An unanticipated indie gem that arrived in the U.S. late last year, Sally Shapiro's Disco Romance is a deliberate homage to early '80s Italo disco, less a collection of dance-floor anthems than the soundtrack for a lonesome nocturnal walk home, after the bar doors have closed but the heart remains wide open. The reticent Swedish thrush is a bit of a mystery: She refuses to sing live; she won't allow her songwriter-producer, Johan Agebjrn, in the room when she lays down her vocals; and, following in the footsteps of forgotten Italo divas Valerie Dore and Katy Gray, she records under an alias, declining to reveal her real name.
Having recently released Remix Romance Vol. 1 and Remix Romance Vol. 2, Shapiro seems ready to come out of her shell, admitting that fictional Sally Shapiro is slowly morphing into the real-life woman behind the moniker. Meanwhile, she and Agebjrn have enlisted a skillful crew of DJ-producers to chip away at the frosty solitude of Disco Romance and recast Shapiro's slim but impressive repertoire, giving most tracks a slick, club-friendly finish.
Determined to prove that Shapiro does in fact exist, Out landed an in-person interview with both her and her producer -- the first ever to run in print. The exclusive full Q&A -- in which the chanteuse chats about her shyness, "gay music," and the French Madonna -- follows.
Out: Disco Romance was an unanticipated success. Youve said that you were just having fun and goofing around, and didnt expect the album to end up so cohesive and so popular.
Sally Shapiro: It started when I bumped into Johan and we were singing Christmas carols just for fun. He said I had an Italo disco voice. Hed always been an Italo disco fan and wanted to try to make a song that sounded like it was made in the 80s, during the time of Italo disco. So he wrote Ill Be By Your Side, and I sang it. That song was supposed to be the first and the last, but we got a lot of really nice feedback.
Johan Agebjrn: We expected a few hundred Italo disco nerds to like it and buy it on vinyl, hopefully -- and nothing more. We uploaded it on an Italo disco forum and immediately got two record labels that wanted to release it. Then the record label asked us if we wanted to make an album. I had never experienced anything like that before, and Ive been making music for several years. Id been working on more instrumental, ambient stuff. This was the first pop song Id ever written.
You told Sally she has an Italo disco voice. What is an Italo disco voice?
Johan: Its not based on vibrato. Its quite soft, like singing in a choir. The typical house diva would be the opposite. I thought of the [classic Italo disco] singers Valerie Dore and Katy Gray when I heard Sally sing. I think love should be expressed gently. Some remixers have had problems with our music. Ive asked them to make bombastic, kick-ass club hits from a track, but they say it doesnt suit Sallys voice.
What are the two remakes on the album?
Johan: Anorak Christmas and He Keeps Me Alive. They are by Nixon (Roger Gunnarsson), a Swedish indie artist who makes twee pop. We thought it suited Sally really well to cover. Im actually going to him to write some new songs for Sally soon because we think wed be a good team together.
You guys are actually office buddies?
Doing what kind of work?
Johan: Administrative work.
But you didnt realize you had the same taste in music. How long did it take for you to have a discussion about music?
Sally: Three years.
Johan: [to Sally] Actually, I remember you had brought Madonna to the office, then I asked you to send me a mix tape with her.
Sally: And thats how it began, because when I did the mix tape, there were other songs you liked.
Johan: Yes, because you made one mix tape with Madonna and another with a lot of other stuff I hadnt asked for -- for example, The Neverending Story theme song.
Its funny that you bonded over Madonna, whom almost everyone likes. When I bond with someone over a musician, I usually bond over an artist whom I dont think many people know or like.
Johan: Well, I started listening to pop music in 89, so pre-89 Madonna was quite new to me. I like it better because Im into that 80s disco sound. Into the Groove is my favorite.
Have you made Italo your own or modernized it?
Johan: Some tracks are meant to sound a bit more modern, like I Know or Hold Me So Tight. Ill Be By Your Side was supposed to sound like 1984, but I didnt want to do 10 tracks that sounded the same, so some tracks are going in other directions. He Keeps Me Alive, for example, is in 145 bpm, and no Italo disco track was ever faster than 128 bpm. This is nerd talk, but it couldnt have been done in the 80s. But Find My Soul and Skating in the Moonshine are meant to be pure Italo disco, [circa] 1984.
Italo disco revivalism has been picking up speed, especially as of last year. Even Madonna was doing it with Confessions on a Dancefloor (for example, with her sample of the Giorgio Moroder-produced Donna Summer song I Feel Love). What do you think spurred the renaissance?
Johan: I think it died too early in the 80s. It died in like 88 or 89, when house took over. I was personally very sad because Id been following those Best of Italo Disco compilations, and then suddenly there was only bad house music on them. I dont like Italian house music so much. [Italo disco] deserves another chance, and now its getting it. I was surprised in 2003 when I surfed the Internet and discovered there are hundreds of Italo disco sites. I thought I was the only person still listening to it.
Sally: Well, everything is coming back sooner or later. And isnt the whole fashion industry in the 80s? Everything is in the 80s.
Do you think people just got tired of New Wave and moved on to something else more obscure from the same era? Or do you think its sort of an ironic movement because Italo disco was seen by many as a cheesy musical genre?
Johan: One theory would be that electronic and dance music has become so repetitive and monotonous that there is a need for more melodic, poppy dance music. Italo disco is very dancey, but it has a lot of good melodies.
Hipsters and music snobs are really into it, too. I was surprised an album called Disco Romance was getting such rave critical reviews.
Sally: I was really surprised too. I dont expect the average person to like this kind of music.
Johan: I think [its because] we complement each other. Sally has a melancholic voice, and I make melancholic atmospheres.
Yes, the music is not just about the beat, but about emotion and love and loss and pain. It cuts a little deeper than a frothy, forgettable pop song. Theres something darker deeper about Italo disco, something very 4 a.m., bar is closed, youre coming down off your high.
Johan: I get the same feeling when Im listening to Chromatics. Im a big fan of them.
Sally: Im not sure, but heres a theory: I like to believe that people like these cheesy 80s songs but dont really want to confess it. You dont want to say it out loud -- until somebody else has said it out loud. Then a hundred more [people] follow; you can say it because its then acceptable to say it. I like to believe when people are sitting alone at home, theyre listening to old stuff they liked when they were younger. But theyre not saying out loud, Oh, Im still listening to this.
Johan: Sally, you need to tell your Mylne Farmer story -- thats a good example of a guilty pleasure.
I discovered her when I was living in France. Mylne Farmer is basically the French Madonna.
Sally: I was living with some friends some years ago, and I was just getting to know [one of my roommates]. When I came into the kitchen in the morning, I turned on the CD player, and there was Mylne Farmer. I hadnt heard her before, but the music was really, really good. I sent [my roommate] a text message to ask if it was her music. It turned out shed lived in France too and discovered her then, but shed hidden it because everyone said only gays in France liked Mylne Farmer -- only they would say it out loud. She said she was sorry, that shed forgotten it was in the CD player, but she was happy I liked it.
The singer Robyn recently told Out that her music was pop, but that pop is not a dirty word, that there is such a thing as good pop. Maybe youve simply created well-developed, thought-out pop music.
Johan: Its interesting you say that because Ive never considered myself a pop music writer. [This album] was more of an exception. But this is pop, and I think thats one reason people like it more than my other, more ambient music.
It has catchy, poppy beats, but your music is still often dark, rather depressing. Do you think its counterproductive pop?
Sally: I like happy endings. If you see it like a film, these songs are in the middle, before the good end is coming.
Johan: Its sad, but theres a feeling of hope in it. I must say the music that has moved me the most is the music that has made me cry. Thats the music Id bring to an island; its 10 times stronger for me.
Even the name Sally Shapiro is not real. Sally, will you reveal your real name or tell me what you do?
Sally: I didnt reveal my name from the start, and now were getting on with it. It wont tell you anything. It doesnt really matter.
Do you think your identity is separate from your music?
Sally: Thats really complex. When we were doing the first song, we were creating Sally Shapiro, a person -- based on me, of course -- but I dont like to be an actress because Im not good at that at all. We werent thinking this was going any further than Ill Be By Your Side. And now, when Im coming out, Sally Shapiro is more and more me. Maybe I wont answer your question the same way a year from now because I dont want to act.
Johan: Yes, youre now sometimes admitting that you have an ordinary job, whereas one year ago you said you were only walking in the moonshine, thinking about your love affairs.
Would you ever address your office job or sing about something mundane in your music?
Sally: It would be feel really odd to have Sally sing about an office job.
Johan: Yeah, Italo disco is quite a limited genre in terms of themes. Thats a problem for us, actually.
Will it be a setback for you later on as artists? Do you think youll be pigeonholed as just Italo disco? What happens when this trend fades?
Johan: That could be a problem. The second album cant be exactly the same as the first. We need to develop in some way, but at the same time we have been classified as Italo diso, so we cant make something completely different. Were getting inspiration from other genres. For example, I like Follow Me, by Ercola featuring Annie, which is more modern. I also make ambient music, so Im thinking of ways to incorporate Sally there.
How much control did you have over the remix albums?
Johan: Some of the artists have been chosen by us, some artists have been chosen by the record label. [On the first remix album] there are five artists from Europe and five from North America. The five from North American have been contacted by the label, the five from Europe contacted by us.
Do you think these remix albums have the power to bring you more into the mainstream?
Johan: I think in clubs, yes, but not so much with airplay since the tracks arent radio-friendly. When I wrote certain tracks, I thought they would actually suit a more modern sound, and its a pity because we make this 80s sound and not many modern DJs play that kind of sound. Its good that these remixes sound a bit more modern.
Youre willing to spin your own music, but when will we see Sally Shapiro perform live?
Sally: I dont know if its going to happen, and if its going to happen, I dont know when. If I had the guts, Id like to do an acoustic version of one of the songs, but that seems so far away.
And you dont allow Johan in the room when you record a track?
Sally: No, I think I do it better when Im alone. I do let him come in sometimes and listen to what Ive recorded. Maybe it will change. If youd asked me a year ago, I would have said I wouldnt sit here now.
Why are you willing to be interviewed now?
Sally: Well, this was a surprise. You have to let things grow, think about it, and take it step by step. I came to the conclusion it could be fun.
If you were to make me the most fabulous mix tape, what would have to be on it?
Sally: Mylne Farmer -- mostly her 80s period. Id include a lot of nostalgic tracks, songs that evoke memories. Id also include Pizzicato Fives Tout Tout Pour Ma Chrie -- its really crazy, it goes faster and faster and never ends -- and Eighth Wonders Im Not Scared.
Johan: I would put something by Aphex Twin and the KLF on it.
Dovetailing off your Mylne Farmer story, how would you feel if in 10 years some girl wakes up, goes into her kitchen, listens to the CD player, and her friend tells her, Oh, thats Sally Shapiro. Thats gay music. I didnt want to tell you I had it. Would that bother you?
Sally: [Laughing] No, I think its probably gonna happen. It wouldnt bother me. Why should it? I know Sally Shapiro is cheesy music, so I dont need to hide it. I like the idea of being a gay icon.