Things that happen when I listen to First Aid Kit:
1. I cry.
2. I can’t figure out why I’m crying.
3. I deem everything I know to be meaningless and decide I need to throw my life away and go live without internet and school and…I don’t know, I don’t really have a plan yet, I just know there’s gonna be a lot of fields and sunsets.
4. I need to know where these magical sisters, Klara and Johanna Söderberg, ages 18 and 21 respectively, come from, like, besides the literal answer SWEDEN, and beyond the fact that a YouTube video they made three years ago is why people like Bright Eyes and Fleet Foxes started paying attention to them, and why they are now about to release their second LP, The Lion’s Roar, in January.
If they deserved a simplified description, I would introduce them by saying they make a folksy kind of music, songs with titles like “I’m Building Myself a Boat,” lyrics like “I’ll be your Emmylou, I’ll be your June, if you’ll be my Gram, and my Johnny, too,” and a bunch about railroad tracks. But they deserve a much better introduction than that. Lots of people write storytelling songs about trains and set it to acoustic music and do pretty harmonies, but First Aid Kit transcends that cliché.
Their songs sound like they’ve gone away and seen too much and come back tired but still alive. Their music kind of has its own way of breathing: filled with tension for a little while until it goes over the edge and exhales while the instrumental parts just seem to grow. This part of every few songs of theirs is most thrilling in concert, when Klara plays guitar so intensely you’d think it’s her only way of communicating, while Johanna stands perfectly still and lets her voice carry out so that it seems kind of infinite, or like it’s been waiting to come out for forever, and I kind of can’t help imagining that it comes from under the ground up through her mouth, or that a little part of the sky exists in her diaphragm or something. They can sound like freaking angels, or like women demanding life’s answers and who can make Patti Smith cry.
But it’s what their magical voices are saying that really gets to me, because it’s painfully familiar. Some songs start like bedtime stories and become family secrets. Simple lyrics quietly turn dark, or dark lyrics are hidden in upbeat music—in “King of the World,” there’s the fear that “suddenly my fake laugh will sound sincere,” or that “one day I’d wake up all alone with a big family and an emptiness deep inside my bones.” In a simplified version of this intro—the one I maybe should’ve written, because it’s getting sort of late—I would probably describe First Aid Kit’s music as the way Klara and Johanna see the world around them, but the more I listen to their new album, the more it feels like it’s the world around me, too. Their descriptions of strangers on the street in “New Year’s Eve” and mentions of telephone calls and shopping malls in “In the Hearts of Men” feel familiar. We see the same things—and you do too, probably—they just see them differently. Isn’t that a strange feeling? For something you see or feel all the time but don’t think too hard about to be given right back to you, either finally making sense or just raising more questions, packaged with a perspective you’ve never thought of before?
For those looking for that strange feeling, prepared to find either comfort or terror; for all you lost souls, I give you: First Aid Kit.
TAVI: How did you discover the music of Johnny Cash and all those very American influences growing up in Sweden?
KLARA: Well, I think American music is popular everywhere, so it’s not hard to come by when you’re from Sweden. It’s not a rare thing.
JOHANNA: Yeah, but I guess it’s rare to grow this insane interest that we have.
KLARA: I can say that it all sort of started when I heard Bright Eyes when I was 12, and I was like, “Well, OK, what did Conor Oberst listen to when he wrote this music? What has inspired him?” And through that [process] I found Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and all those amazing musicians. It’s sort of been like that—through searching for their influences—and through Bob Dylan we found the Carter family and Bill Monroe and even older stuff.
Did it give you any expectations for America? How did things feel when you got here?
JOHANNA: I think we had a very special relationship to America, because in Sweden (or anywhere) you’re met with American culture all the time. Our TV is like 90% American shows. So when we came to America the first time, it was like we’d been there before. It didn’t feel so new. We almost feel like we grew up in America, but we didn’t. But we’re constantly amazed, driving through America, seeing all these places that we’ve heard of in songs and in movies—we kind of feel like we’re in a movie when we’re in America. We’re like, America, that’s where things happen for real, like, you are someone if you live in America. I know that’s really silly, but that’s how we feel.
I mean, you totally get that feeling from movies and everything. Do you write more from instinct or from strategy? Feel it out or think about it more?
KLARA: Feel it out, definitely. We really try not to stress the songwriting or think about it too much. We try to let it come when it comes. I always have my iPod or a notebook or my phone or something, so I just write down ideas that I get. They can just come from anything—like just walking down the street and seeing something that reminds me of something, and I just start writing, you know? I start writing lyrics from that. Sometimes I leave it and then find it a million years later and think it’s good.
Can it ever be painful to write a song?
JOHANNA: We probably wouldn’t write songs if it was painful.
KLARA: There can definitely be things that can be hard to write about because they’re personal. But writing is sort of just like therapy, like going through what you’re feeling. Writing, for me, sharing these songs, is kind of a way of saying “I feel this way,” and hopefully someone will hear it who feels the same, and we’ll all feel a little bit less lonely.
Is it ever hard to perform something that personal for a bunch of people? And so often?
KLARA: I think you kind of become a little detached from the songs when you play them live so much.
JOHANNA: They aren’t yours anymore. When the record’s released, it’s like it’s your baby in the world. You know, we share it with the world. And when you perform the songs you kind of come back to when you were writing them and how you felt. But it’s never as strong as when you were actually there.
There’s a storytelling element to your music. When I saw you live, you said that you couldn’t figure out why you were writing about a man cheating on his wife when you were so young. So where do those stories come from?
KLARA: That’s just so hard to explain. It’s kind of the magic of it—we don’t know where this stuff comes from. It just kind of appears in your head and you’re like, wow!
JOHANNA: A lot of those stories were influenced by our mother, who’s very feminist, so the feminist themes in those songs are unconscious.
KLARA: I don’t think “Tangerine” is a feminist song, though.
JOHANNA: No, but like, those themes of “You’re Not Coming Home Tonight,” the housewife leaving her man—I think that one’s been influenced by our parents a bit, and, I don’t know, like you just imagine a TV [show], like a soap, anything…
KLARA: When I wrote “Tangerine” I was listening a lot to Jenny Lewis and Rilo Kiley, and I think in my head I was sort of trying to write a Jenny Lewis song. At the same time, it feels completely honest. It’s not just trying to be like this other person. It’s hard to explain.
She was at your show, actually, when I was there.
KLARA: Yeah, I know. How crazy is that?
Did you get to meet her?
JOHANNA: Yeah. She’s one of our biggest female idols, role models. We really look up to her.
KLARA: So it was so incredible that she came. We had met her before at a festival where Bright Eyes played in Sweden, but she’d never heard our music at that point, so we didn’t have a lot to talk about because, you know, we were just big fans, and she didn’t really know who we were. But she came [to our show], and that was such a huge compliment…it was just indescribable.
Can we talk about feminism more? When did you first realize you were feminists?
KLARA: Well, I have a funny story. I was like six years old or something. Our mom sat both Johanna and me down and said, “I want to talk to you about feminism.” Like, I was like six! We have an awesome mom—she’s amazing. And she said something like, “You know, things aren’t really just in this society.” She just told us stuff, and the next day I was with my best friend at the time, and her mom, and I told them, “I’m a feminist, are you?” And my friend was like, “What’s that?” We’ve kind of grown up having a feminist perspective on everything we encounter.
JOHANNA: Just like gender roles, commercials, advertisements, other things where women are portrayed, I think we’ve had that perspective. We hope that we can be positive role models for girls. This business especially is really discriminating against women.
KLARA: And it’s small things.
JOHANNA: Yeah, you notice it all the time.
KLARA: I’ve been reading this Tumblr blog; it’s called All the Birds or something like that. It’s about Joanna Newsom and how she’s portrayed in the media, through a feminist view. They were writing about things that people have written [about Newsom] and being critical of it. And I kind of realized that it’s crazy, like [people] always write about her like she’s an elf or a fairy. You’d never hear someone say “Robin Pecknold is such an elf.” And she’s always compared to someone like Björk or Kate Bush. Just women who do stranger things with music. If they were men, they probably wouldn’t be compared the same way.
JOHANNA: It’s hard for people to take us seriously. When we started, we were 14 and 16. Half the questions were about how young we were and how we weren’t like other girls. You just felt like [people thought] girls of that age weren’t capable of writing lyrics about anything other than boys and partying. It was really terrible, the view people have about teenagers—really generalizing.
There’s an article I read about Joanna Newsom and it was saying that a lot of the criticism about her basically comes down to she’s too girly, she’s too feminine. That’s really annoying. And about comparing women to each other, there’s a really good interview with Björk and PJ Harvey and Tori Amos. They’re talking about how they’re always compared to each other, and one of them is like, We don’t even play the same instrument. It’s good to know that stuff is wrong, I guess. It must be helpful to have that feminist perspective if you have to deal with all that.
KLARA: You’re more aware of things so you’re just like, annoyed with people. [Both laugh] But I’m really happy our mom has a voice and made sure that we were really conscious of that.
Has being on tour and traveling given you any inspiration for your songs?
JOHANNA: Yeah. A lot of lines for songs are written during tours. There are so many experiences and so many places and so many new people, it’s just very overwhelming and it gives you a lot of material for songwriting. Then when you get back home, you can work on all those impressions and form them into songs.
KLARA: We try not to write about just being on tour. “On the Road with First Aid Kit!” That gets boring pretty quickly.
A lot of teenagers work on our site, like creative young people, and I end up talking with them a lot about how when you are young and you’re still becoming a person, you go through all these phases, and whenever I grow out of a phase, I end up just hating whatever I wrote. Did you ever feel that way—almost kind of embarrassed about music that you wrote? I mean, it’s not bad, it’s just kind of that feeling of growing.
KLARA: Not the songs, particularly, but I think when you listen to our EP, I was 14 when we recorded that and Johanna was 16, and when I listen to it now I can hear that I wasn’t really confident with my voice. I hadn’t really found my voice, so I was trying to sound like other people. It’s really obvious to me now when I listen to it and think, Wow, I was really trying to sound like this person. The songs have always been more universal than just personal, personal things.
JOHANNA: We have become more personal with time. Hopefully we weren’t too personal at that age!
KLARA: We aren’t too ashamed of it.
JOHANNA: The very first, old recordings from when we were like 10 and 11, I’m really embarrassed by. Some of it’s awful!
KLARA: But everything we’ve released under First Aid Kit we’re not embarrassed about. I mean with this record now, obviously it hasn’t come out yet, but I can still be like, “Oh, I could have done this differently.” And I think that’s good, because you want to evolve and have new things going on.
JOHANNA: Because things constantly change. I mean, that’s the point of life is to change. If you don’t, there’s nothing interesting going on.
KLARA: And Johanna just said the meaning of life.
JOHANNA: Yeah. There you go.
You have a very strong visual aesthetic, especially onstage—your dresses you had on when I saw you just moved perfectly with the music. Wanna talk about your style a bit?
JOHANNA: We’ve also gone through a lot of phases with that. When we first started out, it was very simple, like jeans and flannel shirts. Now we’ve sort of…we see a lot of pictures on Tumblr and it’s sort of shaped our aesthetic a lot. It’s very ’70s. We go vintage shopping a lot in Stockholm and when we’re on tour. It’s fun to go into different vintage shops—it’s like a souvenir, sort of.
I’m going to throw out all journalistic objectivity right now and say that when I listened to the new album, I basically just cried and I couldn’t figure out why. What kind of music is like that for you, or what kind of bands do that for you, if any?
KLARA: Well first off, thank you so much. I mean that’s, like, that’s why we make it, because if we can inspire people or make them feel something, that’s all that it’s about. So it means a lot to us that you say that. There are a lot of people [who do that for us]. I think recently Joni Mitchell has meant a lot to us. Her album Blue is just amazing, so sad and personal that it feels like she just…
JOHANNA: …reveals her innermost secrets to you.
KLARA: It’s incredible, so moving. And especially now, during Christmastime, I always listen to “River”—that’s always such a tearjerker. Bright Eyes has meant that to us too, but it’s weird now that they’re sort of our friends; it would be sort of weird sitting and crying to their music. It still means so much to us, but I can’t listen to it in the same way that I did before. Townes van Zandt, Leonard Cohen…Johanna, what would you say?
JOHANNA: You pretty much said our main three. Fleet Foxes were very important to us when we started out.
KLARA: But what makes you cry?
JOHANNA: Oh no, I don’t really cry to Fleet Foxes. Elliott Smith makes me cry.
KLARA: Oh, yeah. You play an Elliott Smith song, Johanna will literally just be lying on the floor.
JOHANNA: Yeah, I can’t even listen to it. It’s just too beautiful and fragile and I just want to hug him, and then he’s not there and, you know, it’s just…aaaah.
KLARA: You can’t even talk about Elliott Smith with Johanna, it’s too personal!
We can change the subject! It’s OK!
KLARA: I’ve also just gotten into the Mountain Goats. Have you listened to him?
KLARA: OK, well if you want to hear a song that’s really sad, that makes me cry, you should listen to this song. Now I can’t even remember what it’s called…what’s it called, Joanna? [Sings] “I wanted you to love me like you used to…” Oh, “The Mess Inside.” There we go. It’s so beautiful and really sad. You have to listen to it.
I will! Is there any music people might be surprised to find out that you like?
KLARA: We listen to lots of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They’re awesome.
JOHANNA: Karen O is a really amazing woman.
KLARA: Watching her live is…she’s so cool and she looks so happy at the same time. Most people look sort of pissed off and cool, but she’s just loving it, and it’s really inspiring to see that. We’re looking through our iTunes library…
JOHANNA: We’re trying to think of something that’s not like folk…the Knife and Fever Ray, but I think people know that we like them.
KLARA: I like Bollywood music.
KLARA: Something about it is really awesome. Billie Holiday I really love as well.
JOHANNA: Yeah, jazz music.
What would you say to other girls who want to make music, like around our age?
KLARA: I would say just do it, but I would say do it by yourself.
JOHANNA: …or with your sister.
KLARA: Or with your sister. People can think you need a producer and you need someone to write songs for you. We just had a little luck because we have great parents who are really supportive and really help us. Like the first record deal that we got…they wanted to give us a record deal, but we said no because they gave us this thing that’s called 360 deal, which is like basically they just want to control everything. And I was 14, and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m going to release a record and this is amazing,” but our parents said we can’t do this because this deal is crazy. I sort of came to my senses and I’m so happy now that we didn’t sign anything like that. That would have been the worst thing. Just do it…just write and don’t be afraid.
JOHANNA: Do it for yourself because you need to do it.
KLARA: It can be so much fun.
JOHANNA: Don’t do it for anyone else. And I think YouTube is probably the greatest tool for spreading your music.
KLARA: Yeah, and if you want to learn to play an instrument, just go on YouTube and search for a song that you like and how to play it, just play the chords.
JOHANNA: We knew like four chords when we started. If you have the right feeling and the right ideas, you don’t need to be a professional guitarist or professional musician, you know? If the ideas and feeling are there, that’s all that matters.
I do think there’s something to be said for that attitude…I think the best decision I ever made was for us to do Rookie independently. It’s so nice saying what we want.
JOHANNA: That’s what people like, like raw emotion that hasn’t been censored. The most important thing in music for us is honesty. If you feel like you can be totally honest, you’ll make good music.
The Lion’s Roar will be released on January 24 on Wichita Recordings.