As I write this, I’m sitting at a desk that faces a palatable mix of winter-whipped deciduous and sturdy coniferous trees, eyeing me gently across a snow-dusted creek that refuses to succumb to the forces of the big freeze. Behind them is a crepuscular splash of blue and pink, bidding good evening to the winter sun.
It is amid all of this that Sad Cities, Sally Shapiro’s first new studio album since 2013, pulsates with an icy beauty out of my speakers. Although it’s true that the Swedish duo of Sally Shapiro and Johan Agebjörn have been making Italo Disco revival music since the mid-aughts, I tend to think of them drawing heavily from their Nordic homeland’s cold-crisp constitution. Let’s call it “Winter Disco.” It’s heartfelt dance music for the colder seasons, or for cooling off during the warm ones. Either way, it’s damn good time.
Their 2006 debut LP, Disco Romance, features a snow-adorned Shapiro, smiling with unencumbered joy. The record features a cut called “Anorak Christmas” (that Anoraak would later remix). The 2009 album My Guilty Pleasure and 2013’s Somewhere Else were decidedly less obvious with l’hiver vibes in the art, but there’s still that sensibility in the DNA. It’s inescapable. It’s a comforting, even warm embrace of sophisticated synth composition, steady rhythms, and Shapiro’s engaging but laid-back vocals. Imbued in all of that is always a melancholic sense of the human condition and an offering of interconnectedness as a salve.
“If music can make you feel less alone, then I think that’s superb,” Agebjörn said in a recent Zoom chat he and Shapiro did with Vehlinggo.
Sally Shapiro’s much-lauded “return,” Sad Cities, keeps the focus on those foundational elements that have brought them a worldwide following. (I use quotes because this very publication has premiered at least one Shapiro/Agebjörn cut since Somewhere Else.) Tommy ’86 and Electric Youth return as collaborators, with Highway Superstar joining the pack. That wintry sensibility persists on several of the songs, but most explictly on “Christmas Escape” — even if the cover art suggests something with a bit more balminess. The Discodust/mp3 blog/Hype Machine vibes that adorned earlier Sally songs are still resonant on the album. However, this time the rhythms hit harder — tighter. Overall, it’s a triumphant return for an act that despite their humility and relative disinterest in the spotlight has been quite influential in key circles.
‘Why Did I Say Goodbye?’
The duo’s return to the spotlight arrives as both them and their collaborators have accrued some serious experience points since they last worked together. Electric Youth, who last collaborated with the duo on “Starman” from Somewhere Else, have released a studio album, collaborated with Gesaffelstein and have become go-to score composers. Tommy ’86, under his alternative Acidulé moniker, did an official remix of a Cassius number. Vehlinggo affiliate Highway Superstar, whose worked with Agebjörn in various capacities over the years, contributed a sanctioned remix of St. Lucia for that band’s 2019 remix album.
Although Shapiro herself has musically only shown herself a few times over the years — for example, on the aforementioned collaborations with Agebjörn and Ryan Paris for the Videoman soundtrack — Agebjörn has been actively developing his forays into ambient electronic music with Mikael Ögren with a host of great releases. (Ögren contributed to one song on Sad Cities, too.)
The seeds of the return of the Sally Shapiro project with an album journey (rather than simply Shapiro and Agebjörn collaborating on one-off singles) isn’t some bid for former glories, big paydays, or pandemic-fueled boredom. It all came down to one thing, Agebjörn says.
“The music is the answer,” he said. “The musical inspiration — the ideas for the different songs — it was like, “Wow, why did we stop doing this?”
Going back to 2016, when they called it quits, there was the release of the greatest hits album, The Collection, and the then-final single, “If You Ever Wanna Change Your Mind,” which now reads like someone asking them “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Around that time, there was a divergence in the kind of music Shapiro and Agebjörn wanted to create for the project after basically a decade of living in one genre.
“At that time we felt that our musical styles didn’t overlap so much,” Agebjörn says. “I was more into abstract electronic music, and ambient and trance.”
And Shapiro was more into pop structures and “melodious music,” she said. There’s a B-side on the If You Ever Wanna Change Your Mind EP called “Dangerous,” an acoustic-guitar driven cover of a David Guetta cut, that hints at what she was leaning toward, Agebjörn said.
Essentially, Shapiro was pleased to not get caught up in dragging on the project to some end with diminishing returns with them getting caught up in a deep philosophical and existential discussion about what it would have meant to press on regardless.
“… We differed quite a lot [and] thought that, yeah, maybe it’s better to end the project than to press it,” she said.
Shapiro doesn’t regret their decision to get some space, because it allowed her and Agebjörn to have some time to recharge their creative energy for what the Sally project required. Absence made their hearts grow fonder, essentially.
“When we did get inspiration, there wasn’t any pressure,” she said.
The pair have day jobs and full lives, so there was no reason to exert artificial production demands on the Sally Shapiro project. It wasn’t as if their livelihoods relied on their recording and touring. The art was simply going to come as it should. Various elements of song ideas could form and flourish organically at a palatable pace. It was an unforced, natural incubation that clearly paid off.
“For us,” Agebjorn says, “music is just something that should be for the sake of art, music, and joy.”
It Starts with a Little Inspiration
The 11 songs for Sad Cities generally began with Agebjörn creating the music first.
“There were some key moments that led to the idea of making a new album,” he said.
One of the was “Forget About You,” which was released in 2020 as an Agebjorn solo cut featuring Shapiro and Italo legend Ryan Paris on vocals. (Vehlinggo premiered the Highway Superstar remix at the time.)
Shapiro “sang in an emotional way, like you really still had it,” Agebjorn says to her during our Zoom call. “So it was an inspiring track, and in the end we made the Sally solo version for the album.” (Paris’s background vocals remain, though.)
Another source of inspiration manifested in a collaboration with Tommy ’86 (AKA Frédéric Féret, a longtime friend and collaborator of the duo). Their collaboration, “Tell Me How,” became another early inspiration pointing toward the possibility that perhaps Sally Shapiro wasn’t yet done making albums.
“It wasn’t meant to be a single — it’s not catchy in that way, pop-wise,” Agebjörn says. “But for me, it’s one of the most important tracks on the album. So I felt that, right, well we need to make a whole album.”
Agebjörn’s and Shapiro’s toe-dip got them in the door, and from there it was an unstoppable creative momentum.
“‘Momentum’ is a good word, because once we got started it all went quite quickly,” Agebjörn says. “There were a few months last year when I was producing a lot in quite a short time. Especially, in that you get into those emotional states or creative states, where suddenly everything feels possible.”
Another collaboration on the record with relationship-seeds sown in the bloghouse era is “Love In Slow Motion,” which features the production work and background vocals of Electric Youth’s Austin Garrick and Bronwyn Griffin, respectively.
Agebjörn reached out to Garrick in fall 2020 and eventually Garrick shared a musical idea with him that kicked off the creation of the song. It was a loop and some basic vocals from Griffin, atop which Agebjörn crafted a melody based on lyrics he wrote. (In the industry, this is often called “top-lining” or “writing top lines.”) Garrick then created the outro part of the song.
“We both think that [Electric Youth] are pop geniuses,” Agebjörn says.
The Highway Superstar collaboration, “Down This Road,” is out there in two different versions: one on his recent album, Contraband, and the iteration on Sad Cities that features Bryan Ferry saxophonist Jorja Chalmers.
“[I’m] honored and excited to have taken part in this amazing album,” Highway Superstar (AKA Alex Karlinsky), himself a massive fan of Sally Shapiro, tweeted recently. “I love it to bits and I’m sure you will too.”
A new collaborator for this record was Jewel, the IDIB head and a member of the erstwhile Chromatics and Glass Candy. Although Agebjörn had remixed Glass Candy cut “The Chameleon,” which featured on Lo Recordings’ 2009 compilation Milky Disco II, this was the first time they worked in tandem and this substantively.
On some cuts, Jewel would recommend adjustments to the mix. On others, like “Dulcinea,” Jewel contributed a layered kick and snare, and the house-laden “Million Ways” features his house kick and 909 snare. On “Tell Me How” Jewel added Simmons snares and chimes.
The lack of drums on “Christmas Escape” came about because of Jewel’s recommendation, too, Agebjörn says. The original had beats. The emphasis away from drums serves to help bring out the wintry sustain.
The end result is that Sad Cities hits harder and perhaps more rhythmically cohesive than past albums, even if the inherent heart, soul, and humanity of the project remains. It’s just that those elements of the fabric are woven tighter.A noteworthy contribution to this end result is the mastering process. Mike Bozzi of Bernie Grundman Mastering, who does essentially all IDIB releases, helped seal it all up in a nice aural package.
“It’s louder and punchier than what we’ve done before,” Agebjörn says.
Even if Agebjörn and Shapiro don’t need to tour, does the release of a big album on the legendary IDIB hint at a possibility? Not likely. There may have been at least one live show early on in the duo’s run, but Shapiro isn’t interested in that world. She says she had mixed feelings back then, but today she is “confident in my decision not to perform live.”
Ultimately, the duo are pleased and excited to be back in action with their much-loved and pioneering disco revival project.
“I have very strong experiences listening to music,” Agebjörn says. “I feel that if we can give something like that to someone else, then it gives [our project] some meaning. That’s something you want to be able to give to people.”
Sad Cities is out now via Italians Do It Better on streaming, and via Sally Shapiro themselves for CD, download, and cassette tape iterations. IDIB will release a double-vinyl later this year.