For her latest EP titled Movies, Brooklyn, NY-based electropop musician Elizabeth Harper (a.k.a. Class Actress) recorded the music in Los Angeles, which is fitting since it’s the city where she’s originally from. Harper admits now that she didn’t know what was going on when as she was making the record there, since Movies was her debut release for major label subsidiary Casablanca Records—she had previously recorded for indie record companies.
“I was so green,” Harper says. “This guy was sitting next to me with these two dudes and he was trying to say something. And I’m like, ‘So am I here to help you work on your album?’ And the guy was like, ‘No, I’m here to help you.’ I didn’t even know how it all worked on a major label scale. So I didn’t understand what the purpose was at first. You know, I recorded everything in my apartment before. I felt like such a little country bumpkin now that I talk about it. I started doing the L.A. thing, writing sessions, and stuff like that.”
Movies, the follow-up to Class Actress’ 2011 full-length album Rapproacher, doesn’t sound like it was made by a ‘country bumpkin’ under DIY conditions. Rather, this six-song electronic dance pop EP is a very sleek, glossy and cinematic-sounding work of infectious beats and swirling soundscapes. With its underpinnings of romance, Movies is reflective of Harper’s own personal experiences in Los Angeles with its Hollywood glamour and dark underbelly.
“I don’t think that the content of what I’m writing about is really that different from anything I’ve ever written about,” she explains, “kind of all the same dark side: love, rejection, am I there yet, desire, how do I get closer. I thought to myself, ‘I’m called Class Actress. I think this time around I’m gonna really show people the reason this is my reality’… taking it back home, taking it to Hollywood.’ Because this is a story that has been done a hundred times — it’s like a classic story. It’s not about showing it in a new light. I think it was just about framing it differently.”
Given her background as a synthpop/dance-pop artist, it seemed like a no-brainer that Class Actress would sign with Casablanca, the storied label that put out many of Donna Summer’s classic ’70s disco hits. With that in mind, it equally made sense that Harper reached out to legendary producer Giorgio Moroder, who collaborated with Summer on those hits. Moroder and Evan Bogart (son of Casablanca’s late founder Neil Bogart) executive-produced Movies, with Moroder himself producing the very Euro-styled dance track on the EP called “High on Love”.
”When I got signed to Casablanca in 2013, that was the same time that the Daft Punk record [Random Access Memories] came out,” Harper says. “I saw Giorgio’s name everywhere and I just thought, ‘Oh, it would just be cool to have him involved in something on Casablanca,’ because he basically wrote every hit on that label. So I thought it would be interesting to include him in the imagery.” Harper later adds “He’s Giorgio Moroder. He’s a legend. I’m lucky.”
In Movies, Harper portrays herself as a romantic heroine of her own film against the backdrop of Los Angeles where fantasies are created and sold – albeit with an emotional price. With Harper’s exquisite serene siren voice, the six songs collectively tell a story evoking a sense of romantic yearning, exhilaration, and decadence, including the sexy-sounding “More Than You” through the dynamic club song “The Limit”.
“When I got to L.A., oh my God, so many crazy things happened,” Harper says. “I guess [Hollywood] is the dream that it sells to everyone. All of pop culture sells the same dream. It’s what I bought as a girl and it’s what I sell again. So I guess I’m trying to repackage it with a little bit more of a realty TV show version of it.”
One of Harper’s favorite tracks from the EP is the seductive — maybe even provocative — track titled “GFE” (a.k.a. ‘girlfriend experience’), which was co-produced by Neon Indian. “It’s so funny because I got so sick and tired of catering to men’s egos,” she says of that song. “I was like, ‘Fuck that. I’m gonna write this song.’ So often guys want you to be this fantasy version. I have a split personality, there’s the Annie Hall version of me and then the femme fatale version of me. I think I can turn them on and off at will, which is kind of frightening but it’s okay.”
“I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t cater to this bullshit anymore — I’m gonna write a song where I tell a guy everything he wants to hear. In this song, I’m playing a ‘GFE’, so I say everything he would want to hear from me. ‘This isn’t about money, this is about how much I want you.’ I’m fulfilling his girlfriend experience.” She later adds: “My favorite part of that song is the bridge, where I get to say: “I’m not your bedroom secretary / Short on time since February / Head exec, CEO / GFE, that’s all you need to know.”
Then the last two songs on EP, “Love My Darkness” and the torch-y title song, take on a subdued tone, as the sequence of events shifts from night to dawn, or rather from exuberance to self-realization. “I wanted to give this feeling when you hear Movies, that’s the end of the night, that’s when the sun is coming up, and then there’s like this moment when you see the vulnerability in everything that’s happened up to that point,” says Harper. “Something really bad happened to me recently, and I remember I was walking to my apartment and I started singing the lyrics ‘in the movies’, I didn’t realize how much it soothed me to say it to myself, but it really helped… sometimes reality is really painful.”
Usually the release of an EP from an artist is an indication of additional music to come, something that Harper does not deny as far as what fans could expect in the future. “There’s definitely more music. I’m definitely a lot more vulnerable now. Before my last two records, I had this cold thing going – even the color [on the cover] of Rapproacher, all blue, all cold. On Journal of Ardency, my face is broken in the mirror. I think I revealed but also didn’t reveal, does that make sense? I kind of feel like the character (i.e., me), she’s got a lot of energy. I make all this music for myself. I do it because I really love to embody this person that makes me feel alive.”
Harper emerged as Class Actress emerged about five years ago with the EP Journal of Ardency, which came out independently on Terrible Records. Prior to that release, Harper abandoned her acoustic folk sound for something electronic-driven. In a 2010 interview, she explained to me about why she decided to venture into synthpop: “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.”
Harper had originally studied acting in Los Angeles until she got tired of waiting to for an interesting role to come her way. As for the acting vs. music thing, specifically whether music had always been in the picture for her as she was growing up, this self described Pop Artist says, “To me, there’s no separation between the two, between acting and singing and music. Obviously, the entertainment systems are completely different, no I don’t want to auditions and act in shitty movies. I’d rather just act in my own movie and keep things pretty meta, so I guess I’m like a performance artist.
“I’d like to think that’s how Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein worked… examining normal life and taking these things and making them huge, and suddenly they’re impactful. So I like to think of me taking these little moments… something someone said… and then turning it into a pop song, and painting a huge movie around it. You can take anything and once you frame it’s art.”
Like Bryan Ferry before her, Harper has made chronicling romance her own personal work of art; a conceptual and emotional thread that has run through her music. So given the emotional drama that she conveys in her songs, does Harper consider herself either a hopeful or hopeless romantic?
“I mean honestly, what is the difference?” she says. “The thing about romantic love, when you fall in love with someone or fall into a romantic place, what you fall for is what the universe is like shining through them, and they’re a mirror to you and you’re like, ‘Oh God, I get this feeling when I’m with them,’ because they make you want to be who you want to be. So it’s like the universe is showing you love in a mirror through this person.
“I have so many questions about life. So maybe all I’m really infatuated with or in love with or think what I need is this person’s mirror and how it makes me want to be a better person. I don’t know, it’s complicated. I don’t understand why some people are seekers and some people are just ‘I’m okay.’”