Need To Know: Class Actress
By Noah Michelson
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 friend's 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 it's a little bit more melancholy than the dance tracks we normally hear. What kind of a headspace are you in when you're writing?
It's usually when I have an emotion that's so overwhelming that I can't really handle it so I have no control over the pain or the longing except if I just sit down and write a song. It's 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, isn't giving it to me -- at least I'm 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.
I'm absolutely a fan of later Madonna, too. I'm just a fan of the fact that Madonna has always been herself. Madonna's thing is that she's 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 she's been doing in the past 10 years -- just working with the best producers making dance music. She's never really tried to do anything that wasn't 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 don't 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.' I'm very sincere and it might come off as being trite but it's actually a lot deeper than you think, because you're not covering it up with all kinds of riddles and questions and that kind of thing -- you're 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 that's what I feel like we're 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?
I'm 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 he's ever done?' But yeah. We have a lot of gay fans and God -- beats, synths, melancholy -- those are my favorite things, too.