If Adele’s reign at #1 has proved anything over the past year, it’s that the pop charts love a good sad song. Elizabeth Harper, who performs as electro-pop pin-up Class Actress, knows this — but she’s not content to let you just cry along to her music. She wants you to dance, too.
If this isn’t the first you’ve heard of Class Actress, we wouldn’t be surprised. After learning the ins-and-outs of songwriting on an electric guitar, Harper hooked up with producers Mark Richardson and Scott Rosenthal to produce the five-track 2010 EP Journal Of Ardency. The record introduced the world to her new-but-old sound, a blend of dreamy vocals, confessional lyrics and icy synths straight out of the 1980s. The New York Press called her “Brooklyn’s very own Madonna,” and yes, you can hear the Material Girl’s influence in Harper’s breathy falsetto, as well as shades of Depeche Mode and Soft Cell in the electronic drums and pulsing bass.
Journal won her the affections of many an indie music critic, while Harper’s model looks and penchant for vintage designer clothing earned her a following in the fashion blogs. With showcases lined up at next week’s South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Class Actress is poised for a mainstream breakthrough with her October 2011 full-length release Rapprocher. The title is French for “come closer,” and the record, in all its seductive splendor, is designed to make you do exactly that.
FULL NAME: Elizabeth Harper, with producers Mark Richardson and Scott Rosenthal
HOMETOWN: These days, the Southern California native calls Brooklyn, New York home.
SOUNDS LIKE: Dancefloor torch songs for the generation that grew up spinning early Madonna and Morrissey (or recording them on a cassette tape). See also: Emowave, Goth prep, Playboy pop. (These are genres that don’t exist outside of Class Actress’s world.) Harper describes the music as “white wine pop.”
DREAM COLLABORATION: Kanye West — or Drake, for sure.
ARTIST SHE’D LOVE TO COVER: “I don’t know if you’re allowed to cover Prince? It’d be so challenging.”
BUSTING THE COFFEEHOUSE MYTH: Somewhere in Class Actress’s early press came the notion that Harper started her music career performing acoustic folk jams in coffeehouses. “That part of the story always baffles me,” Harper says. “It was an electric guitar, it wasn’t an acoustic. I never played in a coffeehouse.”
There was a guitar nonetheless, and she quickly taught herself how to play and write music at a time when she was young and just starting to find herself. “I thought, ‘OK, the song has to pass this campfire test where it has to sound good on the guitar first.” In 2004, UK label Angular Records put out her self-titled debut, which featured a sound Harper describes as being heavily influenced by The Smiths, really intricate songs so sad and mellow they would bum her out just performing them. “I was really into that kind of jangly guitar sound, but it just wasn’t working for me.”
BECOMING CLASS ACTRESS: Harper’s days as a strummer were numbered when a bandmate helped her realize she was entering a new phase of her life, musically. “I had a drummer that said to me, ‘I think you’re looking for a sound I can’t do,’” she recalls. “And really, he was right because I wanted electronic drums.” She fired that drummer, of course, and reached out to Philadelphia-based producer Mark Richardson, who’d remixed one of the songs from her debut years before. “We started sampling drums, and I was like ‘Oh, duh, this is how it works, this is how you make tech music.” The sweetly bubbling “Let Me Take You Out” was the first track to come from the new union and the rest of Journal of Ardency quickly followed. Harper tells The Owl Mag she chose the moniker Class Actress because she liked the “double s’s.”
Class Actress, “Journal Of Ardency”
MAKING DANCE MUSIC FOR THE “EMOTIONALLY IMPAIRED”: If there’s one major recurring theme in all of Class Actress’s songs it’s one of doomed romance, of love withheld, if not entirely unrequited — and being OK with finding yourself on the painful side of that relationship. On “Keep You”, Rapprocher‘s opening track, Harper begs, “Do you want to call me, do you want it, I want it, do you want it all?” She says that the song came to her, literally, while she was dancing around her apartment in her underwear: “I like that idea of this free feeling, being able to say ‘This is how I really feel’, and having an unabashed desire and minor obsessiveness … being overly dramatic and not giving a shit about what anybody thinks of you ever.”
MADONNA AND THE PERFECT “WEEKEND”: Madonna’s influence is not only evident in Class Actress’s sound, but in her videos as well. Take for example the romantically lo-fi video for “Weekend”. In it, Harper and her lover spend quality time exploring (what looks to be) Brooklyn when they’re not rolling around in the sheets. On casting the role opposite her, Harper says, “I wanted the guy to look like Basquiat because of all those Brooklyn Madonna things, and I thought, ‘Well, let’s make a little pun on that.’” [Basquiat was a bad-boy artist and fixture of the burgeoning New York art and music scene in the Warhol-dominated 1980s, and briefly dated Madonna before his untimely death in 1988. She once said of him, "He was one of the few people I was truly envious of."]
The video illustrates precisely what Harper considers to be the perfect weekend. “Spent under the covers ordering room service with someone you don’t want to go outside with because you don’t need to… Where the conversation and the laughter and the ‘intimacy’ — I want to make sure I use that word in quotes — is so off the charts every part of you is stimulated and everything else is an afterthought.”
Class Actress, “Weekend”
WHAT’S NEXT: The trio is playing small clubs through the rest of March, including a bunch of shows at SXSW in Austin. As for the next record, Harper isn’t exactly sure that she’ll have a new outlook on love to inform the writing process — but she’s not giving up the search. “I keep thinking the next record is going to be about letting love into your life,” she says. “I’m looking for somebody that is an equal, someone that’s going to make me laugh. Really, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we really want? Good sex and to laugh a lot.”
— Photo by Amanda Zackem