Top left: Sally and Johan on tour in 2008 // Bottom Left: Mossebo, Östergötland where Johan and Sally recorded ‘I’ll be by your side’ // Right: My Guilty Romance publicity pic // Copyright Sally Shapiro.
In 2008 I was living in Melbourne, Australia’s great city of underground culture. I had a job in a TAFE library (Australian technical college), and I remember sitting in the outside garden, having my lunch, listening to a discman (yes, believe it!) that I had brought with me to work just so I could listen to a new compilation CD I had bought.
Now this compilation called Milky Disco had seriously changed my life. Almost everything on it had grabbed me and shaken the crap out of me, strange music like I had never heard before, opening up new vistas in my imagination.
One of my favourite tracks was ‘Spacer Woman from Mars’ by Sally Shapiro. For some reason, when I listened to it, I would always picture the Youth Club hall where I did ballroom dancing as a kid.
This song had a brilliant pace, beautiful arpeggios, a trademark of Sally Shapiro, and these awesome vocodered layers of Sally’s voice.
Perhaps it was the lyrics about a female alien visitor offering to dance for the listener that restoked memories of an amateur ballroom dancer. But the song and the images went one step further, and became something new in my imagination, fusing at the hip.
Returning to Sydney the following year I was in a bit of a slump; but I was still hanging on to all this stuff I had discovered in Melbourne. Starting to write regularly about music on my blog, I one day found day the Last.fm profile page of Johan Agebjörn, the producer of Sally Shapiro, and I left a comment saying how much I loved Spacer Woman from Mars.
I was completely surprised then when he replied back, thanking me; I had honestly not expected it. But it gave me a chance then to ask him some technical questions about his music, so I could review a future Milky Disco compilation which he was also on. From there, he kept to up-to-date about new Sally Shapiro material, as well as his solo ambient work.
Although my original blog no longer exists, it was accidentally deleted a few years ago, Sally Shapiro were a main thread throughout it, helping me to sharpen up my writing skills, and giving me a sense of how the music industry worked in the age of the internet; of what it was like to be an independent musician.
Anyway, the sad news is that Sally Shapiro is disbanding; a press release went up on Pitchfork (who were also very unkind in one of their reviews, a few years ago) and the reason for their split is that Sally and Johan have grown in different musical directions. This news comes alongside the announcement of their final release, ‘If You Ever Wanna Change Your Mind’.
This is something I am sympathetic to; and I am sometimes surprised why more bands don’t split up sooner. One of my my friends once said that all relationships have a built in life-span, which is something I have taken to heart.
Sally Shapiro were one of the first groups to delve into 80s nostalgia, particularly the Italo disco scene. According to myth and legend, Johan and Sally started out as work colleagues, and while singing Christmas Carols at the end of a work year, Johan noticed how nice Sally’s voice was, realising it would be perfect for Italo disco, a genre of music he’d first discovered back in primary school.
With a trained background in music, Johan wrote the song ‘I’ll Be By Your Side’, which he then posted to an Italo disco forum. Surprised by the positive feedback he received, it led to getting a proper 12″ release on Austrian label Diskokaine in 2006. The encouragement spurred them on to record a full album, Disco Romance, to be released the following year.
They followed this up in 2009 with My Guilty Pleasure, and then Somewhere Else in 2013.
Besides Johan and Sally, there was also a third person involved in the project. Roger Gunnarson, a well-known pop musician in Sweden from the group Cloetta Paris, as well as his solo project Nixon. He wrote and co-wrote lyrics for many of Sally Shapiro’s best songs, like ‘He Keeps Me Alive’, ‘Looking at the Stars’ and ‘Miracle’.
If there is a way of summing up the feeling and atmosphere of Sally Shapiro’s music, then it is the bittersweet feelings of childhood love; of having met someone on holidays, and then having to come home at the end of the summer break, unsure of whether you will see them again.
These are themes that have been explored to their fullest through three full albums, many singles, and side releases. A good example would be ‘Casablanca Nights’ which began life as an instrumental track called ‘The Stones are Blasted’ on Johan’s solo ambient album The Mountain Lake. From there, it was reworked with lyrics for Italo disco singer Alan Cook by Johan, Roger, and Steve Moore through his Lovelock alias. Finally, Sally recorded a beautiful version of it, using exactly the same lyrics, but the meaning of the song changing completely with this shift in gender.
It’s also a testament to how well regarded Sally Shapiro is regarded within the independent dance music scene to hear the number of different remixes that have been made by friends and fellow musicians: the great Bodgan Irkuk aka Bulgari, Route 66, from New York the Juan Maclean, the hauntologically mysterious Jon Brooks from England, Dutch theatre composers/nu-disco-ers Elitechnique, Lindström from Norway, and the legendary Alexander Robotnick — to name only a few.
Over the last five years, Sally Shapiro has been working more with synthwave/chillwave producers, a sound that is quite different to Italo disco, but still has its roots in eighties music. And though I haven’t really covered this area of their work as much, they have been involved with people like Mitch Murder from their native Sweden, who this final release has been created with, as well as Tommy ’86 from France.
But I also noticed that this latest release has a remix by Ben Macklin the guy behind Duett — and though it isn’t out yet, I think it will definitely be worth checking out, as both Ben and Johan have explored very similar musical territory of the late eighties in their past work.
‘If You Ever Wanna Change Your Mind’ will come out on May 12 through Fika Recordings.
Sally, your sweet voice will be missed, as will your cascading arpeggios, Johan!