Talking to Portland filmmaker Ezekiel Brown about The Lyric Projects reminds me of an exercise from a long ago theatre class. Students were asked to pick a song and memorize the lyrics. We would then stand in front of the class and recite them, but we had to interpret them using at least four different emotions.
The song “Creep” by Radiohead had made its way into a 2AM late night music video rotation, and I had a cassette single with “Creep” on one side and “Faithless The Wonder Boy” on the B-Side that I listened to often. I didn’t hear or sing the lyrics for “Creep” in the adoring, sad, jealous, and distraught way I voiced them in class that day, yet I’m still transported there any time I hear that now decades old song casually played on the radio.
Hailing from Baton Rouge, Brown is known by his company’s moniker The Chocolate Giant, a reference to a Spike Lee’s ‘le géant du chocolat’ from Miracle at St. Anna. The Chocolate Giant also encompasses Cordell Brown, Ezekiel’s Brother. Ezekiel writes and directs, and Cordell creates original music scores for the films via Chicago.
The Lyric Project is a music documentary. An “anthology love letter to music.”
Brown calls for submissions, compelling people to single out one song that holds meaning to them, and to write a “song story” that explains why. The lyrics are then read and recorded away from their sounds. From there, each “song” becomes a short film. The original music is gone, and a new story is interpreted from the subjects song story. Each explores the relationship of how we interpret a song to our own experiences. Therefore, each one is unique.
Now in Season 2, How To Say Goodbye , Brown investigates the neuroscience aspect of how we process music and lyrics, asking how music can transport us through our memories, and how outside of a melody, we might not immediately recognize lyrics from a popular tune. He sought out two neuroscientists, Devin Terhune and Tudor Popescu, to help answer those questions.
These are Anthology pieces, and Season 2 is a mini-binge session of short films to interpret the song stories. Jeff Buckley, Beck, and Temper Trap are among the lyrics and their song stories. Will you be able to recognize “Just Like Suicide”, from Soundgarden, or Frank Sinatra’s “It Was Just One Of Those Things” read to a beautifully edited bondage short? In one episode, with the help of Open Signal and Portland’s Miss Erotic City, Toxic Suicide, Brown does a sort of ‘public access’ show to give us his origin story, as a puppet.
I had the opportunity to be on set for Season 2: Episode 8 of The Lyric Project, and later met up with The Chocolate Giant over a Rye Whiskey to talk about his work in film, music, and scientific research:
XRAY: So what is The Lyric Project?
Ezekiel Brown: So think about that favorite song, that one song
The song that takes you back to your first kiss, or the day that you lost your job, when you fell in love or out of love. We had people think about that question, and had people straight read the lyrics, but also write a song story, how that song connects with them personally, on why this song above anything else takes them back to this point.
We took those submissions, and I translated their song stories into visual mediums, like in that person’s words. In the episode I use their own voice in some narrative format. Whether it is a voice over, an overdub, or I weave it into the piece itself, such as coming out of an intercom, or a speaker in one episode.
Trying to be creative to translate what their meaning is and what they sound like.
When we receive a submission, and it’s a song we don’t know, we don’t listen to the song, or watch a music video, because we don’t want to be influenced. We want to go purely on their words and their story. And what it means to them, that’s what our spotlight is on.
XRAY: Did you do your own submission?
EB: I did. Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriters Blues”. In the past I did Tool’s “Schizm”, and a few promos to encourage submission. I did Brittany Spears, Phil Collins, and Aretha Franklin.
XRAY: This is also an exploration of how the music affects us scientifically?
EB: This season i was fortunate enough to find two neuroscientists who specialize on memory, and memory in music and interviewed them, and posed those questions to them.
Why do we have those moments ? Why in your car you hit the first minute of a song and your transported back. And why is a song overwhelming sometimes? It’s very integrated into the project. It’s like episode, episode, SCIENCE.
XRAY: It’s funny how when I hear people reading the lyrics, I don’t recognize the song. But I know these songs. If I heard them on the radio I could sing along with them.
EB: That’s part of the magic, a lot of people stumble over the idea and try to grasp it. We aren’t using the song, we are just reading it. When you take the context of a song outside of a beat outside of a melody that your familiar with, and just have the words, that takes it to a totally different place. When you strip it all down to the raw thing.
XRAY: Why is this season called How To Say Goodbye?
EB: Personally, this production, i’ve lost a lot of people. Most glaringly and directed to the film, is an actress featured in the very first episode, we lost her this year. A good friend of mine.
I was really affected. A number of people I knew committed suicide throughout the production. I have a friend that was murdered during that time. There have times in the last decade when relatives passed, and I couldn’t go back home to Louisiana. I missed funerals of friends and family while I was out working on locations. I couldn’t make it. That with a lot of the songs that were sent in have a feeling of loss and It was an overwhelming feeling that was permeating throughout, so I took the subtitle, because a lot of us don’t get a chance to. Also at the time we started production on Season 2, in 2015, that summer we were losing a lot of African Americans to police shootings like, every other day. That also played into it as well, and I address that in Episode 4.
XRAY: How is season 2 different from season 1?
EB: I put it in a category of I’m a band and I’m releasing my next album. Like we did our 4 track demo with season 1, and this is a more polished and produced album. My sense of direction of improved. I’m at my best version of myself when I’m on set, and i’m fortunate enough to have a solid crew, I have Ian Lucero as my Director of Photography, badass makeup people, amazing wardrobe artist Sloan White, solid PA’s and sound guys. I worked with Ben Pop from the NW Film Center and Open Signal.
I try to work with the same crew to have a smooth production. Season one started off very experimental, but you can see the progression of the quality as we get to the end. It started off very experimental, but halfway through the season we were just on it. So for Season 2 we just came out the gate. And add in the science. It was a challenge trying to track some people down who specialize in that one thing. The science behind the moment.
XRAY: How did you get started in Film?
EB: Well going way back, when I was really young. This started as me wanting to be an astronaut. Because I’m a Sci-Fi nerd through and through. I’m at the age bracket where I watched the Challenger Explode from my classroom. I thought about the airforce. But then I started doing Animation, and getting into animation.
I convinced my folks to let me quit football, which was a big thing, because I am a large man from Louisiana. In the deep South if you’re large you play football. That’s also one way to get out.
But I just didn’t want it. I was on a team but my heart wasn’t in it.
And I said I WANT TO TAKE MORE ART CLASSES. My parents agreed, but I had to maintain a certain GPA.
I ended up in Honors classes, and graduated high school in three years while also doing night classes at LSU. Later I went to art school in Chicago, and then started doing tech and assisting on film sites. I fell in love with live action. And then, Life happens. I worked on some other things, some graphic design some zines, I helped with a Wingstop Commercial.
At points I had to ask myself, “what makes you happy? What made you happy before?”
It was film.
I moved to Portland to be near friends I had here. So just travelling the coast of Oregon, was kind of how The Lyric Project came about.
XRAY: Who are some of your inspirations for film, or music, or otherwise?
EB: I love Darren Aronofsky. I am a genre fan, I love horror. My next project is writing a horror script that we’ve been kicking around. I could talk horror all day. I just saw the new Suspiria. Treat yourself to the original and the new one. I saw Cinema Paradisio in film school and it had a huge impact on me. The love of music and the love of family. When I’m feeling down I can put that on it it will recharge my joy.
XRAY: The Chocolate Giant is also your brother, Cordell?
EB: My Brother lives in Chicago and does all of the original music scores for the episodes. I can give him a few words, “Sunday, Dirty Scotch, Sad”, for the mood of music and he gets it. I kind of cloned him. He hosts a weekly metal night and dj’s . I used to pick him up playing DRI or Metallica in the car and he loved it. And now he’s passing our tradition of diverse music and nerdness onto his son too.
XRAY: What else are you working on? What’s next?
EB: I feel pretty good, now. It’s weird knowing i’ve made 2 feature films (The Lyric Project 1 & 2). I’ve also shot a lot of music and concert footage for the band Gray For Days, I’ve worked on some promo vids for fashion designers.
I’d like to do some seasons with particular themes, like a cheesy guilty pop song season, or a heavy heartbreak season, or narrowed down into show theme songs. Like if someone submitted “The Facts of Life”- like how would you translate that? It would be pretty cool.
It’s time to do a straight narrative, a traditional film. Like the horror script i’m working on, and I also have a coming of age film.
I have done a lot but at the same time i haven’t , and if im not creating i go crazy (er).
I just want to tell stories, no matter what genre or format. I just continue to uplift my friends and help them grow their craft as well, and we all grow together.
The Premiere of The Lyric Project Season 2: How To Say Goodbye goes down on Monday, November 19th at The Star Theater. The Evening will feature music from DJ Kenoy and an original song written for the Season by Agyei Marshall. Ezekiel Brown will be in attendance for a Q&A after the screening.