Eric song in my mind. It was a little giddy and kind of like: “Any of you motherfuckers got something to say? You better come out right now and say it!” Maybe I was projecting my anger on him a little. I didn’t really write [the songs] character by character.
If you had to pick a song to lose your virginity to, what would it be?
Well, I guess I already made that choice at 17. I bet it was Sweet Jane by The Velvet Underground. That’s probably my favourite band of all time. I never get tired of them.
Is there a song on the album that speaks to your own high school experience in suburban Illinois?
A lot of them do, but the one that really got me started on writing for the show was I’m Coming Clean, which turned out to be the first song in the first episode. To me, that’s where I can most understand the show’s perspective. [That’s] the part of me that feels like I have all this complicated, embarrassing stuff that I can’t talk about, like I’m keeping secrets. That’s how I felt in high school. I try not to feel that way now, but everybody to some degree has a fear of being “found out” or that they’re weird in certain ways.
Would you have watched Sex Education in high school?
Definitely if someone I had a crush on was watching it. That was one thing that would get me in front of a TV. Still does, actually.
What’s your best memory from working on this project?
When we were recording at the studio in Oakland [in California], there was a front yard in front with all these stray cats roaming around. And there were these little feral kittens everywhere, they were so cute. We would feed them, and they would come up to us, like: ‘Maybe you’re someone who could take care of me.” It was a very sweet thing, and it went right with the tenderness of making the show’s music.
How important is a show like Sex Education for young people’s sex education?
I have rarely, if ever, seen a show that treats learning about sex and having sex for the first time in a way that’s not psychotic. This show is not psychotic. It’s honest about the awkwardness of [sex]. It’s positive about the whole thing and talks out loud about it, which literally saves people’s lives. I wish that this culture around sex existed more when I was first learning about it. It’s my honour to be a part of something that’s creating a healthy conversation around this stuff for the youth, but also for adults. Most of us could improve how we communicate about sex. It’s nice to see a show that’s explicitly about that.
Going on tour is a good project to talk about. We’re coming to Britain soon [for four gigs in May]. I feel like I’ve been to almost every town in the UK. There was a time when nobody in our home country was that interested in our band. In the UK a lot of people were, so we went many times. It’s so touching that the Britons honour us so with their attention and affection.
Sex Education OST (Bella Union) is out now. Sex Education (Netflix) is streaming now.