For this edition of MTV Music Meter Monday — in which we highlight a band that’s climbing the digital charts — we talked with Class Actress’ Elizabeth Harper about hooks, drama and how much sharing is too much sharing (both online and off).
Class Actress’ debut album Rapprocher — a poppy, synthed-out ode to love gone awry — dropped in October, garnering Harper comparisons to the likes of Depeche Mode and Madonna. But don’t be too fooled by the band’s sexy image. The personality of the lead singer can be best represented by the dichotomy in her music: airy light vocals over dark, synth-y beats.
Harper possesses the kind of innocence that allows her to say a little too much to a music journalist, but the world-weariness to know when to call “off the record.” That’s the sense that pervades the album itself — a tightrope walk between sultry swagger (see: “Weekend”) and whispery insecurity (“Prove Me Wrong”).
We caught up with Harper somewhere between touring colleges across the country and hitting up Paris for Class Actress’ first show in the City of Lights to find out more about the musician who calls herself an actress.
Where did you go to school? You were a theatre major, is that right?
I went to UC Berkeley. Yes, I studied acting. It’s funny because the acting was always the first thing that I had been doing — I had been acting my whole life. That was what I was going to do. And then I moved to New York and I just thought musicians were so much cooler to hang out with. It took me a while to put all the pieces together and realize that what I enjoy is performing.
When did you start singing?
I started singing in college. I saw a musical theatre play and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ And so I took a bunch of voice lessons so that I could audition for a musical. And then I remember one time there was a girl backstage at one of the plays — I was learning all these Brazilian songs to sing with a Brazilian jazz band — and she was like, ‘I really like it when you sing in that quiet voice, instead of that obnoxious, belting musical theatre voice.’ It’s the worst. I turn on the radio and every girl has that voice. Personally, it doesn’t appeal to me.
I just decided to sing in my Brazilian voice and it seemed so much more personal and intimate. It spoke to my personality more. But my personality is duel-sided in the sense that I wanted this really hard music behind a very quiet voice.
So you’re kind of part of the synth pop scene, but you put out synth pop music with hooks. How did you decide to go that way, rather than the ambient route?
To be honest, I love pop music. You know how Janet Jackson has a really sweet, high soprano voice? I love the way her music is — this beautiful little chirp over these nasty, nasty beats. I was trying to write pop songs — actual R&B pop songs — and that’s just the way they came. They came out through an ’80s blender. My main goal with the record was to write the best hook that I could.
What do you think of your contemporaries when it comes to the art of the hook?
You know, I don’t really know what to say about that because I feel as though I kind of can’t relate. I’m just going to be totally honest. I’m trying to think of a way to say this that doesn’t come off wrong, because I really enjoy what everyone’s doing. I love the new Neon Indian record, I love Washed Out’s record. These people are all close friends of mine. But my brain just writes in a different way. I like pop music. Top 40. Gaga-hook, pop music.
I’m really impressed at the skill of people who can write a good hook. It’s hard. So for me it’s a challenge to be able to do it. Like that new Adele song — that’s a perfectly written song. And she sings it with so much passion. Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’ — these are greats hooks. I’m going full pop here.
I think it’s hard to write a good hook. For me, that’s the biggest challenge. Maybe I’m putting too much pressure of myself to do it and maybe if I didn’t it would be good, too, but that’s where I’m coming from.
So do you always want to write your own music? A lot of the musicians you mentioned have professional songwriters.
Oh, I’ll write for them. I don’t want anyone writing for me. No, not at all. That’s my craft. Writing songs is the part I have the most fun at. Thinking through the whole story and the joy at creating the hook and finding the melody. Sometimes it just channels through you and I love it so much. My brain is protective so I need heavy projects to put myself into or I’ll just get distracted by getting into trouble — which happens, anyway. A good circular cycle of falling in and out of love and figuring out ways to cope it.
By getting into trouble you mean…?
I mean, like, I don’t know… I guess you could say the record was written because I got in a lot of trouble romantically. And so these pop songs are what saved me from getting out of it. It’s a catch-22. Right now I don’t have any time to write or to even date or anything. But I still have time to synthesize my emotions and think about them and analyze them and reflect on the lessons that I’m learning about love and what the next record’s going to be about. It could be the complete opposite. A total empowerment record. Rather than this one — which was sort of a bridging record. That’s why it’s called Rapprocher. Because the word could be used in so many different ways. It means ‘to link together.’ It was based on the term ‘rapprochement,’ which is a psychoanalytical term having to do with children’s psychology and the mother walking away and coming back, fear of abandonment and blah, blah, blah. There’s a lot of layers to the meaning of the record title.
The title is kind of like that Pedro Almodóvar film, Volver.
I love his movies, oh my God. Seriously, he’s one of my biggest influences. The one about the mother, I cried so hard. I love the intensity of women folding linens and things like that. The high drama of it. Sometimes when I’m on stage I imagine myself being in an Pedro Almodóvar film or some kind of very soap opera-like situation.
So you’re really inspired by drama, I guess?
[Laughter] Exactly. I’m inspired by drama. That’s why I’m called ‘Class Actress.’ It’s a joke about myself. The name of the band is meant to play on myself.
Do you ever create drama so that you can write music?
I hope not. I think that these days I’m really trying to stay away from drama. But ironically when a lot of people have drama they call me — they ask me what to do about it.
No, I don’t like it. Drama stresses me out to no end. Especially in my professional life. But, let’s face it, in romance there has to be drama to keep the flame going. Romance is dramatic. You’re being swept off your feet. You want something to be powerful, you want to believe that what’s happening in that moment is the real story. Even though the truth of the matter is that it’s not true at all. That’s the sad, disillusioning part. I find that a lot of poets, writers and romantics basically — they jump into things without knowing the whole story. And that’s why they get hurt.
I hope I’m not losing my naivete. It’s what saves me, but it’s also what destroys me at the same time. So drama, I don’t know if I create it, but I think sometimes I jump in without looking both ways.
So I see you put a lot of your reviews and articles up on Tumblr. What are your thoughts on social media and being expected to always be on on every channel?
I’m not a good tweeter, I have to be honest. But I like Tumblr because I can use a quote, a picture, a video. I can use different forms of expression. I can put my personal thoughts out there without being like, ‘Yo, somebody stole my bike.’ I don’t need people to know every detail or my personal thoughts.
I’m really torn as to how much you give and how much is overkill or how much is not enough. But that’s just who I am personally. The romance of society is falling apart because of the lack of mystery and the bombardment of knowing everything all at once. Everyone’s brain has changed. I’ll get really nervous if I don’t have the Internet near me. And I just find it to be, ‘Wow. I’m literally wired in.’
I have to say, if it wasn’t for social media, the indie world of musicians would not have the foothold that it does. I think as a musician in this context, I am completely grateful for it and it’s a life-changing thing. It’s a double-edged sword because nobody buys your record, because they download it for free, but for indie labels and whatnot it’s crucial to have a high-level social media profile.
By Brenna Ehrlich