Sally Shapiro is a pseudonym for the Swedish music duo known best for their funky combination of synth-pop and italo disco throughout Europe. With three studio albums and a new remix called Sweetened (with collaborations for Jam & Spoon and Little Boots), the duo–composed of the bisexual Shapiro and musician Johan Agebjorn–are making inroads in the States despite Shapiro’s refusal to perform live and her fear of flying. After a successful DJ tour a few years ago, the Agebjorn admitted, “Sally felt that standing on stage was not her thing, and that life on tour in general didn’t interest her.”
Since then, the musical collaborators have been working on several noteworthy projects, including the popular single “What Can I Do,” an experimental track with surprising instrumentation composed of saxophones and flutes, which was released to critical acclaim late last year. Their newest studio album–Somewhere Else–came out early this year.
In an exclusive interview, Shapiro opens up about what the duo has planned next, what was behind the queer video for “Starman,” her own sexuality and if she’ll ever step foot on stage again.
AfterEllen.com: How did you choose the name Sally Shapiro?
Sally Shapiro: We wanted an English-sounding name that sounded not too common, but not too uncommon. It’s nice with names ending with the letter “Y.” We just came up with it.
AE: Swedish music has enjoyed much success in both the U.K. and the States for many years now thanks to acts like ABBA, Roxette, Robyn, etc. Despite musical differences, do you ever get tired of being compared to these bands?
SS: People are welcome to compare it to other Swedish acts if they want, but we feel it would be more natural to compare us to like-minded female singers like Mylène Farmer and Cloetta Paris.
AE: Your music has been described as a kind of synth-pop meets disco. Over the years, disco has got a bad rap (at least in America). What would you say to detractors?
SS: I don’t really understand how you can judge any form of music, except music, which is racist, sexist, etc. How can you quarrel over music when there are such things as war, climate change, oppression… that’s what should provoke people.
AE: How is your disco sound different than the style Americans may be most familiar with?
SS: I guess the European take on disco is more electronic than the original American ’70s counterpart. I guess we sound quite European with strong influences from italo disco. American disco is perhaps also more inspired by soul and jazz. European disco is maybe more poppy, except the strictly DJ-oriented version of it.
AE: What generally inspires the music you make with your musical collaborator Johan Agebjorn?
SS: Life, movies, music like italo disco, Mylène Farmer, Belle & Sebastian, Regina Spektor–and for Johan’s part, producers like Richard X, Steve Moore, Bogdan Irkük, the Nicolosi brothers.
AE: What’s the process like working together?
SS: Usually Johan starts developing an idea that he presents for me. I tell him what I think and he goes back to the studio continuing to work on it, either alone or with some co-producers around the world (with contact through the internet). When he has something we both like, I record vocals on it. He’s never in the studio when I record the vocals; I prefer to be by myself.
AE: You’ve been releasing music in the States since 2007. What’s that experience been like for you?
SS: We have a good relationship with our label in North America (Paper Bag Records in Toronto), so we like working with them, even though we haven’t met in real life since 2008 (since we don’t tour). Our most stable output for putting out our music is the North American indie scene, even though we seem to have listeners all over the world. It’s, of course, fun. Sweden is a small country, so we wouldn’t have been able financially to do this for such a long time without international support from people buying records/mp3s, and radio stations playing the music.
AE: Has Robyn’s mainstream success had any impact on your own growing fan base?
SS: It’s difficult to say. Maybe Robyn and other Swedish artists have contributed to some people being extra interested in Swedish music, or that you follow the Swedish scene. We hope most people don’t care about in what country the music is made, though.
AE: You have been very hesitant about performing live, but a few years ago you decided to give it a try. What changed? Can we ever expect you to perform in front of audiences again?
SS: Well, I simply don’t feel at ease standing on a stage in front of people. And I don’t feel drawn to the kind of life touring musicians have, so I don’t feel it would be worth the effort to work on my stage freight. So I don’t think it will happen.
AE: Some might argue it’s impossible having a career in music without performing live shows, but has social media and the internet maybe changed that?
SS: Blogs and social media have been very important for us. I guess we have some sort of career, so in that case it’s possible, but it’s also been difficult and many people we have tried to work with have had a problem with it. Touring will get you a lot of fans and a lot of attention, so we lose a lot of opportunities. And it’s difficult to name artists who don’t perform live and who never have done it. There are probably a lot of skilled singers and musicians with stage fright or who don’t want the touring life, but we haven’t heard about them, because they have not become artists, maybe they are unknown backing vocalists or studio musicians.
AE: The most recent album you released, Somewhere Else, experimented with different sounds from your previous projects. How did that come about?
SS: We felt that we wanted to do something different, so we used more instruments than we did earlier, and we also involved more co-producer and co-writers, while still writing the same kind of melancholic pop songs. In terms of having a varied sound, we’re more satisfied with this album than both the earlier ones.
AE: Your single “What Can I Do” became quite popular. What’s the story behind that song? Does it hold any personal meaning for you?
SS: It was the last song we made for the album. We thought the album was already finished, but I wanted to have more of an acoustic indiepop feel to the music, so I asked Johan if he could produce that, and he tried. I’m playing the flute on it and a Spanish indie-pop musician, Jaime Cristóbal from Souvenir, is playing the guitar. It’s a bit inspired by Belle & Sebastian and Regina Spektor. We were really happy with it, so we made it the first single from the album.
AE: You’ve been somewhat private about your life, but when did you first openly discuss your bisexuality? And what made you decide to come out?
SS: It was in an interview for Out.com. The reason that I didn’t tell anyone in the music media earlier was simply that nobody asked and I didn’t think it was relevant to just say it. So there weren’t really any decisions around it.
AE: How has your sexuality inspired your music?
SS: Difficult question. Not on a conscious level. But for example, I prefer songs where it’s not obvious what sex the person you’re in love with has, even though the “I” in the songs in a lot of ways can be said to be typically feminine.
AE: You really caught the LGBT community’s attention when you released the video for “Starman,” which featured an assortment of queer images, including a guy in a tutu and kissing Ken dolls. What inspired the video?
SS: It’s a funny story because the director of the video (Edwin Brienen), who had got in contact with us earlier asking to make a music video for us, first proposed us with the video story, but in a heterosexual version. Then we asked for a queer version of it because we already have a few music videos out there with boy-girl stories, so we felt we wanted our music videos to reflect other types of love, too; you get a bit tired when it’s only heterosexual stories. He was really happy since he’s gay himself and had thought about proposing a gay story for the music video, but had thought it would be too much for us. So, he was really enthusiastic about making the music video and we think that shines through.
SS: Maybe. Actually the song “Casablanca Nights” on Johan’s album with the same name, where I’m the singer, is about a girl being in love with another girl who has a boyfriend.
AE: You and Johan seem to have an amazing creative partnership. Any other artists you would like to collaborate with?
SS: Mylène Farmer or Regina Spektor. I’m a big fan of their music.
AE: When you’re not making music in your native Lund, Sweden, where do you like to travel? Where are you most comfortable being open about your sexuality?
SS: I’m very comfortable about it here in Sweden. It’s a good country in that respect. I don’t like flying, so I mostly travel to the countries around Southern Sweden when I’m on vacation: Denmark, Germany, Poland. I think I’d be open there, too.
AE: Any celebrity crushes?
SS: Not really, but if I have to say someone, I’d say Drew Barrymore.
AE: Any chance we’ll see you making any appearances in the U.S.?
Download Sally’s free album here: http://paperbagrecords.com/downloads/sweetened