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Who's your Daddy? Actor James Franco takes Motown lead for music project

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Monday, October 8, 2012

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James Franco theoretically had his hands full while he spent six months in the Detroit metro area last year starring in Sam Raimi's upcoming "Oz: The Great and Powerful."

But even amidst the long days at Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Pontiac, the Academy Award-nominated actor and multi-media artist found time to make a little music. The results were recently released as "MotorCity," a four-track EP that marks the recording debut of Daddy, Franco's duo with Rhode Island School of Design classmate Tim O'Keefe and which features a guest appearance by Motown great Smokey Robinson on the song "Crime."

"We've been making music for awhile now," says the California-born Franco, 34, who resided in Royal Oak during the filming of "Oz," which is slated for a March opening. "The main thrust of that (EP) happened while I was in Detroit, which was awhile ago. I wrote the lyrics for all the songs around the same time, when I was there."

That, of course, means the slight Motown flavor of the EP's three songs (plus one remix, of "Crime") was no accident.

"Well, it's not like I was going out and hearing Motown in any clubs or anything like that," says Franco, whose schedule didn't even permit him to visit the Motown Historical Museum. "But I think just being there and knowing the history made me want to listen to Motown more. I've always been a fan of it, and I thought if we used Motown as an influence it might be...unexpected."

There was another reason for Franco's Motown jones, however. A hard drive crash on his laptop eliminated "thousands and thousands of songs" he had downloaded over time. "I couldn't access them," he recalls, "and it was a big deal to fix them all, individually." while he was waiting for the repair he began listening to Pandora, and as an experiment, Franco "stopped kind of actively trying to find all the new bands and new songs and I just thought, 'Let's stick to a time and a style and just explore that.

"So that was one of the reasons I started listening to Motown a lot, and once I got to Detroit it made even more sense."

O'Keefe, whose Providence-based Cozy Music label released "MotorCity," says he was totally on board with that concept.

"We were really excited about doing a project that has a strong music component," O'Keefe, 39, explains. "I've always listened to Motown and that era of music, and when (Franco) said he was interested in doing something along those lines, I thought it was great.

"We're not trying to BE Motown, of course. It's more a tip of the hat. It's something we both have a lot of respect for."

The hook-up with Robinson, meanwhile, was as simple as an e.mail and a phone call from Franco, who had met the singer some months before. "He had said he would work on something with me, but I never brought him anything solid," says Franco, who while in town also bought a mobile home that he used to make some private film and art projects. "I asked him if he ever went back to Detroit. He said, 'Not much' -- I guess it makes him sad, or he thinks it's changed a lot. But he lives around L.A. now, so I asked him if he would sing on one of the songs, and he said, 'Sure.' "

The session took place last spring and left Franco and O'Keefe with their jaws on the floor by the time Robinson was done.

"He just went into the booth and kinda grooved over it," Franco recalls. "He went over it a whole bunch of times and gave us a bunch of stuff to pick from. It was great to see a master, somebody who had been doing it for decades and was just one of the best."

And on top of that, O'Keefe says, "He was the sweetest man I ever met in my life. We definitely had a good time, and to be in that moment of him putting his vocals down was really special."

The duo is hoping that "MotorCity" is the first of a great deal of music from Daddy, though the endeavor is limited by both men's schedules -- particularly Franco'. He's in the midst of directing an adaptation of William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" and is also teaching at UCLA and USC. Nevertheless, he says Daddy is working on a full-length album that will be "a little different. The style's not quite Motown, but it has a similar vibe."

O'Keefe, however, says that he and Franco are "still figuring out what the next thing will be about. predicts that "each new work we do will probably be pursuing a different genre or era" of music. "We're definitely exploring a couple of things."

And he hopes that Daddy will fall out for some live performances in the future, though he expects those to be as idiosyncratic as the duo's general approach to music.

"I think all things are possible, and we're definitely discussing how we want to present it," he says. "I'm assuming it would be in connection to some kind of installation type of work that's in more of a gallery or museum setting.

"It's very exciting. It's not like, 'OK, we're a band. We're going to put out a record and go on tour' and that whole cycle. Because we're both also artist working in other mediums, it's a nice way to kind of connect with all the different things you're working on and put them together in unique ways."

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