The Swedish sister act is getting respect for telling tall tales
When First Aid Kit first broke out around 2008, they were often the subject of muted condescension. Sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg were 18 and 15, respectively, when their YouTube cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” went viral and the first wave of articles about them were often fixated on their age. Their country folk vocal harmonies were so perfect and their lyrics so world weary, yet they were so young. It didn’t seem right, so much so that when they released their Drunken Trees EP, The Guardian actually called them creepy.
Now 21 and 19, they’ve got two critically-acclaimed albums under their belts: The Big Black and Blue and, since January, The Lion’s Roar. These days the Söderberg sisters report they’re being taken a little more seriously. The critics are less bewildered and reviews of their most recent material have been more positive. If you ask Klara and Johanna, they’d say it’s all because they didn’t quit.
“People realize that we’re not just doing this for fun. It’s not like a one-time thing. This is what we do,” Klara says relaxing beside her sister on a couch in the green room of Webster Hall in New York City, where the pair are preparing to play a sold-out show. They wear their light brown hair very long these days and share a family resemblance just this side of uncanny. They seem exceptionally in tune with each other, whether chatting softly in Swedish or finishing each others sentences in English. Their words often flow together, or one picks up the thread of a story where the other left off.
Johanna chalks the respect they’re getting up to that passage of time. “Now that I’m 21 and Klara is 19, it’s some kind of magical change now, where we’re suddenly much more mature, people think.” In reality, not so much has changed in the last couple of years, which is not to say they haven’t grown as artists. Klara can hear a difference when she puts on The Big Black and Blue and compares it to The Lion’s Roar. “Listening to it, we just sound so much less secure and confident and just younger,” she explains. No doubt, they have grown as musicians and vocalists, but the assured sound of the album can also be attributed to its producer, Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis.
And there’s another reason they suspect they’re being treated more kindly in the press: they’ve been working with some very well-respected men. In addition to Mogis’s work, Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst wrote and sang a verse for “King of the World,” which closes the ten-track album, The Lion’s Roar. What’s more, not long ago First Aid Kit recorded a version of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “The Universal Soldier” with Jack White as a special seven-inch release on his Third Man label. This summer they’re sharing the stage with White on some spot dates throughout Europe.
“I feel like now you have to have a man approving what you do, like Jack White or Mike Mogis and then it’s like, ‘These girls, they’re okay’,” Johanna says, dropping into a bro-ish baritone. She’s lodging an accusation with the music industry here. It’s nothing to do with the guys — some of their all-time musical heroes — who have supported them. “We love them,” Klara stresses.
A lot of the early criticism against First Aid Kit was that, like all good storytellers, they were able to write songs that seemed deeply heartfelt but weren’t necessarily based on things the girls had lived through — or could have lived through at that stage in their lives.
In “This Old Routine,” a tear-jerker on The Lions’s Roar, they find redemption in a tale of mid-life desperation. Over lap steel and clattering piano keys they sing: This old routine will drive you mad/It’s just a mumble never spoken out loud/Sometimes you don’t even know how you’re still standing/Well she looks at you now, and you see how.
Neither Klara nor Johanna is married with grown children like the characters in the song, but if the song hits home for someone who is, what does it matter? They’re just telling stories they’ve made up, hoping to evoke some emotion. “I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid and this is a continuation of that,” Johanna says.
The siblings grew up with quite a lot of stories, you see. “I think our grandfather is a really good storyteller. He’s actually a priest,” Klara reveals.
“He’s really more of an entertainer,” Johanna interjects.
“People come around and he just tells jokes. When we were young he’d always tell us stories. Every time we came and visited him he’d tell us a story every night about this character and all the things he went through. He’d invent stories and he was great at it. He did that for all of his grandchildren. Still does,” Klara notes.
They learned a lot about storytelling from him, but also from Astrid Lindgren, the Swedish author of Pippi Longstocking. And they loved fairy tales.
“There’s a lot of stories where a poor boy goes through all these tests to get the princess and all the animals help him. All of them are starting to run together for me,” says Klara. “Our lyrics aren’t very fairy tale-ish. They’re very everyday life, most of them,” she reflects.
It might be true but, oddly then, parts of their lives thus far are the stuff of modern day fairy tales. The sisters got into folk music through Bright Eyes, and they got to work with the group a year after slipping Oberst one of their CDs at a concert.
Then there was the time they made Patti Smith cry at an award show in Stockholm. They covered Smith’s legendary song “Dancing Barefoot,” which Johanna remembers with great emotion. “We grew up with her music. Mom cried when she told us we were going to perform for her. So, we were so nervous. We didn’t care about anyone else who was there, even the royal family of Sweden, it was just the fact that she was there.”
They have a lot of stories like that, and, rather than play it cool, they’re openly amazed. “I feel like everything that happens, I look back at it as sort of a dream,” Klara muses.
With all that behind them now, future albums may be more informed by their own adventures. With each step forward in their musical careers, they’ve been mixing more personal inspiration into the songs they write, creating an overlap between truth and fabrications. “When we wrote some of the songs [on The Big Black and Blue] I was 14, I didn’t have a lot of experiences. As we grow older, we have more things to write about. The lifestyle of touring, I think it gets into our music … All the songs are very personal to us, even if they might not be about us directly.”
At the show that night, the two young women demonstrate considerable mastery over both their craft and the crowd in the packed grand ballroom. They stomp their feet and whip their heads as they play, Johanna on a keyboard and Klara on guitar, with their drummer Mattias backing them up. First they rock the audience with their wide open rolling numbers. Next, they subdue them into quiet stillness with the intimate ballads. At one point, unplugged and with mics turned off, the stand at the edge of the stage singing fan favorite “Ghost Town.” They ask for silence and get it from everyone, excepting those who sing along
Faces beam in the front row, their fans are singing entire songs, telling First Aid Kit’s stories back to them. It’s apparent that First Aid Kit is growing into their big voices as their stories keep getting better.
Catch First Aid Kit on Episode 12 of the MTV Iggy Show