Vibrant, ethereal harmonies courtesy of two sisters from Sweden with the moniker First Aid Kit evoke the true spirit and sounds of Americana by way of suburban Stockholm, generating an international audience and kudos from some of music’s biggest names.
Despite beautifully nuanced performances on their latest release Lions Roar, the youthful Soderberg sisters (Johanna aged 21, keyboards and vocals, and Klara aged 19, guitars and vocals) create a buzzy vibe at their live shows, and when it comes to discussing their stratospheric career, the duo exude confidence with their often humorous and quirky responses.
Their lush vocals will seduce you if they’ve not done so already. Acoustic nabbed music’s biggest duo for a lively chat following the recent, dazzling UK tour.
You hail from Enskede, a small town outside of Stockholm. What is it about Americana and alt-country music that drew you in?
Our love for Americana might seem odd and unexpected, but truly it isn’t. Today, when all the music from all the world is so easily reachable to anyone anywhere, that we found this old American music is probably not that crazy. Those things will happen more and more. It all started with Bright Eyes and then we moved on to Dylan, Cohen and the Carters. We found simplicity, purity and honesty. We found something we had been searching for in music for a long time, and we found it in folk music. It spoke to us and it inspired us. It’s timeless music.
Is there any ‘Swedishness’ that you think is somehow, perhaps unconsciously, imbued in your music?
Perhaps, although it’s hard to pinpoint that ourselves. It’s hard to analyse yourself in any way, or to find what about your culture defines you or what you do. People do tell us they find the darkness and melancholy in our music to be very typically Swedish. We’re not sure if that’s true, although we truly don’t mind.
Who or what has been your most profound musical influence?
It’s hard to say, because every time we find a new song or a new songwriter that we love, we feel our music will never be the same again. There are many musicians who have inspired us. There is one band that comes to mind though, the band that really made us want to make music in the first place, and that’s Bright Eyes. We heard them when we were very young. Bruce Springsteen said (in an interview with Uncut that we just read) that every band has their revelation – when they realise how magical music can be – for him it was seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show, for us it was Bright Eyes and the record I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning.
How were you discovered?
We discovered ourselves. Then others followed.
Being siblings, what are the pros and cons of your artistic and professional relationship, and do you assume roles as either the older sister or younger one or is it a truly artistic partnership without any sibling rivalry?
Of course our songwriting process becomes different since we are sisters. Collaborating with anyone when you’re writing songs, which must be one of the most personal things you can do, can be both amazing and challenging. We try to go into it with complete honesty, which is simple being sisters. We know each other so well that we can’t hide things from each other.
How much creative control did you have on Lion’s Roar and what did your producer Mike Mogis bring to the table?
All of the songs were already written when we came to Omaha, Nebraska. The demos we recorded were filled with the basic arrangements and moods we used as reference points when we started producing. We spent lots of time just discussing where we wanted to take the songs and found that we agreed on everything. It wasn’t a very dramatic recording process because we never had to compromise or argue about anything. We wanted to keep things simple. Less is more was our attitude to the production. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it was that Mike contributed, but he put countless hours into perfecting the recordings and plays on pretty much every single song. He is a master at finding the right sounds and instruments, and he creates hauntingly beautiful soundscapes.
Does one of you write melodies, the other lyrics or are your compositions shared in most every aspect?
Klara comes up with the basic ideas for the song and then we usually work out the rest together. We don’t divide the songwriting in any way, when we have something we like we usually sit down and try to figure it out together. Whenever Klara gets stuck, I fill in and help her finish the song.
‘King of the World’ (from Lion’s Roar) is an interesting track because you have cleverly incorporated mariachi horns and hand claps in a nu-folk hybrid. How did that track evolve?
‘King of the World’ is a song that ended up quite different from what we imagined when we first wrote it. Actually, it was written just a week prior to us leaving for Omaha to record. As the lyrics are quite sad and dark, we wanted to give the song a sort of up-tempo vibe. In some ways, maybe to say, “Yes, things are terrible, but let’s enjoy life anyway…”
At this point we had carefully asked if Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) would like to sing on one of the songs, which to our disbelief he immediately agreed to. When we got to Omaha, we continued to discuss this and decided ‘King of the World’ would be the perfect song for him to sing on. He asked if he could write his own verse, which we of course said he could. Collaborating with one of our biggest heroes and one of the greatest songwriters we know made us feel very blessed and honoured. We also had the Felice Brothers come in and play on the song. They were in town to play a show and the day after Greg Farley and James Felice dropped by the studio. They played violin and accordion, respectively, and added just that improvised joy we wanted. Nate Walcott’s trumpet recalled a mariachi vibe that we loved too.
Klara, tell us about the provenance of your guitars?
I play a guitar that I had handmade for me by a very talented luthier named Joel Stehr. He sent me an email about four years ago and then built me the guitar of my dreams. It’s Indian rosewood and 00 size. I’ve always loved small guitars. Apart from this guitar, I also have a guitar of the Swedish brand Levin from 1966 that I also love dearly.
Do you have any guitar heroes?
I think my greatest influence, when it comes to guitar playing, is Maybelle Carter. Although I am nowhere near as good as her, nor will I ever be, she’s just so inspiring. I love the Carter family story and their songs. Knowing that behind it all was this great, inspiring, and extremely talented woman makes it even better. Her guitar picking style has inspired everyone who came after her. Apart from that, Joni Mitchell is a fantastic guitarist. She works with a lot of different tunings, things that I’m still trying to get better at. I’ll always look up to and admire these two women so much.
Are you self-taught?
I was mostly self-taught, yes, although I had the help of our father who is an extremely good guitarist himself. I would look up the songs I wanted to play, ask him how to play a certain chord, and then I’d just listen and try to imitate how it was played. The internet, of course, helped me a lot and made it easier for me to look up songs I liked.
Johanna, besides keyboards, what other instruments do you play and do you come up with melodies on the keyboard?
I can play a little autoharp, but nothing else. I really want to be a good instrumentalist someday. When I get time I’m going to work very hard to improve my keyboard and autoharp skills. I also hope to learn the Swedish instrument nyckelharpa someday. I think that instrument would add a unique Scandinavian touch to our music. I do often come up with melodies on keyboards, yes.
Are you both always writing songs or do you set time aside to specifically write?
We’re always trying to write songs and touring can be very inspiring. The places we visit and people we meet are very interesting. However, it’s sometimes hard to finish songs when you’re on an intense tour with a busy promo schedule. We have lots of bits and pieces of melodies and lyrics that we’ve gathered the past two years. We will patch them together when we have some time off touring to reflect and be calm. Sometimes calm, or even boredom is necessary when doing creative work.
You were recently joined on tour by the immensely talented pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole…
It was an honour and great privilege to work with BJ Cole. He is a legend. Pedal steel is one of our favourite instruments. It really added a lot to our live show. We would love to work with Mr. Cole again; we’ll see what the future holds.
Asking musicians about their fashion predilections is likely a first for Acoustic, but I’m compelled to comment that your stage clothes hark back to a 70s vibe. Do you two choose your stage clothing or do you have a stylist?
We love style and are very inspired by the 60s and 70s. We chose everything ourselves, though. The dresses we’re wearing on stage right now were custom-made by a stylist in Los Angeles called Miss KK. The flowing, silk, maxi-dresses fit our music perfectly.
Finally, you’ve performed for Paul Simon, played with Jack White, covered Fleet Foxes and Patti Smith adores you while Emmylou Harris recently admitted that she, too, is a First Aid Kit fan. Is there anyone on your hit list of musicians that you’d like to collaborate with?
We’d like to have Alan Rickman sing on our next record. He’s our favourite actor and we think he has one of the best voices on the planet. If any of Acoustic’s readers know Alan, please let him know that he’s our dream collaborator!