Singer Elizabeth Harper Ditches Folk for Synthpop As Class Actress
By David Chiu
Throughout the history of pop music, some famous artists began their careers in other musical genres before reinventing themselves. David Bowie was just another young singer in the late ‘60s before becoming glam rock hero Ziggy Stardust; Billy Joel used to be in a hard rock group called Attila before achieving fame as the Piano Man; and most recently Katy Perry transformed herself from Christian music singer to pop star.
Brooklyn’s own Elizabeth Harper is the latest musician doing a 180 with her sound as the focal point of electropop group Class Actress. At the beginning of her career, she started out performing acoustic folk music. But then, in an about face, she started working with synthesizers and collaborated with producers Scott Rosenthal and Mark Richardson.
The result is Class Actress’ debut EP, Journal of Ardency, a five-song collection of infectious synth-dominated music. With its catchy beats, melodies, and Harper’s singing, Journal of Ardency ranges from the exuberant feel of “Careful What You Say” to the gorgeous “Broken Adolescent Heart.” The EP is out on Terrible Records, which was founded by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor.
Class Actress open for Yeasayer tomorrow at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. MME spoke with Harper about the shift in her musical direction, getting a haircut from Chris Taylor, and her thoughts on electropop.
I read in Pitchfork that you started out playing acoustic folk as Elizabeth Harper. And then you met up with Scott and Mark to form Class Actress and started this synth pop sound. What brought on this change in direction?
Actually the first guitar I bought was an ‘80s Japanese Telecaster from my cousin, along with some pedals, an analog delay, a flange, and a DOD distortion.
What brought on the change was I started playing a synth and fell in love with the sound of analog. It was like the waves started to work on my own brain waves and set me free. Like the way when I was younger and Nirvana felt like someone was using a leaf blower to clear out my head…or being on the back of a motorcycle. It was freeing…I just grew out of girl on guitar.
In crafting Class Actress’ sound, did you find yourself having to adjust or change anything in your songwriting and/or singing from what you did before to fit with this electronic music?
Not in ways I wasn’t already trying to.
What did Scott and Mark bring to the music that perhaps you weren’t able to do on your own?
Everything! They are incredibly talented producers and musicians.
Were you always into electronic pop music in the beginning?
Always. I used to go clubbing when I was younger to techno and house, and got turned on to electropop by my older sister.
I love the title of your EP, Journal of Ardency. Is there is a common thematic/lyrical thread that all the songs share?
The theme is all about the state of being ardent and writing about it in secret rather than expressing it to the person in real life, which I wish I could. But I’m shy [Ed: Note: and scared?] that it wouldn’t be reciprocated.
This is more of a comment than a question: When I heard the opening notes of “Careful What You Say”—it really sounded like old school British synth pop—perhaps a Yaz song?
Cool! What a huge compliment, I love Yaz.
I really dig “Broken Adolescent Heart”—it’s beautiful and sublime while it really evokes a familiar British ‘80s New Wave feel. What inspired you to write it?
Probably my own broken heart…trying to make sense of why I am such a fuck-up at love.
For those who might not know who you are , can you offer somewhat of a brief description about yourself?
I’m from LA and originally studied acting, and then got sick of waiting around to get cast in an interesting role so just channeled my own personal drama into songwriting.
How did you know Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear? And are you already working on the full-length record. If so, will it be an extension of the EP?
Chris just cut my hair after the Grammy’s on Sunday and I have to say its one of the better haircuts I’ve gotten in a while…
Yes [the] LP will be like the EP but actually is more mainstream–more straight ahead pop–but still has some desperation in it.
What has been the most funny, interesting or memorable experience of being in Class Actress so far?
When fans Facebook chat me. I think its fun, because I never get to talk to them at shows because there’s so much going on… but I’ve had some very interesting chats on Facebook in the middle of the night that made us both feel better.
There was a period when synth pop was frowned upon and perhaps dismissed as not being rock and roll. Now it seems to be cool again. Is that something that you’ve noticed yourself? And if so, why do you think it resonates with people these days?
Electronic music was always cool in some way, but I think dance music went from Pet Shop Boys to techno and so there wasn’t any room for synth pop for a while.
What do you hope people take away from Class Actress’ music?
Just that they enjoy it and it makes them feel something and makes them happy. Music is something very personal to each person, every song has a place in time, a person, a moment… I just want the songs to weave into people’s lives and add comfort and/ or vivaciousness to this dizzying place. Life is so short. My goal is to make people feel more alive, as well as myself. Everyone feels deeply but people rarely express it in real life, so I am riding that line in hope that someone will find what I found in the music that helped me along the way… Just giving back what I love the most.
Class Actress: Careful What You Say