This Place is Driving You Insane
Class Actress, Journal of Ardency (Terrible)
Wanting to live in New York and actually doing it are two separate beasts. First there’s the tableau: drinking coffee from one of those Greek-motif cups the Law & Order cops are always holding; reading the Post and Observer; riding the subway. But this has little to do with the actual living part of living in New York—the competition, the paralyzing stress, and a plummeting job market. I haven’t bought a copy of the Post in two years.
But summer in the city has a way of making things, if not better, then more attractive. It was within one of these suspended realities that I made the jump from Seattle in 2007: two months in a three-bedroom Brooklyn apartment I snapped up sight-unseen, after a long weekend spent wandering and romanticizing New York. On a whim, and with no job prospects, I’d convinced my roommate, a Craigslist find, to let me rent over the phone. I sublet my Seattle apartment, but I knew I wouldn’t be back.
In the great Moving–to–New York omnibus, Elizabeth Harper’s story is enviable, especially for those who favor the Greenwich Village Folk Revival narrative. The songwriter and vocalist, a native Californian, moved here in the early aughts straight out of college. She crashed in an apartment above Carmine Street Guitars and logged hours hanging out there listening to old blues records with the late Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine. Around that time she made her name as a singer-songwriter locally and abroad, and she released her self-titled debut in the U.K. in 2004. Certainly the big-city experience was not without first-time jitters. As she tells me by phone, “You know, you struggle, you wake up every day boxing the air and then eventually you find your footing.” Indeed, days earlier, and years removed from that borrowed flat, her band Class Actress opened for the genre-bending Erykah Badu in rap mogul Damon Dash’s TriBeCa basement-turned-all-ages-club, Under 100. Not bad for a band that played their first show in June 2009. The trio, also featuring producers Mark Richardson and Scott Rosenthal, released their debut EP, Journal of Ardency, in February on Terrible Records, the label owned by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. Richardson and Rosenthal each produced tracks on the disc, along with Jorge Elbrecht of the pop band Lansing-Dreiden. (Richardson is producing a full-length release, expected later this year.) Class Actress recently returned from the South by Southwest festival and a West Coast run with Little Boots, and are gearing up for European festival dates. When I reached Harper, the Greenpoint resident was enjoying a rare respite in a friend’s apartment.
Journal of Ardency, with a rush of keyboards swapped in for folkier guitars, packs the punch of a New York summer—which is to say it’s too brief—and shines like fin de siècle Williamsburg, with glinting light illuminating dank, industrial corners. The opening synths warm like sunrise over the Manhattan Bridge and fall away like Madonna wiping Danceteria glitter from her eyes. “This place is driving you insane,” Harper tells a suitor in “Careful What You Say,” a bittersweet ballad. “Careful what you say, it hurts me when you talk that way.” “Let Me Take You Out,” poised to take over playlists until Labor Day, is a Saturday anthem for every newbie navigating late-night New York City. As the melody takes off like a Manhattan taxi, Harper’s bubbling inflections overlay pin-straight beats. The disc’s title track, a downbeat, late-night-into-early morning disco number, shines a spotlight on a callous lover.
“It doesn’t have to be so hard,” Harper sings in “Adolescent Heart,” stretching the word “hard” like saltwater taffy. Much like Morrissey in the throes of joyous misery, Harper has a knack for airing out damp emotions over warm melodies. “Pop music is all pretty sad, you know,” she tells me with a laugh, “there are love songs about sex and aggression and desire and, you know, people repeating traumatic experiences, hoping for a different outcome, just”—with a twist of Moz—“asking, asking.”
Harper hasn’t abandoned her guitar-strumming roots for more technophile pursuits, even if Class Actress is known to tape up keyboards to conceal make and model, providing the perfect no-label, next–stop–Mudd Club sound. In the end, this girl is just having a little fun. “If I were to write some of the lyrics that I write, and encase them in too-downtrodden music, everyone would go home.” Wait until the sun comes up.