Danger and Desire: An Interview with Elizabeth Harper, AKA Class Actress

Elizabeth Harper is petite, with cheekbones that could cut glass. As she sets up for her November show at Tammany Hall, on New York’s Lower East Side, her oversized trench coat nearly swallows her slight frame. After a meticulous sound-check, she asks demurely if the lighting can be changed and finally settles on a deep red—much like that in her music video for “Journal of Ardency,” a song about desire and desperation—to achieve a seductive, albeit tasteful, bordello-esque ambiance. The music begins, the trench coat slowly makes its way into a crumpled heap on the stage, and Harper’s unassuming daintiness takes flight, leaving only a slight trace—her stage presence is undeniably commanding. She exudes a confidence that is deliciously incongruous with her lyrics about longing, yearning, seeking and insecurity. She oscillates between girlish uncertainty and bold audacity—and this is just one of the qualities that makes her so interesting as a performer. Harper, who originally hails from Los Angeles, where she was a self- described “isolated teen in an army of cold social climbers looking over my shoulder at parties,” now lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a quickly-burgeoning artists’ hub just a few subway stops away from the fast-paced daily grind of Manhattan. Having taught herself to play the guitar and keyboards, she began her career as a slightly more traditional solo singer-songwriter, but as her sound gradually evolved, she incorporated Scott Richardson and Mark Rosenthal into what would become Class Actress. With Rosenthal and Richardson, Harper generates that rare breed of soulful, moving electronica characteristic of late-80’s Depeche Mode and Madonna (and she relishes such comparisons, saying, “I’m just glad my idolatry paid off…”), with the kind of swooning, lovelorn, self-indulgent lyrics that one might expect from someone who has of late earned the moniker “female Morrissey”— complete with titles like “Journal of Ardency” and “Adolescent Heart.” Harper’s delicate, heartsick croon overlays bass-heavy synth rhythms, delivering a sound that is both mellow and poignant—despite its classification as electro-pop, a genre which is generally characterized by neither of those adjectives. In short, it’s the anomalous kind of electric, energetic feel-good dance pop that one might also weep, write or paint to in solitude.

Can you talk a bit about the transition from your first musical project, to Class Actress, and from a more traditional folk-guitar sound to electro-pop? How did that come about, and what made the change? How has your musical sensibility changed over the years, and how would you define it now? 

It was a bit of a labyrinth but I found my way through the wilderness, some how I made it through… I would like to end this myth, I was never a “folk” artist.  If you listen to my first record yes there is one acoustic solo song on it, but the rest is electric.  I had just started writing songs, had a bunch of demos.  A friend of mine started a label, wanted to put them out, and so I said OK, why not. Back then I was into Elliott Smith and The Smiths, but as I grew up I wanted to dance, move, express myself.  People change; they find themselves, not everyone wakes up and says I am only this now and forever.   When I was a teen I loved techno, dance music and hip-hop, Then I had a short Elliott Smith/ The Smiths phase—which I am happy for because at that point my main goal was songwriting, not arranging, it was how to turn a phrase, say things in lyrical form....  then I got back to the synths. I am happy for the vast range of musical influences I’ve had over the years because they all culminated in Class Actress. Which is Pop music. Which by far is my favorite.

You taught yourself to play guitar and keyboards—how soon after that did you realize that you wanted to make a career out of music?

Right away.

What is your favorite aspect of living in Greenpoint? Artistically, how does it compare to Los Angeles, where you grew up? 

I like my friends nearby. I like not having to drive and having everything right there. In LA I was an isolated teen in an army of cold social climbers looking over my shoulder at parties. But sometimes I miss the beach, the mountains, the sunset, Mulholland drive, Malibu…

What’s the dynamic of the band? Who does what in terms of writing songs and composing music?

I write the songs.  Mark produced and recorded the record, Scott plays live and produces and does additional engineering as well.  Working with Mark is very hard to explain we have a very fluid way of working I bring him a song and we discuss the texture / rhythm / and then go from there.

Your sound and stage presence has been likened to that of early Madonna, “the girl version of Morrissey,” and Depeche Mode. What’s your reaction to such comparisons? 

I’m utterly flattered, these people are my idols. I love them. I’m just glad my idolatry paid off.  

What inspires you (in terms of musical style, lyrics, and your general aesthetic)?

Danger, weather, desire, acting motivations, Object Relation theory, my imagination...  

What’s next for Class Actress?

I would like to start making more involved videos that are more like short films. I want to take the cinematic quality of the music as far as I can.

This interview was originally published in Autre Issue 002 with text by Annabel Graham and  photographs by Amanda Zackem. Elizabeth Harper, AKA Class Actress, has just released her third EP, entitled "Movies," in collaboration with Giorgio Moroder on the Casablanca Record Label. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE. Additional credits: styled by by Shea Daspin, hair by Gabriela Langone, make-up by Alejandro Calvani.