On The Horizon: First Aid Kit

Videos by American Songwriter

Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg were just 15 and 18 years old when they uploaded a cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” to YouTube. In the video, they’re sitting in the woods wearing flannel shirts, and look pretty much like any other teenagers, but when they start to sing, something happens. Almost instantly our ears are taken back to the great American harmony groups of the 1930s and ‘40s: The Monroe Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, and The Louvin Brothers. The voices intertwine in a way that only siblings’ can.

That debt to American music is also evident on First Aid Kit’s sophomore album, The Lion’s Roar. The folk pop gem was recorded in Omaha, Nebraska, with producer Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes. On “Emmylou,” the Söderbergs sing about Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. “I’m not asking that much of you/Just sing little darling, sing with me,” goes the chorus. The song could be about a lover, a friend, or a sister. But it’s mostly about the lineage of country music, and standing on the shoulders of giants.

“When you find someone and your voices go so well together, you don’t really have to talk about it, you just do it,” says Klara, the younger sister, now 18. “You can get really close to a person just by [singing].”

In 2007, the Söderbergs met The Knife’s Karen Dreijer Andersson, whose children went to school with their younger brother in Gothenberg, Sweden. Andersson, who also records as Fever Ray, plays dark electronic pop, and she became an early mentor. Johanna says she grew up listening to some of Sweden’s electronic music, but doesn’t think it’s an influence on the music that she and her sister make as First Aid Kit. As for Andersson’s music, Johanna says, “Her songs could easily work as folk songs.” (Case in point: José González’s cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats.”)

If First Aid Kit’s influences are primarily American, then a little bit of Nordic mysticism seems to have snuck in too. In the new music video for “The Lion’s Roar,” directed by Mats Udd, the Söderbergs have upgraded those quiet woods from their “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” days to an enchanted forest, where they lead a cult of young girls who all have flowing locks and darkened eyes. Klara says the video was filmed on an old nature reserve in Sweden. “It’s almost like it’s haunted,” she says. “There are lots of stories about magical creatures that we read as kids.”

Mogis says that he thought about classic folk duos like The McGarrigle Sisters and Simon and Garfunkel when he was working with First Aid Kit, but also drew on “Eno-esque soundscape layering.”

Mogis first met the sisters at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2010. “I was completely blown away,” he says. “Their voices, the songs, their stage presence … it was all very captivating and I knew I wanted to work with them.”

The Söderbergs joined Mogis in Omaha last May to begin work on the album. “This was the first time they had gone into a studio to make a record and they sounded like veteran performers. Maybe the best vocalists I’ve ever recorded, easily up there with the best,” says Mogis, who recorded an earlier EP and 2010’s The Big Blue And Black at home with their father, Benkt.

While those earlier songs often conveyed personas far beyond the sisters’ years, the new song “To A Poet” is about leaving someone on a plane, and arriving home where the streets “had rapidly filled up with the whitest of snow.” “Now I miss you more than I can take and I will surely break,” they sing on the chorus.

The Söderbergs clearly have a preternatural gift for turning a poetic phrase. When I ask Johanna what the lyrics on The Lion’s Roar are about, she says earnestly and a little wistfully, “If only I knew entirely.” (Klara writes most of First Aid Kit’s songs, while Johanna helps finish and arrange them.) Johanna says the album is definitely more personal, though. “It’s a lot about your identity in the world, aging … very sad stories.”

No one said navigating the pressures of a music career as a teenager would be easy. “It’s overwhelming and writing these songs is a way to get it out of our systems,” says Johanna. “It’s really exciting but there’s this other side to it too. I think a lot of the songs on the record are about missing our family and friends. It’s the sadness we’ve been carrying around all year.”

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