"I'll tell you this: it's always weird to talk about a new thing," James Franco says, stopping a previous train of thought in its tracks. "I know I do a lot of things. I'm very aware of that. I'm sure there are a lot of skeptical people, hearing about me doing music . . . To me, it all comes from a similar place. It's like using different tools to express things in different ways."
Sure enough, MotorCity, the debut EP from Daddy, Franco's collaboration with musician Tim O'Keefe, has roots in several of the near-compulsively multifaceted actor's interests. Sonically, it owes its palette to the Motown Franco immersed himself in during a stay in Detroit to film Oz: The Great and Powerful, and to the obscure soul tracks he came across either in stuff he was watching, like Blue Valentine and Breaking Bad, or simply through his iTunes Genius recommendations.
Lyrically it can be traced back to the master's degree in poetry he earned at Warren Wilson College, where he learned to think of writing in rhythmic terms. The final piece of the puzzle was a car ride with O'Keefe, a classmate and collaborator from his stint in grad school at the Rhode Island School of Design, where the Motown on the radio gave their long-gestating musical collaboration new shape and purpose.
The result is Daddy, which O'Keefe says is less a band than a way to make all kinds of art out of whatever they're into at the time. "The way we come at it is not to be a band creating a record, but from a wider artistic approach – looking at different genres of music, different periods of time, really studying it, and then creating work influenced and inspired by that."
"Love in the Old Days," the lead single from MotorCity (which drops September 25th), neatly demonstrates Daddy's approach. The video, directed by Franco and edited by Bruce Thierry Cheung, is an Instagram kaleidoscope of frolicking summer girls, until the last-moment insertion of Franco's parents' wedding photos pierces the nostalgic haze with something uniquely personal. It's the same trick Franco's spoken-word lyrics accomplish, his amiable baritone mythologizing his folks' Sixties-style love affair over a gentle, reverbed groove, only to write off the possibility of ever experiencing anything like it himself.
Franco says he was playing with that same kind of juxtaposition when he asked Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, his costars from Harmony Korine's debauched crime flick Spring Breakers, to pose for the EP's cover art (complete with fake Daddy tattoos). "If it was four unknowns on that cover, maybe it'd just be purely this sexual thing. But when they're in that movie, the fact that they're on Disney shows carries a lot of weight. Something extra's going on behind the characters they're playing."
MotorCity also includes "Can't Say GoodBye," a short-and-sweet ode to getting dumped with a weirdly hypnotic string section; and "Crime," a song characterizing an ex as "a crime I had to commit," which appears in its original form and as a remix by O'Keefe. For that extra touch of Motor City authenticity, "Crime" features guest vocals by none other than Motown legend Smokey Robinson, whose keening falsetto found its way into the song after he and Franco had a chance meeting on an airplane.
"We were pulling into the gate, and I woke up, and there was this man standing over me saying 'Hey, I just want you to know I'm a big fan of your work,'" Franco recalls. "His eyes were so striking. I had just watched a documentary about the history of Motown on the drive to the airport, and there he was."