Johanna Söderberg (left) and sister Klara of Swedish indie folk duo First Aid Kit, photographed by Cici Olsson.
First Aid Kit
Healing From Sweden
Oct 18, 2010
Klara Söderberg of First Aid Kit would like people to know that she and her sister Johanna were an active duo performing shows in Sweden before folks in the U.S. discovered them through their cover of Fleet Foxes' "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" on YouTube. "I don't want them to think we were not making music and then did the Fleet Foxes cover and were like, 'Oh, we can make music,'" Klara explains. "We've always been doing our own songs, and that has been the main thing."
The video has registered more than 1.5 million views since being uploaded in the summer of 2008, when Klara was 15 years old and Johanna 17. But Klara has been writing songs since she was 13, and, before filming the Fleet Foxes cover, First Aid Kit already had its first EP, Drunken Trees, out on Karin Dreijer Andersson's (The Knife, Fever Ray) Rabid Records label. In 2009, London's Wichita Recordings released an enhanced version of the EP that included the "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" video.
Earlier this year, First Aid Kit released its debut LP The Big Black & the Blue and headlined its first tour of the U.S. The duo recently released the album track "Ghost Town" as a single with a cover of Fever Ray's "When I Grow Up" as the B-side. With three new songs in their repertoire ("I Just Needed a Friend," an untitled, and the spirited, keyboard-laden "The Lion's Roar"), the sisters currently are headlining their second tour of North America and making their way to the CMJ Music Marathon this weekend.
Influenced by country, folk and rock acts ranging from The Carter Family to Bob Dylan to Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit's acoustic-driven music is distinguished by the Söderbergs' accomplished melodies, arresting vocal harmonies, and the timeless iconography (ships, railroad tracks) in their lyrics.
The sisters' father, Benkt, played guitar in the '80s postpunk/new wave Swedish band Lolita Pop, which released eight albums over the course of about a decade. The band disbanded around the time of Johanna's birth, and Benkt went on to pursue academics. He's now a teacher but has co-produced, recorded and mixed his daughters' music at their home studio in Enskede, a district of South Stockholm.
Under the Radar spoke with Johanna and Klara Söderberg in the late spring for an article on young musicians in the Summer 2010 issue, in which the singer/songwriters discussed their parents, the challenges of being teen musicians on tour, and the difficulty of balancing school with music. We followed up with the sisters in Los Angeles in early October. Over the phone, their English revealed little, if any, trace of a Swedish accent. In person, even more striking is how tall they are. The following transcription is a composite of the two interviews.
While you were growing up, were your music tastes influenced by your parents?
Johanna: I think so, although I don't really know to what extent or how. But I remember they played Patti Smith and Velvet Underground and Pixies, and I think that sort of influenced us, although now we decide what music we listen to as a family, and they sort of follow what we listen—
Klara: —Yeah, but they're very open.
Were your music tastes much different from your friends?
Klara: Not when we were growing up. 'Cause you just kind of listen to what your friends are listening to. When you're a kid, you do that. Most people do, at least, and we did. But definitely when we started listening to folk music— I have friends who listen to that, but in school no one listened to that kind of music. That was very rare, I think.
Johanna: Yeah, and especially this older country, like Carter Family. People would listen to that and laugh. So we definitely felt like outsiders.
How did you find that stuff?
Klara: Well, I guess it was through the band Bright Eyes, which I heard when I was 12, and it kind of changed the way I looked at music. 'Cause that music, for me, felt so honest and sincere, and the music you hear on the radio is made to be on the radio. It's made to be hits. But it just felt like that music was written for the joy of making music. And I really loved that idea. I hadn't really experienced that before. And I just found that you could listen to music in such another way, where you really felt something from listening to it. That was the beauty I saw in that, so I just started looking for similar music, Conor Oberst influences. And I found Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and then I just looked at their influences. And I found Carter Family and Bill Monroe and the Louvin Brothers, so it's a great way to find good music, looking up the influences of bands you like.
How did you find Bright Eyes when you were 12?
Klara: That was a friend of mine, same age as me, who said that I should listen to that, which I am very grateful that he did tell me to do that. And yeah, I just listened and fell in love with that music.
Johanna, when Klara was discovering music, what kind of things were you into?
Johanna: I don't really know. I was kinda into German techno.
Klara: I think you were just trying to find who you were, I guess.
Johanna: I don't know who I am. I'm not really like, I only listen to country. I like a lot of stuff. But with Bright Eyes, it was his voice. I thought it was really annoying. And I thought you were so obsessed with it, I couldn't take that. Sorry.
[Klara shows disapproval.]
Klara: And then you realized it's amazing.
Johanna: Yeah. I think I just wanted to have my own thing and not to be part of what you were doing. I just wanted to have my own identity.
Klara: But then—
Johanna: But then I realized the music was really good, actually. Gradually, I started to accept it and listened to it for what it is and not just thinking, "This is Klara's thing." I think that when I started singing harmonies, that's when I really wanted to do this. We both realized that it gave us something special.
Johanna, is Klara a very persuasive person?
Johanna: Mmm, not really.
Klara: Wait, what do you mean?
Johanna: You didn't really persuade me. It was my own will.
Klara: No, but I'm definitely like, if I find new music, I tell everyone about it.
Johanna: Yes, you're very loud.
Klara: Yeah, I am. And if I like something, I will be obsessed about it. I will know every little detail about this new band that I like, and it's kind of scary. [Sighs] But I can't help it.
Usually it's the older sibling that influences the younger sibling.
Johanna: I think it's been like that a lot. When we were kids, I think, I influenced you a lot. It's just like this one thing where you started out with it first, and it's become really big, so it feels like you're more influential than you actually are. But I think we've been together, I think, more than regular siblings. We've had a really tight relationship since you were born, so it's hard to separate us like that. We're so similar.
When did you first start playing instruments?
Klara: I got my first guitar when I was 13, so that's when I started playing. And Johanna, you've been—
Johanna: Wait, how old was I? [Laughs] 17.
How did you settle on the name First Aid Kit?
Klara: It's not a great story. I was 13, young and naïve and looking through a dictionary, looking for a name. Like I wanted something, if I would ever make music, I wanted to have a name for it, and I found First Aid Kit and just liked the meaning of it. I think music should be like a consolation to help you get through everyday life, and it does for me. I thought, if I ever make music, that's what I want my music to do. And when we started making music, it kinda stuck around.
Klara, this started as a solo project for you?
Klara: It kinda started as a solo thing. And then Johanna started singing harmonies, and we just realized how important they were. And then we thought we needed something more, so we got a keyboard for Johanna, and I taught her to play. And then the autoharp. We started writing songs more together, and it evolved more into a duo.
So you first started writing songs shortly after picking up instruments?
Klara: Yes, we did. We've always been very interested in music and we've been singing for a very long time, and the thought of actually working in the music business has always been a dream for us, but it gradually became more and more real. When I started writing songs, I didn't have really any plan. I was just writing, and then suddenly we had shows. It just happened very, very fast. When I learned three chords, I wrote the first song. And then I taught myself two more chords and I wrote another song. So it's pretty much how it worked.
Do you write songs together?
Klara: Yes. It's kind of mixed, the way we write. Sometimes we write together, sometimes I write alone, so it's different for each and every song.
When you write together, how does that dynamic work? Do the roles change in terms of lyrics and instruments?
Johanna: We usually do the lyrics together if we write the song together. We don't have [a rule where] Klara always does the lyrics and I do the melody. We do both together. And I'm always involved. Even if Klara writes a song on her own, I'm always there.
Klara: And also, in terms of arrangements, Johanna's involved in that. Even if I would write a song myself, Johanna is still such a big part of it, and it wouldn't sound at all like it does.
I think it's interesting that you're able to write lyrics together. That's unique.
Klara: Yeah, we're just one mind. [Laughs] We do argue about the lyrics, but we have a similar taste in writing. And it's good 'cause, Johanna, when I write, she doesn't really criticize me. Right?
Klara: She seems to like what I do. Sometimes I end up writing a song myself, 'cause it can be a very personal thing, where you write about something that has happened to you, and it's hard to write that together. But we write a lot of songs that are not autobiographical; it helps a lot to be two people.
Johanna: You can definitely tell a story being two people. We're so close, as sisters as well, and we've had similar experiences. It's just very easy for us.
So what influences the lyrics when they're not autobiographical?
Klara: Everything. [It's not like] we read certain books and then we write about the story we've read about. It's more like, it kind of comes in the moment, and we feel like, "OK, now I want to write a song about this." It's really hard to explain, and especially when you're not writing, it's like, "What am I going to write a song about? What could I possibly write about?" And then suddenly a song is in your head or a lyric, and you just write, and it comes very naturally. And you realize that you're writing about something that you may not have experienced, but you still have the feeling of the song and the emotion of the song. You just feel that, and you want to get that path, and you do that by telling a story.
In our interview at the beginning of summer, you mentioned that your father is a history and religion teacher, but he's taken time off to accompany you on tour. Is he still touring with you?
Johanna: He's taken like a year off, two years off now, so I think he can't take anymore years off and he has to go back, but we'll see what happens. We really like having him on the road with us.
Klara: It's been really great, I think, just starting up, having him with us. And I also think that he has seen that we can—
Johanna: —Do it on our own.
Klara: Yeah, I think so. The thing is, he's so great at what he's doing with sound.
Johanna: He knows all our songs in and out, so he knows every single line. He's like a compressor with our harmonies and everything, how it should be. He works with the levels all the time. He's just really involved.
In the previous interview, you mentioned how, although your father teaches religion, you were not raised religious. On "Hard Believer," are you taking a shot at religion?
Klara: Yes! Definitely. There have been some rumors going on YouTube that it's about me being gay, which is not true. It's very strange, 'cause I've been reading some of the comments, which I guess we really shouldn't do, but it's funny how people kinda make stuff up like that. And it's not that I generally mind. It's just very strange reading it, like, "Oh, I'm gay?! OK."
Johanna: But it's about your friend not being able to accept that—
So you had a friend that wasn't able to accept—
Klara: I have a friend who was very religious, and we just had long discussions about religion. And I kind of wrote it just to him, to show him what I thought about it. I think he was kinda honored that I wrote a song about him, but he didn't really know what to think about the overall theme of the song.
What inspired "I Met Up With the King"?
Johanna: Bob Dylan.
Klara: Bob Dylan. Just listening a lot to Bob Dylan and then wanting to write a Bob Dylan song, and that was what we came up with, I guess. A lot of our songs are stories that we make up, and we don't really know where they come from. It's like writing a story; you just make things up.
Johanna and Klara Söderberg of First Aid Kit, photographed by Angel Ceballos.
Have any U.S. cities or locations been surprising discoveries for you?
Klara: In Sweden and the rest of Europe, we see all the Hollywood films. We're surrounded by American culture. So, New York, even though I hadn't been there, it was already a place that I knew very well. A lot of places have been the way we thought they would be because we've seen them so many times before. Everything feels very familiar in a lot of ways. We really love Portland. We were in San Francisco two days ago, and that was really great.
Johanna: We were at Walmart in Oregon and randomly on the road, and that was really interesting, I think, just 'cause of how the people looked. It was so different from people in Stockholm, [where] it's like walking around in a fashion book. They think so much about how they look and how they appear. It's really good to be in an environment where people just don't care.
Klara: It's really nice, actually.
Johanna: Yeah, I really like it, just not having to be so anxious all the time.
Do you have any other siblings?
Klara: We have a wonderful, amazing brother who's only six years old, and he's the sweetest thing in the world.
Where is he?
Klara: He's in Sweden with our mom.
Where do you get your height?
Klara: Our parents.
Johanna: People in Sweden are quite tall. I think it has something to do with the diet. We eat real good food.
Klara: Yeah, that could be it. I mean, it's in our family, but I'm not that tall.
You're much taller than average.
Klara: Yeah, but I'm allergic to gluten, so when I was 10, I learned that, and I stopped eating gluten, and I grew a lot. I think that if I had known that earlier, maybe I would be taller.
Something that struck me over the phone was how little trace of accents you have. You could pass for Americans here. That's not typical yet for Swedes, is it?
Johanna: We went to an English school.
Klara: Yeah, but I've always had this accent.
Johanna: No you haven't.
Klara: Yes, I have.
Johanna: Absolutely not. When you started school, your accent wasn't like this at all. It was very Swedish.
Klara: It was?
Johanna: You can't remember, but it wasn't like this at all.
Klara: It wasn't?
Klara: When did I get this accent?
Johanna: Gradually, like when you started. I think it happens really quickly, like when you're 11 years old. You just learn so fast.
Klara: Hmm. And also, I guess, it's because we've been so surrounded by American culture, like I said before, so, to me, to us, English, this is the way it sounds.
Johanna: I think the sole reason is that we went to an English school.
Johanna: Our friends, they're the same. They watch just as many American TV shows, but they still don't have those accents.
Klara: Yeah, that's true.
Johanna: So, it's because we went to those schools.
Klara: OK. OK! You wiiin! High five.
Johanna: Sorry, Klara.
Klara: It's OK.
Johanna: I remember a German journalist, he got very angry because we didn't have any accents. He thought it was like we were pretending to be something we're not.
Klara: Yeah, it was really weird, actually. He was kinda like mad at me, and just like, "Why don't you have a Swedish accent?" And I was like, [methodically] "I can't explain it. This is the way we sing and the way we speak." It just comes natural.
And you know other languages, right?
Klara: Well, Johanna knows Japanese, and we both took French for four years, but I'm not good at it at all. If someone French speaks to me, I don't understand a word. But if I read it, I can understand.
Johanna: In Sweden, you have to understand Norwegian and Danish and German as well. So, it's really good.
What's your favorite Lolita Pop song?
Klara: I remember, they had this one song called "Tarzan on a Big Red Scooter," that we used to listen to a lot when I was a kid. We used to dance to it.
Johanna: That's one of dad's songs.
Klara: Yeah, he wrote that. [breaking into song] Tarzan on a big red scooter
[Johanna joins in]
Run me down like a rolling stone/ Run me down like a stone
Clever with words, my friend, like a Dictaphone
Tell me what you're thinking of when you're on your own
Honey, I'm just killing time and it dies real slow
Klara: OK, whatever, yeah.
[Singing turns to laughter]
Klara: Ah, he would be embarrassed if he saw that.
Your voices are actually pretty distinct from each other. How do you decide who sings what?
Johanna: Usually I just do the harmonies, 'cause—
Klara: —Two reasons. One is that I usually start off the songs, so it's just naturally me who sings the songs. And second is I'm very bad at harmonies. I'm learning but not very good at it.
Johanna: My register is a bit low. I'm better singing lower, so I sing songs which are low. Usually my harmonies are really high, but I feel more comfortable singing the lower parts, I guess. But we're thinking about, like the next record, we're gonna have a lot more, 'cause Klara's getting better at doing harmonies, so we're gonna switch a lot more.
Klara: We listen to Louvin Brothers, and I heard this one song where they were mixing up every other line and then doing a harmony. It was amazing, and you didn't really know who was doing what. And I just love that, and we can do that. So we should really utilize that.
A lot of folks first discovered you through your cover of Fleet Foxes' "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" on YouTube. Had you posted anything on YouTube prior to that?
Klara: No. We had our MySpace, but we didn't have anything on YouTube.
Was the response to it very quick?
Klara: Yeah, sure. The fact was that the band themselves actually heard the cover the day after we put it out. The fact that they even heard it, that's just amazing.
How did you learn that Fleet Foxes saw the video?
Klara: We wrote to them on MySpace saying, "Hey, we did a cover of your song." We just thought someone who was visiting their MySpace might see it. We didn't think that the actual band might see it. That was not in our heads. Then, the day after, they wrote back to us, and they were so positive.
Johanna: I woke up, and I was like, "Klara! They answered!"
Klara: And I was like, [Johanna mimics screaming] "What, are you serious?!"
Johanna: They were like our favorite band at that moment, and we listened to that record like every day for months, so it was huge. And then when the views started accelerating, it was—
Klara: —It was so crazy.
Whose idea was it?
Johanna: It was Klara's idea to do the cover in the first place and my idea to go out and film it.
Klara: It's a shared effort.
Did you film a bunch of songs or just the one at that time?
Johanna: One song. I think we did two takes, and that's the second one. We just put it out exactly like it is, no editing or anything.
Did you post it the same day or a day later?
Johanna: A few hours after we made it.
Where was it that you shot it?
Johanna: It's a tiny, tiny forest just a few minutes from our house.
So within 24 hours of you filming the performance in Sweden, Fleet Foxes saw it in the States? It's pretty cool to be making music in this technological era, isn't it?
Klara: For sure, how you can reach people in so many ways and so easily, it's insane, really.
What kind of hobbies do you have outside of music?
Johanna: I'm very into language, so I try to study Japanese. And I'm also obsessed with airplane crashes. I watch a lot of Air Crash Investigation episodes.
Klara: It's really great, because we travel a lot by airplane, and Johanna, whenever we get into an airplane, she goes, "Oh, this model crashed and blah blah blah and these many people died."
Johanna: I read a lot about airplane safety. I'm very into that, aviation. And I think we're very into film as well, all sorts of forms of art, culture.
Klara: I love poetry, I love film. I love reading. That's what I do. I don't do any sports or anything like that. I like walking and looking at things. I like photographs but I'm a terrible photographer. I love looking at photographs and wish I could take them.
Which musician or band would you most like to share a bill with?
Johanna: Bright Eyes?
Klara: Yeah, I mean there are tons. Alive or dead?
Johanna: Joanna Newsom, maybe.
Klara: Yeah, that would be pretty darn cool. I'm trying to think of people, bands that are still alive. I can't think of any. The Carter Family, how cool would be?
How did Karin Dreijer Andersson and Rabid Records become aware of you?
Johanna: Our brother went to the same kindergarten as her daughter. And our mom just started talking to her about, like, "My daughters are making music. They have a MySpace, you should listen." And she went to one of our shows. And she was just really into it, and she started coming home to us and helping us. We had gotten some record deals, and she sat there and gave us her advice. And then I think, after a while, she realized it would be best if she released our EP to give us a good start, and to be able make music through our own terms. Because we had gotten a 360 degrees contract, where they just wanted to make money.
Klara: It was like everything. They wanted to—
Johanna: —exploit us, really.
Klara: Yeah, one thing was like, "The band and the label decide how the cover should look, but the label have the last say." So they actually decide. It was like, we can discuss, but the label decides. It was just one of those things that I was just like, "No. No way." And she saw that, and she was just like, "I'm gonna give you a fair deal where I'm not gonna take advantage of you. I'm just gonna help you get this album out." She's been so much help to us.
Johanna: She gave us the best possible start we could ever have, I think. She started out really young—when she was 16—as well with Honey Is Cool, her first band. And I think she just had a really difficult time then. She just didn't want that to happen to us.
What made "When I Grow Up" a good song to cover?
Johanna and Klara together: It's an amazing song.
Johanna: It's one of the best, I think, on the record. I just think that she's, if you ignore her style— She has a very strong concept, but in the end, her songs are so amazing. Jose Gonzalez did an acoustic version of [the Knife's] "Heartbeats." And I think that kind of inspired us to do an acoustic version of her song. But I think it's also a tribute to her, to what she's done to us. I listened to her music so much before we got the record deal, so that was one of the happiest days of my life when she was going to release it. She's so great.
Klara: Yeah, and such a role model to us. It was so great to just be able to do her song and give something back to her.
When we talked to Lykke Li a couple years back, she talked about how, when she was 16, she was planning her escape from Stockholm and couldn't wait to get out. Have you felt any similar kind of angst?
Johanna: Not really. Like, right now, I just wanna get back to Stockholm and hang out with my family because we've been traveling so much. I think all this happened so quickly, 'cause we were so young, we haven't had time to think about or have any angst. We were never like rebellious kids or anything. We always got along with our parents and everything and just enjoyed it.
Klara: I don't think that's coming anytime soon.
Johanna: No, we're happy.
Klara: We're happy. [Laughs] That's so scary.