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A Class of Her Own

Elizabeth Harper takes Synth Pop to new level with collaborative group, Class Actress

By Brian Baker · August 15th, 2012 · Music
music1_elizabeth harper_of_class_actress_photo_motormouth_mediaElizabeth Harper of Class Actress (Photo: Motormouth Media)

Before Elizabeth Harper fronted Class Actress, she was a class actress. She had majored in drama in college and moved to Los Angeles to follow her acting dream, but found herself disillusioned by the realities of making it work.

“I just found it to be detrimental, auditioning and the constant rejection,” Harper says from her North Carolina tour stop opening for Sleigh Bells, “and waiting and wondering, ‘Did I get the part?’ ”  

“I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m just going to make up my own character and play it every day. I’ll get one — I won’t have to wait for one.’ ”

After relocating to Brooklyn, N.Y., Harper shifted her passion from the music of drama to the drama of music, forming Elizabeth Harper & the Matinee and recording a couple of jangly Smiths-tinged Rock albums. A casual interaction with keyboardist/producer Mark Richardson about possibly remixing Harper’s tracks led to an epiphany.

“I had been recording a bunch of tracks with Patrick Wimberly of Chairlift, and the song was ‘Someone Real to Love,’ and also ‘Adolescent Heart,’ ” recalls Harper. “I sent them to Mark and he said, ‘I love them.’ And I said, ‘Do you want to do a remix?’ So he remixed ‘Someone Real to Love.’ He was like, ‘Here you go, it’s a gift.’ 

“And I was like, ‘Holy shit, what is this?’ This little Pop song I wrote, he took this winding, dark journey around it. The essence of the words became so much (more) powerful encased in this synth conversation. It was so immediate and conflicting and obsessive. He understood it not only sonically but intellectually and emotionally, so I said, ‘Do you want to come over and produce a bunch of these new Pop songs I’ve written?’ So we went for it.”

With her newly discovered Electronic Pop muse sufficiently tweaked, Harper began pursuing the sound that she’d wanted to make with her guitar group. Along with keyboardist/producer Scott Rosenthal (who had worked on some of Harper’s previous recordings), the newly dubbed Class Actress (a joke aimed at Harper’s original career choice) produced the well-received Journal of Ardency EP early in 2010, followed by much gigging (a month after those initial recordings were completed, Class Actress played 10 shows in three weeks) and ultimately their debut full-length, Rapprocher (pronounced “Rap-row-shay”), which was released last fall.

“Yeah, I know … I don’t know what I was thinking when I was using French verbs,” Harper says.

“In my life at the moment, everything was like a French verb.”

With Class Actress, Harper traded singer/songwriter Guitar Rock for the rhythmic, expansive, ’80s-washed Synth Pop she had long been interested in exploring. Since locking into this particular groove, Harper, Richardson and Rosenthal have pretty much kept to a single methodology.

“I think we’ve approached everything the same way, no pun intended,” Harper says with a laugh. “It’s still the same idea of writing songs and making them fun and dancey and using all of our secret weapons. I think the songs evolved after Journal; Rapprocher is more of a banger record.”

In a lot of ways, Harper had already significantly shifted her mindset about her songcraft before the relative sea change represented by Class Actress. An increased exposure to Top 40 music, which she had always listened to, began to work its way into Harper’s creative process.

“I had already changed the way I felt about songwriting, and I was writing songs like that, and I was waiting for the right producer to understand exactly what I wanted,” Harper says. “I wanted a really heavy electronic drum sound and that’s what I was trying to do with Patrick, which was only screwing around that lasted a minute. I knew what I wanted to do and my songs had changed. And that was the problem; the people I was playing with were like, ‘I don’t understand, you’re writing all these Pop songs, we don’t know what to do with this.’ And I was like, ‘I know.’ ”

Harper has found an amazing set of creative foils in Richardson and Rosenthal, and the success of their collaboration is clearly evident on Rapprocher. The Smiths were once one of Harper’s primary guiding lights, but she cites a very different inspiration these days.

“Good Hip Hop,” she says. “Good Pop songs, good dance music, classic Pop music. Derek from Sleigh Bells has such a great pre-show mixtape that he plays every night. I’ve been listening to a lot of early Snoop Dogg, stuff that has a nice flow. Classic Mariah Carey and Robyn. Stuff that’s concise and more to the point. I find Pop songwriting is much harder because you have to do so much with so little. You have to say the right thing with the least amount of words. It has to spit just so.”

At the same time, Harper’s musical DNA is fairly well defined, so her old influences can find a way into her new direction.

“I can’t help but always have a little of my eclectic weirdness in me,” says Harper. “We were just driving and Erik Satie came on the iPod and we just let it play because I’m always going to have other influences that are not just Pop, and Mark, too. So we can’t help but detune a keyboard and then suddenly it gets all weird and creepy, and we’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re kind of Goth.’ ”

Like any good artist, Harper is already looking toward the next step. With Rapprocher almost a year in the rear view mirror, she has some ideas on where Class Actress might be headed.

“Some of the songs on Rapprocher get a little baroque-synthy, and I think for the next record, we may step away from the baroque-synth,” Harper says. “Mark and I have a recording date as soon as we get off this tour, so just now I was writing some lyrics and planning stuff out in my mind and on the computer. Maybe we’ll focus more on the beats, like on Journal of Ardency, where it’s just laying it down flat, really sexy, or like (Rapprocher’s) ‘Prove Me Wrong,’ that song, that feel. 

“But you never know,” she adds. “I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”

CLASS ACTRESS headlines the free MidPoint Indie Summer concert on Fountain Square Friday, joined by locals Vito Emmanuel and Public.