New New Wave with Class Actress

by Thomas Hauner

19 May 2010

Inspiring comparisons to Madonna, New Order and Depeche Mode, Class Actress is ready for their close-up.
Photo: Marlowe-Tatiana 

In less than a year, Elizabeth Harper, along with co-conspirators Mark Richardson and Scott Rosenthal, has managed to inspire comparisons to Madonna, New Order and Depeche Mode all at the same time. Of course, all are inspirations in one form or another, each showing face at various moments during a Class Actress set list—Material Girl lust and heartache with swelling new wave beats all dressed in Harper’s hazy vocals. Their debut record, Journal of Ardency, supports such comparisons. PopMatters spoke with Elizabeth and Mark prior to their CD release show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn recently.

What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
Elizabeth Harper: I grew up listening to hip hop and a lot of dance music.

West Coast or East Coast hip-hop?
EH: West Coast. I also really fell in love with bands like Depeche Mode. That was a big one. I went out a lot so that permeated my brain.

What was the first CD or LP you owned?
EH: Oh my god, I don’t know. Mark?
Mark Richardson: We had an exchange student in my house from Spain. I wasn’t allowed to listen to music as a kid, but this exchange student had Violator.
EH: Yes!  I feel like that was my first one too.
MR: So I dubbed it. I love listening to Violator on a really old scratchy cassette deck because that’s the first time I could really express myself — on this little tape player that I had to hide from my parents.

So you guys obviously collaborate a lot now. Did you find Mark first, or vice versa?
EH: Yeah. I definitely found him. I chased him down.

How did you hear him, or of him?
EH:  We became friends because I opened up for his sister and he was on stage playing the bass. I just saw him and I was like, “Who is that?  He’s got somethin going on”. After the show I walked over to him and said, “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, here’s my CD and here’s my phone number” (Laughing). I had never been so forward with anyone in my life. So then he called me and we had coffee or drinks or something and became friends.

When you write music together do you write lyrics and present them to Mark or does he bring music to you or is it a synthesis?
EH:  I write lyrics and bring them to [Mark] and he writes music for it.
MR:  I really work off of her phrasing and the little melody bursts and stuff. We have a good system where she’ll be bopping around and I’ll say, “Oh, this is what I hear”. And it’ll be a little different than what she was hearing. But it actually ends up becoming what she was hearing so it goes in a big circle and comes back around to the thing in her head.

Did you also do your own album art?
EH:  Actually that’s a good story as well. Caroline and I were late for an acrylic show and we were at her apartment—she was going to do the album art for the record regardless. We’re at her apartment and the wind knocks over this full-length mirror. I was running late so I said, “You get dressed, I’ll sweep up the glass”. So I started sweeping up the glass and I’m thinking, “Holy shit this is so beautiful, where’s my iPhone”?  Caroline says, “There’s your album art”. She got her camera, she took a picture of it, then did up her magic and that’s how Caroline Polachek [of Chairlift] did the album art. It was like we were two witches sweeping up the glass.

What’s your favorite thing about playing in New York?
EH:  That we live here. Well, I live here, he lives in Philly.
MR:  If Elizabeth is happy, you know, everyone’s kind of happy. That’s my favorite thing about playing in New York.

Is she pressuring you to move here at all?
MR:  No, no. She respects my life and it’s sort of a geographic buffer. I have some responsibilities down there.

Do you mostly work over email, sending each other tracks?
EH:  He comes to my house on the weekends.
MR:  She has a great place, with a little studio space and my own little bedroom.

I know you’re close with Caroline of Chairlift. They had huge success licensing “Bruises” to Apple. How to do you feel about licensing your music?  Have you been approached by anyone yet?
EH:  I think it’s fantastic. I think the music industry is so different now than it ever was that that would be a fantastic thing. That’s just the way it rolls. You have to license your music to make money off of it because no one buys records. We were talking about this last night with [my manager] Chris that a band like Green Day got really rich back in the day because people bought albums. They could have houses and cars and stuff. These days it’s so much harder to sell actual records because of the Internet that people have to do licensing deals to make a living off music.

So you would have no qualms?
EH:  I mean, certain companies that I’d want to support. It’s Apple though, give me a break. They’re selling music so why wouldn’t you sell your song to Apple because they’re selling something that everyone’s going to listen to it on. I think having your song in an iPod commercial is a fantastic way to continue the flow of music. This is the reality of music now so I think it’s perfect. As long as it’s not like a Hummer commercial or Tyson Chicken or something.

Is this your first national tour?
EH:  Yeah. We only played our first live show in June so we’re really excited.

Is there anything else you want to say about your new EP?
EH:  Just that I’m excited and I think it’s good (Laughing). This whole project has been so natural and full of friends that it just feels like a family. It feels so organic.

You keep calling Class Actress a project. Is it something short-term?
EH:  No, no. This is what we’re doing. It’s for real. Mark and I are going to make pop songs for a long time.

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