Sally Shapiro makes enchanting, italo disco-inspired pop music; there’s a good chance you’ve already heard her 2006 debut album Disco Romance, which became a word-of-mouth sensation following its low-key release on Wolfram Eckert’s cult label Diskokaine.
To begin with, little was known about the mysterious Shapiro, but slowly some details began to emerge – Disco Romance was the work of a Gothenburg-based singer who wished her real name to remain a secret, and her friend Johan Agebjorn, who co-wrote the songs and produced them. Their partnership has continued, and this week they release their eagerly-anticipated sophomore album, My Guilty Pleasure. A similarly swooning and intimate work to its predecessor, its roots are very much in the italo and euro-pop sound, but it’s arrangements are more ambitious, the songwriting more direct and affecting.
We were lucky enough to get to talk to Sally and Johan about the album, and the latter will be helming our next FACT Mix – check back on Friday to download it.
We know you guys met when you were working at the same office. What jobs were you doing at the time?
Johan: “Yes, we met while working at the same office back in 2001. We were both doing administrative work for an environmental organization.”
Is music now a full-time pursuit?
Johan: “No, it’s still a hobby, though for me producing this album was a part-time job for almost a year. Sally has a normal job so the vocals are typically recorded during weekends. We guess it would be very different if we had taken the decision to perform live and tour.”
Has music always been a big part of your life?
Sally: “I grew up listening to Swedish pop/disco and the Eurovision Song Contest. I have lots of tapes from my youth where I sing these songs. Music has always been a big part of my life but never a full-time occupation.”
Johan: “I took piano lessons during ten years of my youth, but when I got a mixtape with italo disco tracks (Eddy Huntington, Mike Mareen etc) at the age of ten, I understood I wanted to create electronic music, so I started saving for a keyboard and later an Atari. I was a big fan of Pet Shop Boys and wanted to be like Chris Lowe.”
What did you set out to achieve with the new album, both in terms of the music and the lyrics?
Sally: “The songs express all the most romantic and melancholic sides that we = and we think most people – feel for some moments in their lives. We want to put music and words to that inner feeling of bittersweet loving and heartbreak in a way that most people probably would express it in a diary. Maybe close to pathetic, but still not, since it´s the true feeling.”
Johan: The productions are inspired by 80s italo disco, although flirting with other styles. It´s sugary sweet, but it´s meant seriously, and maybe the perfect time to listen to it the first time is when you are in a melancholic mode all by yourself.”
Can you explain the title of the album, My Guilty Pleasure? What is your guilty pleasure?
Johan: “A lot of people seem to have this type of cheesy pop disco as their guilty pleasure, so we thought it would be a good title. For example, Sally discovered Mylène Farmer since one of her friends by accident had forgotten the CD in the CD player, but had never dared to recommend the music. Now Mylène Farmer is a huge influence to our project. By now we guess that most of our friends know that we listen to this type of music, but in some situations it can still be a guilty pleasure for us to listen to music with this type of really simple lyrics instead of more “tasteful” stuff.
What does ‘pop’ mean to you?
Sally: “For us it mostly comes across as the opposition towards less melodic electronic music. Johan also makes ambient music, which also influences this project, and sometimes I say his tracks should be more poppy, meaning more focussed around catchy verses and choruses. So that’s how we mostly use the word.”
How did growing up in Scandinavia in particular influence your approach to making music?
Sally: “It’s difficult to say, we don’t know exactly how it’s in other countries, but it’s very natural in Sweden to play some instrument or sing in choirs when you’re young. Music schools are funded by the state so it’s very cheap. They also say Swedish music is often melancholic, maybe that is reflected in our music.”
How does the creative process work between the two of you? What are your working methods and habits?
Sally: “It usually starts with Johan getting some idea for a track by playing the piano, twiddling the computer/synths, or just something popping up in his head. Then he develops it on the computer and presents the idea to me, and I give feedback. This is repeated a few times and then when the track is almost finished we record my vocals. Everything is done at home and we usually don’t make any demo versions, we make the finished productions directly. An exception is if Johan and Roger write the songs together, then they usually record a demo version with themselves on vocals that they then present to me. ‘Miracle’ and ‘Love In July’ were written by Johan and Roger together, and Roger wrote the lyrics to “Looking at the Stars”.
My Guilty Pleasure seems to be a happier, less melancholy record than your first album. Is this something you agree with? Were you consciously trying to make a “happier” record?
Johan: “Yes, we’d agree with that, except for some tracks like ‘Dying In Africa’ and ‘Miracle’. We’re glad this album is a bit more varied in style than Disco Romance. We wouldn’t say it’s a happy record though, just more varied.
Tell us some of the things – apart from music – that influenced the sound and feel of this record.
Sally: “The experiences of being in love, of course. That is there all the time in our music, also in the harmonies and melodies.”
You’ve spoken about how this album will make you fall in love with the person sat next to you on the bus….
Sally: “When we listened to all the different tracks in a row for the first time, we felt romantic, and had this image in our heads. Like in one of those music videos where people are bored in the beginning and then the music makes them want to dance in the streets or in a shop. We had the image of someone listening to the music on an mp3 player and starting to flirt with his or her neighbour on the bus.”
Johan – as producer, what were you trying to achieve sonically with this album? Did you approach it differently to Disco Romance?
Johan: “I wanted to take influences from more styles than just 80s disco – the first few Sally Shapiro tracks were an attempt to recreate the 80s sound authentically, but I didn’t feel that was interesting anymore. So on this album there are influences from ambient, trance, acid house, jazz and nu-disco. ‘Let It Show’ has an acid house bassline against nu-disco beats, and for ‘Moonlight Dance’ we asked Tensnake to guest-produce it – both these tracks have a bit more of a funky 80s r’n’b feel, a bit more ‘black’ than the otherwise very ‘white’ European-style productions. ‘Dying In Africa’ and ‘My Fantasy’ are quite 90s eurodisco/trance-influenced in their production, and the intro track ‘Swimming Through the Blue Lagoon’ is a reworking of an old ambient track of mine. I think the result is a much more varied – though still 100% electronic – album than Disco Romance, and I’m happy about that.
In the time since you released the first album, italo has become a much more widely-known and fashionable thing. Is that something which affected you or the way you approached the making of this album?
Johan: “No, not at all. On the contrary, we thought that maybe the italo disco hype would be over by the time this album was released.”
Do you still listen to a lot of italo, or is that less of an influence now?
Sally: “We don’t listen to it as much anymore, but it’s still there as an influence, since we have a way about thinking about music and ways of production that is undoubtly still very italo-disco inspired. Probably it will always be.”
What music have you been enjoying of late?
Sally: “Mostly listening to old singer/songwriter records by Suzanne Vega and Swedish Marit Bergman. I haven’t listened to much new music except what’s played on the radio and in the Eurovision Song Contest. Still listening to Mylène Farmer sometimes.”
Johan: “Listening mostly to nu-disco like Lindstrøm and Bogdan Irkük. I also really like some Richard X productions – especially Saint Etienne’s ‘Method of Modern Love’ and Annie’s ‘Songs Remid Me of You’.”
You decided to call a halt to performing live – is that still the case? Can you explain that decision?
Sally: “Yes, it’s still the case. I’m shy and I don’t like standing on stage. I tried with a few DJ gigs but it felt awkward. I don’t like the idea of touring so much either, I’m not into travelling and working late in the evening. I prefer to have a normal life with a normal job and the music as a hobby.”
What are your plans for the future?
Johan:”We are currently working on a few remixes for other artists together. There is also a short track that will be released on a charity compilation around Christmas. Otherwise we don’t know. The future of this project is always very uncertain. But music will probably always be a big part of our lives, in some form.”