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STOPOVER: Class Actress
Elizabeth Harper turns herself into a diva of dance
Elizabeth Harper is the singer and songwriter for Class Actress

To "get" what Elizabeth Harper's doing with her dance/electronica project Class Actress, just hop over to YouTube and watch the video for her song "Journal of Ardency" (or just look over to your right on this very page).

It's hypnotic, sensual and mysterious, with no colors but stark red and black. The video - and Harper's song - move to throbbing electronic beats that invite you to get up and dance. Or sway. Or drown. Inactivity is not an option.

That's the idea with really great dance music - it's involving on several different levels. It gets in your blood, in your heart and in your brain - and in a perfect world, your body will respond accordingly.

Harper, a Los Angeles native based in New York City, was a stage actress, including a lengthy tenure with an improv company, before diving headfirst into music with a 2005 singer/songwriter album that compelled a U.K. music writer to call her "the female Morrissey." Another called her "the female Jeff Buckley."

As the centerpiece of Class Actress, her sleepy, seductive voice rides over beats created by Mark Richardson and/or Scott Rosenthal (at press time, Harper wasn't sure which of the two would be joining her for the March 10 Savannah Stopover gig at Live Wire).

It's reminiscent of the classic British synthpop of Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and Human League, but Class Actress - with Harper's uber-personal lyrics and eerily detached vocal delivery - is in a class by itself.

You began as a singer/songwriter. Was dance music an organic evolution, or a dedicated shift for you?

Elizabeth Harper: One did become the other, but it was a conscious effort to create the next step. I'm still a songwriter, that part didn't change. It's that the medium which I decided to arrange them in changed. Because it was more of a fit. And it wasn't giving me what I wanted. I was hiding, back in that other thing.

It was the music that changed me. I was looking for the sound that I wanted that whole time. When I first started playing music, I was comfortable enough with this kind of Smiths-y band sound. It was all very jangly. I played electric guitar in that band.

I don't know, I grew up listening to dance music and hip hop and that kind of thing, and suddenly I was like "These live drums are not working for me." And I remember, the drummer at the time said "I think you're looking for a different kind of sound." And I said I think I am, too. I started sampling beats, and the next thing you know ...

Would you describe yourself as ambitious?

Elizabeth Harper: You think? (laughing)

Well, I had to ask. You were in theater for a long time, too. Was that just not doing it for you - so music took over?

Elizabeth Harper: (still laughing from the previous question). When you get onstage, it's an exhilarating feeling, you know? Being there with a live audience. Interacting with them, them interacting with you - you move your hand and you can feel them. It's like a dance. I just knew that I wanted to perform. Songwriting came after that.

I think it goes a little bit deeper than that. It was more like, I wanted to communicate personal things to a lot of people at one time. Because I was having conflicts communicating with one person. I figured if I could take out my id and put it in a song, I could relate to more people.

Were you a journal-er, or a poet, before that?

Elizabeth Harper: Oh yeah. I was a goth-y girl with a journal, secretly winning poetry contests - and going, oh God! I started writing haikus when I was 8 years old; they went on a plate in my parents' house.

I always found words to be a really insatiable desire. After writing that first record, I was so convinced that it's all about being clever and witty ... but then I started to feel, you know, it's so much simpler when you just say it. I thought, stop shrouding things in riddle and just say it.

My all-time favorite dance track is the extended version of "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer ...

Elizabeth Harper: Isn't that track amazing? We lost our minds driving through the desert listening to that.

There's maybe four words in the whole song. Is that the kind of thing you were talking about - direct communication?

Elizabeth Harper: That's definitely very direct. That track, in my mind, is such a classic, all-points dance song. That has the kind of quality to it that dance music should always have, which is: It takes you on a journey. It's taking you somewhere, it's movement. And it moves your body. And it moves different parts of you.

You listen to a Madonna song, you're not crying at the end of it, you know what I mean? You're not like thinking about your destiny. You're just like "Wow, that was fun."

For me, I'm just letting it come out as it comes these days. I'm not trying to overthink it. I'm trying to do that with most things in life. When you're an adolescent, you're crazy and nervous all the time. I'm trying to put down my Woody Allen a little bit. What's the point? That is your Woody Allen, that part of you that's constantly questioning, wondering.
That's what songwriting is. It's like the ending of these Woody Allen movies - you can re-write your love story.

Somebody said to me recently, "We think she may be the Next Big Thing." What do you want to happen?

Elizabeth Harper: I can't wait to get to Savannah. I have this fantasy idea of your city, that it's this quintessential Southern, beautiful place, and that we're just going to talk really slow and drink.

Well, there's a lot of fast-talkers here, too. And a bit of drinking. Do you want to be the next Madonna?

Elizabeth Harper: Who doesn't? I figure my love life's already kind of a disaster, so I'm halfway there. So why wouldn't you want to have that kind of reach as an artist? She has an amazing body of work, she makes people incredibly happy, she's got an incredible career.

It's obviously had its moments, but that's life on the public stage.

Do you ever pull out the acoustic guitar, sit down and sing depressing songs just to entertain yourself?

Elizabeth Harper: I absolutely do. I actually wrote a country song the other day, just to do it. I recorded it, and I played it for the band, and they were like "Can we record this one?"

Ultimately, you're just soothing your heartstrings. You've got a moment in time when it's just bursting out of you, and you cannot make it any better. And the only way to make it better, when it's that bad, is to turn it into something pretty. You just work it out, basically.

Class Actress

When & where: At midnight Thursday, March 10 at Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.