Not long ago Elizabeth Harper was happily embracing her solo career as a Lilith Fair-esque singer-songwriter. Then she met producers Scott Rosenthal and Mark Richardson and the three formed the electro outfit Class Actress. The band recently released their first EP, Journal of Ardency, a handful of melancholic yet bouncy tracks steeped in the gloom of the glory days of '80s synth-pop. We caught up with Harper, currently on tour with Little Boots, to chat about her influences, the inevitable comparisons to other front women, and her penchant for dressing like a homeless Joan Collins.
Out: Who were you listening to during your formative years?
Elizabeth Harper: Lots of Depeche Mode. Lots of Depeche Mode. I loved Madonna, Depeche Mode, a lot of house and even techno, I have to admit. I mean I was like a wild party girl -- I went dancing, I would lie to my parents and say I was sleeping at my friends house in the Valley and go to raves and then come back Monday. Whoops.
The dance aspect is definitely there in your music now, but I feel like its a little bit more melancholy than the dance tracks we normally hear. What kind of a headspace are you in when youre writing?
Its usually when I have an emotion thats so overwhelming that I cant really handle it so I have no control over the pain or the longing except if I just sit down and write a song. Its almost like the best friend that I could have to talk to is my keyboard or my guitar or myself, so I sort of just start saying it out loud or singing it. Suddenly it turns into something comforting and it just feels like Ah, I get to talk about it, I get to say it even if the person that I want, what I want, isnt giving it to me -- at least Im saying it to someone, to something, and I can feel like I can get closer to it in that way.
I read that early Madonna, especially her first album, was a big influence for you.
How do you feel about later/contemporary Madonna? A lot of people have fallen off the bandwagon.
Im absolutely a fan of later Madonna, too. Im just a fan of the fact that Madonna has always been herself. Madonnas thing is that shes always done the dance music of the time. When she did her first record she was doing dance music of that era -- she was always very current with her dance music, to the point of what shes been doing in the past 10 years -- just working with the best producers making dance music. Shes never really tried to do anything that wasnt dance music. There was "La Isla Bonita" in the middle but that was just pop music that made sense at the time.
Speaking of music that makes sense at the time, I read in New York magazine that you dont think contemporary pop music is very personal, at least not Top 40 pop music. Do you consider the music Class Actress makes to be pop music and how do you feel fit into the current musical landscape?
Class Actress is totally pop music for me. I want to make my own niche in pop music. I want to get in there and make it more personal. I think great songs are really intense emotions that have just been simplified into the haiku-est form possible of just like This is what I want to say and this is how I want to say it. Im very sincere and it might come off as being trite but its actually a lot deeper than you think, because youre not covering it up with all kinds of riddles and questions and that kind of thing -- youre really just saying how you feel from the heart. And I think over time the greatest pop songs have been written from that form, and thats what I feel like were trying to do.
Most of my gay friends love three things: synths, drum programming, and melancholy all of which Class Actress incorporates. Are you influenced by gay bands or gay culture?
Im a massive Smiths fan. Obviously one of the other bands I grew up listening to were the Smiths. Morrissey, hugely. When I first heard Morrissey I was like Ah! Who is this person? Where can I find everything hes ever done? But yeah. We have a lot of gay fans and God -- beats, synths, melancholy -- those are my favorite things, too.
Some people I interview tell me theyve always wanted to be famous. Were music and fame something you always chased or did you stumble into it?
The honest answer or the humble answer? No, I think being an artist was always something I wanted to do, and I knew I wanted to communicate to a lot off people at one time. I felt like one on one was never enough. I loved books, I loved records, I loved movies, and I loved the way these art forms conveyed really deep, personal emotions to tons of people at one time. So for me it was more of like, How can I be an artist? You look at these paintings growing up, and you go to Europe and youre just like, Wow! This really makes me feel something. I just wanted to communicate passion to as many people as I could because I felt so alone that I wanted to share passion and I just didnt think it would be enough to do it with one person because how can you find one person to share all that passion with? It makes you feel so much more sustainable if you can share it with everyone.
While reading press about you I noticed youre often compared to a lot of other famous front women like Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When you get compared to other musicians do you find it frustrating or flattering or a little of both?
I think its great. I mean, if theyre comparing me to someone like Karen O I think thats great. These woman are sexsessful -- [laughs] -- successful because of their huge ambition and their commitment to being themselves. And back to the famous question: My sister would argue with me on that. She says that when I was growing up she would ask me, What do you want to be? and Id reply, Famous. But you know, thats the older sisters idea of being famous. I dont remember saying that but maybe I did and I kind of sense that with a lot of these other women, theres an exhibitionist quality, but its more of just like an excess energy that you cant contain and youre just thinking How do I get it out? If I dont get it out publicly then Im just going to cause havoc and drama in everyones life around me which doesnt make as much money. [Laughs.]
Tell me about the upcoming LP. Is the EP a preview or is the LP going to evolve from the EP?
The EP is a preview and the full-length is even more dance-y and poppy. I mean theres still the heart-wrenchers in there, but its more fluid -- its definitely fluid. Its going to be even better than the EP.
Is your image an intrinsic part of Class Actress or is it more of an afterthought?
I think the image came before the band. And calling myself or this project Class Actress was just a way to explore myself even further. I was always kind of overdressed and over made-up and it just didnt suit me to be playing under my own name but to be that theatrical all the time and wear the clothes I wanted to wear. Once I called it Class Actress, I was like, Yes, now I can go much, much further with this. So I always trying to do Dynasty hair and wear the crazy clothes and do whatever I wanted to do. It just completely freed up my sexuality and my freedom and my artistry.
In terms of fashion, who are you feeling right now?
I love all the Yigal stuff from this last show -- its really, really, really great. I love to just match some really new piece with all the vintage stuff I have. Obviously Ive been wearing tons of like high-waisted pants and crop-tops and leather and fur, and mens shirts, like the kind of thing Im wearing now. Lots of beads, Ive been doing some beaded stuff -- just anything. You wake up one day and youre just like What do I feel like? You feel like Joan Collins if she got kicked out of the house and lives on the sidewalk. You know, if she had to take her furs and her pearls and like figure it out with Kurt Cobain. Im always thinking How do we put this together and make it work?
Class Actress's EP Journal of Ardency is now available. For more info on the band, including tour dates, visit their MySpace page.