Text by Matthew Lee
If you want to know what First Aid Kit are all about, type “First Aid Kit Paul Simon” into YouTube. The video that comes up is of the Stockholm sisters singing Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 classic, America, as Paul Simon watches on from the crowd (he’s about to win the 2012 Polar Music Prize). For just a moment, you wonder if this could be awkward – but when the camera closes in on Simon’s face, he’s barely choking back tears. When the song ends, he gives Klara and Johanna Söderberg a one-man standing ovation.
“I’m standing onstage and suddenly I thought, ‘Oh my god, you’re performing your favourite Simon & Garfunkel song for Paul Simon,’” recalls 20-year-old Klara, sitting next to her older, taller, blonder sister in a Trondheim hotel lobby the day before their St Olav’s Festival show in late July. “Later he told us how beautiful and inspiring he found it, and I just broke down in tears. We’d been rehearsing every day for three months – it was all too much.”
First Aid Kit are a big deal these days – their second full album, 2012’s The Lion’s Roar, shot to number one across Scandinavia before wowing critics and winning the prestigious Nordic Music Prize. Nevertheless, there’s still something about them of the gauche teenagers who came to the world’s attention in 2008, when a YouTube clip showed them singing the Fleet Foxes’ Tiger Mountain Peasant Song in a forest outside Stockholm.
While the tomboyish lumberjack shirts from that video were quickly replaced by ethereal thrift-store glamour, these are still girls who get more excited by 1920s American folk than the latest Beyoncé record. When we meet, they’re wearing the same kinds of floaty floral dresses they wear in most of their press material (think The Virgin Suicides set in 1960s Nashville), looking more than a little out of place in a business hotel. They speak in near-identical American-accented English, regularly finish each other’s sentences and – perhaps because we’ve been given a tightly enforced half-hour interview slot – their answers are short and seem just a little well-rehearsed.
I first saw First Aid Kit in London in 2009, having been suitably moved by the raw simplicity of the YouTube clip that was doing the rounds. It was their first tour outside Sweden and they were bottom of the bill at a small London venue, playing to around 100 people. Though clearly nervous, there was something thrillingly unadorned about the duo – raw, but almost musically telepathic, their harmonies fusing, merging and diverging with pinpoint synchronicity.
“Oh wow,” laughs Klara when I mention that show. “We were so overwhelmed by going to London. It was just the two of us playing and we felt very exposed. I remember seeing someone in the audience really enjoying it and it meant so much that someone in London loved our music.”
They weren’t quite as green as Klara makes them sound, however. Before the Fleet Foxes video in 2008, they’d made an EP, Drunken Trees, for Rabid Records, the label run by Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer of The Knife, which saw them signed by London record label Wichita. Their debut album, 2010’s The Big Black & the Blue, was recorded at home in Sweden and earned glowing comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Carole King in the NME.
“Those early records are a document of our life,” says Klara, who wrote her first song aged six, although Femton mil i min Barbiebil (15 Miles in my Barbiecar) hasn’t yet made it on to a record. “Drunken Trees contains some of our earliest songs and they’ll always be precious to us. It’ll be interesting hearing them in 50 years’ time.”
They’ll no doubt still sound remarkably assured for songs written by children and produced at home. It helped that their father Benkt is a songwriter and professional musician – he played bass in 1980s new-wave outfit Lolita Pop, who had a hit in Sweden with Tarzan on a Big Red Scooter.
“There was always a guitar around when we were growing up,” says Klara. “From him we understood it was possible to play music as a career, and that was inspiring.” “If dad could do it, it must be a piece of cake,” adds Johanna, laughing.
The sisters quit school and turned First Aid Kit into a full-time career. “We had a record out and offers to tour,” explains Klara, “and if I was going to continue my studies it would have been in music anyway.” Instead of sitting in classrooms learning theory, they studied music in the most hands-on way possible. “It’s the School of Rock, man!” shouts Klara with a devil-horns hand gesture. “You only graduate when you die!”
In 2010, the School of Rock took the duo on a study trip to America, the land of their musical icons. Over subsequent trips they ticked most boxes on any country music nerd’s fantasy checklist: they recorded a video at the Joshua Tree National Park where Gram Parsons was cremated; they followed in the footsteps of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez by playing the Newport Folk Festival; and they jammed with Jack White in his Nashville studio, as if just being in the home of country wasn’t enough.
Most significantly, they recorded The Lion’s Roar in Omaha, Nebraska, with Mike Mogis, the producer of the first band they became obsessed with, Bright Eyes. Their music had hitherto been made in a bedroom with a microphone and a computer, and The Lion’s Roar hit a new level. The focus remains on the girls’ devastatingly beautiful harmonies and powerful storytelling, but their songs are lifted by a full band and vocals from Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst.
That year they toured non-stop to meet demand, criss-crossing the globe and playing almost 150 shows to increasingly large audiences. “The performing never tires me but all the stuff around it does,” says Johanna. “Such as all the interviews,” adds Klara. It’s a joke and they’re laughing, although there’s clearly more than a grain of truth in it. Klara says that having dad on tour (“He does our sound – he doesn’t just follow us making sure we don’t misbehave!”) helps fend off homesickness. “Sometimes I’m onstage and I think about how I’m having a great time and yet this is my job,” says Johanna. “I mean, how could this possibly be?”
The heavy touring paid off. As well as the Nordic Music Prize, The Lion’s Roar found its way onto numerous best-of-year lists, while Emmylou was included in Rolling Stone’s top 10 songs of the year. The track pays homage to four of the girls’ American musical heroes (“I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June, if you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too”), but it’s also about Sweden (“Stockholm’s cold but I’ve been told I was born to endure this kind of weather”).
“The seasons changing so rapidly drastically affects your mood and that gets into our songs,” says Klara, who normally takes the lead when it comes to writing. “We’re spotting the weather references in our new songs – there’s lots of winter,” Johanna adds, before saying she doesn’t think their music is necessarily American or Swedish: “Some people say our sense of melancholy is Swedish, but we play country music and country is the most depressing music.”
A couple of short tours are booked for the near future (they’re in Copenhagen, Berlin and Munich in January), but the focus now is on writing their third album, which they say will contain their most personal songs yet. “It’s becoming easier to write about ourselves as we get older and more confident,” explains Johanna.
A year before they sung for Paul Simon, First Aid Kit performed at the same Stockholm concert hall at the same prize ceremony. The prize in 2011 went to Patti Smith, a punk survivor famously tough as nails. But when she saw the sisters from Enskede singing her 1979 single, Dancing Barefoot, tears rolled down her cheeks.
Perhaps it is something to do with the cold, dark Swedish winters. Or maybe it’s an extraordinary talent for channelling a century of American folk and country music; a legacy of loss, loneliness and suffering that shouldn’t sound so natural coming from people so young. Either way, these sisters who’ve laughed and smiled through much of our interview sure have a knack for making people weep.