Class Actress is the brainchild of singer-songwriter Elizabeth Harper and producer Mark Richardson. After a few years of working towards a solo career, Harper teamed up with Richardson and Scott Rosenthal to make a meditative electro-pop that harkens back to the days when Madonna and Depeche Mode were trailblazers for a generation of artists. We sat down for an interview with Harper on the Los Angeles stop of her tour opening for Little Boots.
Before heading backstage at the El Rey Theatre to discuss the band’s sound, chemistry and views on the general state of electronic music today, Harper explains that she’s nervous as the result of a surprise visit from her father. Without going into specifics, she relays that they had not spoken in any detail in some time and that his presence really touched her. She’s viscerally jittery after this encounter, but still seems intent on having a fun evening.
Pausing a minute to hear the finale of the next band Dragonette before Little Boots ends the night, we make our way back behind the curtain where Harper speaks candidly about her career and inspirations. It is March 10th, a week removed from when the band is slated to play 8 shows at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival.
mxdwn: Elizabeth from Class Actress, how you doing?
Elizabeth Harper: I’m doing really well. laughs Obviously.
mxdwn: I’m glad to hear that.
EH: Thank you.
mxdwn: You started in more traditional instrumentation before moving into electronic and dance music. Do you find that it’s harder to compose in electronic music?
EH: Not at all.
mxdwn: Why is that?
EH: Because I think a good song is a good song and if it passes the campfire test, which is that it you can play it on an acoustic guitar anywhere, it’s a good song. It doesn’t really matter how you arrange it. A song is a song. A good song is a song.
mxdwn: When you’re working with Scott and Mark are they mostly crafting the music and then you craft the lyrics and the melody on top of it, or are you working with them on the song?
EH: No, I write the song first and then I give it to mark, and then Mark composes most of the music around my songwriting. I give Mark a song with really simple chords and then he composes most of the music around it, and the same with Scott. We work the same way—
mxdwn: They arrange them?
EH: Yeah, they arrange my songs. I sit down with a keyboard or my guitar with like A, B, C blah blah blah, entire song written out verse chorus breakdown, blah blah blah we arrange it, and I give it to them and then walk out of the room and I don’t say anything.
mxdwn: And then they come back to you with a finished product?
EH: I mean Mark and I work together in my apartment, so I’ll sing a song for him in the living room and then I’ll walk in the bedroom and then I’ll ignore him for four hours and listen to him in secret making the best music I’ve ever heard in my life. [Mark walks into the room to place gear in a bag, Elizabeth looks over at Mark] I’m talking about how you make music! It’s him.
mxdwn: …and how she listens to you in secret!
Mark Richardson: Oh?
EH: I listen to you in secret in my bed, and while I’m laying there he’s working out the fuckin’ the shit.
Mark Richardson: The shit.
EH: He’s working out the shit man. No, I’m serious, Mark makes the stuff, makes stuff that dreams are made of.
mxdwn: And not to embarrass him since he’s just three feet away from us, but why do you listen to him in secret?
EH: No, I just give him space to make the music, we work separately, I write lyrics and I write songs, but Mark makes the music. We have really separate roles in this band and really separate lives, and what I bring to Mark is really specific, and what he brings to Class Actress is the sound you know? He makes the beats and the bassline and the synth sounds. Mark is the designer, I’m the artist. It’s really specific you know?
mxdwn: Is there any give-and-take feedback once the song is turned in?
EH: Oh obviously, we fight constantly about it. Like everything we do after that.
mxdwn: That beat is lousy! laughs
Mark Richardson: Feedback!
EH: We go over it all day and night after that. He made this new song recently called “Keep You” which you’ll hear eventually. He recorded it in the evening and got some stuff down, and then I woke up in the morning and Mark came in and sat down on my bed and he said, “I think we just recorded our greatest pop hit to date.” And he played it for me, he arranged everything the night before. He did it between 9 [p.m.] and 11 a.m. while I was asleep. And I seriously started crying when I heard it. It was so good.
mxdwn: That’s powerful man. You made her weep.
EH: [looks at Mark again] I’m telling him about how I cried when you played me “Keep You.”
Mark: Yeah… that was really special.
EH: So, all I can say is, it’s a true collaboration between the two of us.
mxdwn: Now you’ve been doing music for a while. Have you always wanted to do dance music?
EH: Actually I have. I just didn’t know how to do it until I met him.
mxdwn: It was about finding a way in huh?
[Mark makes a weird face][all laughs]
EH: You don’t understand, that man right there with his fake jet-blue headphones on? He’s a fucking genius. That guy is ridiculous. [Mark walks out of the room] I met Mark like 6 years ago, we opened up for him and I saw him playing bass and I had this strange feeling about him. I walked over to him, and I gave him my CD. I said, “Hi, here’s my CD, here’s my phone number” on a piece of paper. [He] called me the next day. Couldn’t believe it. He said, “I love your music, I think your music’s great, let’s meet for coffee.” So we just became friends. We created this bond together, that became like a friendship bond over a long time. About a year ago, I don’t how it happened, but we decided to make music together, I just knew that he had “it.” Honestly, it’s crazy to me that Mark and I are in a band together right now and that we’ve been making dance pop songs. Our history is so crazy, it’s insane that we’re fucking doing it. It’s so weird.
mxdwn: Why is your history so crazy?
[Editor’s note: for this question most of the answer was off the record]
EH: Mark makes these mix tapes right? They’re all girl singers, the raddest fucking beat music ever. Mark just gets it. He has like a tap into the back of my brain you know?
mxdwn: Musical kindred spirit?
EH: Yeah. But seriously, he has a tap into the back of my brain. He gets it. He knows everything I’ve ever grown up with and listened to. All these girl singers and dance music, he knows it and loves it. He just gets it. He’s a gay man that’s not gay and then makes dance music. That’s what he is.
mxdwn: Interesting, he’s a gay man that’s not gay that makes dance music?
EH: Yeah. There’s such a thing. laughs
mxdwn: Okay, let’s shift gears a little bit. In the last couple of years dance music has risen up a lot. Most of the recent trend has been a pretty aggressive sound. Not necessarily angry…
mxdwn: Yeah, upbeat, moves a lot, much more high tempo/high BPM, you know?
EH: Not like Depeche Mode? More aggressive than that?
mxdwn: Yeah, more aggressive than that.
EH: That’s where Mark and I lie.
mxdwn: You’re in that vintage era.
EH: Here’s what we feel. We’re listening to Donna Summer when we were driving from San Francisco to LA, sings “Ooh I’m in love / I’m in love / I’m in love / I feel love / I feel love.” Like, house classics. Listen to that song, listen to the Eurythmics as well. Why would you listen to anything else when you could listen to this? What’s the point? The new dance music today is so bad, no offense. Everyone is just trying to copy the same sound. It’s literally people sounding scared and buying a Starbucks coffee. Can I do this at the same time? I hope so, because I’m going to listen to Ke$ha while I do it. You know what I mean? I’m not trying to put these girls down—Lady GaGa I fucking worship her I think she’s amazing, I love Stefani she’s amazing, she’s a fucking diva and a half, she’s a fucking power-horse. I love her, more power to her.
EH: My point is… and Beyonce, I love her. She’s a fan of ours, I love her, she’s a real talent. But I’m just trying to take these girls, and these girls what they get, that the record labels don’t get, Stefani, Beyonce are writing songs. These are songs. Even if Beyonce’s not writing them, The Dream is writing them whatever, they’re songs. People respond to songs. Lady Antebellum what is it? sings “Need you now…” Whatever, it’s a fucking song. Alright, it’s a song. People should be writing songs that make people feel things. You want to make dance music, just remix my songs, that’s fine. Anyone can remix it, a produce or whatever.
EH: But like, I’m going to write love songs as long as I live. Hopefully not as long as I live, because I don’t want to be that depressed forever. laughs But…
mxdwn: You won’t be.
EH: I hope not. I hope that someone actually follows through and decides to give me a break. But, in the meantime, love songs are written by people like us, you know? They’re about things that everybody feels and feel connected to. There’s a reason that Lady Antebellum song resonates so hard is because everybody knows what that feels like to be awake at 1 o’clock at the morning, to want to call their lover. The reason that song is so good is because it’s a Disneyland version of reality. He doesn’t pick up; no one answers the phone. He’s not actually waiting 2 miles away thinking the same thing as you. You know what I mean? In the song they’re like, “Oh yeah I need you now,” they’re both thinking the same thing. That’s not actually reality. Actually he’s hanging up on you and you’re totally drunk and stupid. It’s not working, but in the country/Christian version of it, when you get drunk at 1 a.m. and you call your lover, and say “I need you now,” he picks up and you get to be together.
mxdwn: For you it’s all about song craft?
EH: No, everything we make together, me and Mark, I’m involved at every minuscule level, the beats, the bass, everything. I trust him so much, because that’s my weak point you know? I trust him to tell me—I’ll say “Oh let’s put this snare on top of this snare on top of this snare.” We’ll layer six snares for a snare. We’ll sample from vinyl a lot. Trust me, it’s a collaborative process.
mxdwn: Sure. Absolutely.
EH: Mark’s really busy. He has a PhD in Psychology, so I have to do a lot of it on my own, which I hate. Mark is kind of like my mirror image for Class Actress. It’s me always looking in the mirror doing the Class Actress thing, but Mark’s like my designer.
mxdwn: A symbiotic relationship?
EH: Yeah, me and Mark have a thing. We have a musical thing.
mxdwn: Well you have a…
EH: I mean I direct the tour. I do the whole thing. I write the songs. I write all the stuff. I do all these things. I feel like if he can create the drum sounds that I want when I say, “I want this type of drum,” he can make that happen,
mxdwn: Well it’s good to have that kind of chemistry that you know that you can speak the same language.
EH: Oh yah, we listen to all the same music, he can do anything. That’s the whole point of being in a band together; listen to the exact same music. This is like 80s and early 90s pop music all the time.
mxdwn: So you have one EP out right now and is there a full-length on the way?
EH: Yes, it’s done.
mxdwn: It’s done? What’s it called?
EH: I don’t know yet. laughs
mxdwn: You don’t know? Hasn’t been titled yet?
EH: I haven’t titled it yet.
mxdwn: Do you know when it’s coming out?
EH: Uhm.. when they give us enough money to put it out.
mxdwn: Oh, okay. So that has not happened yet?
EH: It’s happening right now, I’m just negotiating with my lawyer. When my lawyer gives me the go-ahead I’ll let you know.
mxdwn: With electronic musicians, there’s so much that’s done in the studio, not everybody can replicate it in a live setting. That’s why for some very hardcore electronic bands, unless you see the word “Live” on the poster where they’re advertised, you can pretty much assume you’re getting a DJ set. For you guys in Class Actress is there a desire to keep some piece of it more organic?
EH: Well we usually use a VCR for all of our backing tracks. We record everything onto a VCR to keep it more analog. There is a desire to keep it live, but there’s also a desire to keep it analog, which is as far as we can go at this level. Everyone keeps it on digital, we have everything on reel-to-reel, on analog VCR tape. The VCR is as far as we’ve gotten at this point. We’d have to bring in more band members to play more keyboard parts, because we have at a max about 4 parts for each song.
mxdwn: and at a max right now, it’s just you and Mark playing keyboards
EH: Yeah, just me and Mark. We’re going to make it all fully live in about 6 months, but right now, we feel like there are certain keyboard parts that can easily be replicated with electronic drums. They’re really insignificant. The reality of it is, when we record our music, all the keyboards are recorded live. Everyone does MIDI. We don’t do MIDI. We do not do MIDI. We never do MIDI. Mark plays all his bass live to the beat. I play all my keyboards live to the beat. So, nothing is MIDI ever. Ever. Our recordings are special to us because they’re analog and they’re not MIDI. They’re real. It’s like a guitar part being played on a recording, nothing’s MIDI ever. We will never do MIDI, ever.
mxdwn: You’re playing SXSW next week? You’re playing 8 or 10 shows. You excited?
EH: Yeah. Oh my God, I can’t wait, are you kidding? We’re going to be in 80 degree weather together, everyone is going to be so wild.
mxdwn: Running around and drunk and BBQ.
EH: I know. I gotta keep it together.
mxdwn: Thank you for your time. Wonderful speaking with and I hope you enjoy the rest of your tour.
Class Actress’ Journal of Ardency is available everywhere now
All photos by Raymond Flotat