Four years after her 2011 debut album, Elizabeth Harper is finally back as Class Actress, her synth-pop solo project that began after Harper left dreams of movie stardom behind. Harper’s new EP, Movies, marks a symbolic return to Los Angeles for the Brooklyn-based singer and songwriter, who moved into a Beverly Hills bungalow and retreated into writing and recording songs—a therapeutic process for an artist who’s experienced her share of heartbreak and disappointment. Movies marks a return to Harper’s preoccupations with that false-Hollywood promise of glamour, fame, and (ultimately) fulfillment. Over several months, Harper immersed within the Hollywood illusion, and came out with an EP full of evocative pop songs.
With the help of Casablanca Records labelmate Giorgio Moroder—the legendary disco producer behind soundtracks for movies like American Gigolo and Scarface—Harper has crafted a narratively cohesive, dance-pop EP that trades on themes of ’80s cinematic excess and the dark underbelly of sunny Los Angeles. The track “GFE,” which is shorthand for “Girlfriend Experience,” is the embodiment of this ethos, a song that straddles the blurred line between reality and illusion. We’re premiereing it below, along with a conversation with Harper about the complex personal history and lessons that inform her new record.
Tell us about your fascination with the narrative of “girl goes to Hollywood, makes bad decisions, but becomes a real person in the end.”
Well, that’s what happened to me. It was the classic story of landing in a city with dreams and ideas, but finding a harsh reality. That’s what makes you a stronger person, and it makes you into someone who isn’t as naive as the person who first set out. You come out stronger and more beautiful on the inside. My fascination with movie stars started so young. All I wanted was to be a movie star—I wrote about it constantly.
Your new album, Movies, comes out on June 23. I read that it was inspired in part by the excess of ’80s Hollywood and films. Can you elaborate?
I’m inspired by movies, because I think up until very recently, I was living in one. My movie is full of glamour and self-discovery. The key is to be the star of your own movie. Each song on the EP tells a story that fits into the arc of the album, and it’s based on a true story. It’s also about fantasies pushed to the edge. As for actual movie inspiration, when I was staying in the Beverly Hills Hotel, I realized the movie American Gigolo was filmed there. Giorgio Moroder did the soundtrack, so it was partly inspired by that film and basically any Bret Easton Ellis book. It’s a reverse-origin story; I had to go back to remember why I left. That also goes back to the Hollywood archetype and the underbelly of Beverly Hills.
You collaborated with Giorgio Moroder for the album. How did all of that come about?
I just thought it would be so cool to have the legend behind Casablanca Records be part of Movies, and he just happened to be available. To say the least, I was blown away by the opportunity. There are these magical moments in life, and no matter what else happens along the way, you just have to believe in magic to keep going.
Tell me about the track we’re premiering, “GFE?” What was the inspiration behind it?
In “GFE,” I’m telling a guy everything he wants to hear. But maybe it’s really about having an affair with a CEO who broke my heart. It’s my ode to escorts, because even when you’re not getting paid, sometimes you’ve gotta act like one. Guys are so spoiled and want all of their fantasies [fulfilled]. I got so over catering to men’s egos, and I had to write a song about it. In “GFE,” I’m a geisha; I’m someone who’s judged as a moving work of art. Geishas don’t sell their bodies but their skills—the art is in the act. If desire always drives us toward the untouched, gleaming surfaces because “reality” is never good enough, then isn’t our love of illusions the purest, most human part of ourselves?
In “More Than You,” I’m detailing my helplessness in the face of desire, my intense, obsessive craving for a guy—it’s like a drug I can’t get off of. In “GFE,” I’ve transformed myself into a luxury item, like an object for this guy to enjoy and consume. I’m not a girlfriend, but I’m a simulated “girlfriend experience.” Now I’m the drug.
What’s the writing process like for you? Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration mostly in the space between getting and having what I desire. That space, as uncomfortable and dark as it is, is a playground of limitless possibilities. I always know when I have a hook; I can feel it. If something doesn’t make me cry and dance when I’m writing it, he’s not the one. Every day we’re bathed in cold light, surrounded by screens and lenses, tinted mirrors and the reflections moving past in a soft blur. Awareness is the curse, the underlying tragedy of consciousness, and finding somewhere to leave it, for a few moments at a time, is the endless labor of our days. Could there be another love, something to want, a better stranger, a more compromising pose, or another perfect song to stimulate the chemicals in our brains? To quote The Weeknd: “All the misery was necessary.”
Your last album was released in 2011. Why did you make us wait so long for a follow up?
I’m terribly sorry, but thank you and to everyone who’s reading this who waited. The true story is I was on tour till 2013, and all the while my father was dying. Every night up on stage, I was up there knowing I wasn’t with him. Then I got signed to Universal at the same exact time he passed, and for a minute, I was just numb. Then I met Giorgio and Evan Bogart, and things started to unlock. But things also just took time. I kept trying to figure out why it was taking so long, and then I let go. When something takes that long, there is usually a reason, and it’s something you can’t understand at the time. So, I made faith my best friend, and kept on dreaming.
If you had to choose five other musicians to bring to a party and play a set with, who would you choose?
Jean Michel Jarre, Drake, Max Roach, Marvin Gaye, and Brian Wilson.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I’m allergic to fluorescent lighting.
Do you have a style icon?
Any hidden talents?
Machiavellian-seduction technique, and I make a good fire.
Do you have any dream collaborations we should know about?
The Weeknd and Gesaffelstein.