A Fine Romance

7.24.2008

By Jason Lamphier

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 Agebj'rn, 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 Agebj'rn 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. You've said that you were just having fun and goofing around, and didn't 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. He'd 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 'I'll 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 Agebj'rn: 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 I've been making music for several years. I'd been working on more instrumental, ambient stuff. This was the first pop song I'd ever written.

You told Sally she has an Italo disco voice. What is an 'Italo disco voice'?
Johan: It's not based on vibrato. It's 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. I've asked them to make bombastic, kick-ass club hits from a track, but they say it doesn't suit Sally's 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. I'm actually going to him to write some new songs for Sally soon because we think we'd be a good team together.

You guys are actually office buddies?
Johan: Yes.

Doing what kind of work?
Johan: Administrative work.

But you didn't 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 that's 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 hadn't asked for -- for example, 'The Neverending Story' theme song.

It's 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 don't 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 I'm into that '80s disco sound. 'Into the Groove' is my favorite.

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