First Aid Kit

Heal Ye, Heal Ye
First Aid Kit Ain’t No Lolita Folkies

I’m always hearing the old fart brigade moaning about how the digital age has eliminated, among other things, the experience of actively searching out rich, heretofore unknown musical treasures in record store bins and flea markets, yard sales and swap meets. They maintain that, now that you can hear virtually anything with the click of a mouse, it somehow cheapens the thrill of discovery, reduces the value one places on the music itself. You know the folks I’m talking about: “When I was young, we useta haveta read about cool new bands in zines, and then go digging through stacks of vinyl records in the import section of actual record stores hoping to find them! Why, I even bought records by bands I’d never heard of based on the cover art alone!! Nowadays, it’s all blogs and YouTube and Soundcloud and I don’t even know what else! Who cares! Blech!!”

I can relate, to a certain degree, because I grew up the same way. But also I think such people are out of their minds. The World Wide Web has made such a vast spectrum of music easily and instantaneously available to everyone that at this point it’s not unusual for two teenaged sisters in, say, Sweden, to get turned on to current American groups like Bright Eyes and Fleet Foxes and, say, learn that those groups found inspiration in older songwriters like Dylan and Townes, and then those same sisters, say, find and learn songs by all of those people, and then maybe record some covers and some stuff of their own, and then, say, put some of it up on YouTube and Myspace, and then get noticed far and wide as word-of-net spreads exponentially, and then, say, end up playing the Austin City Limits festival, recording with Jack White, performing with Fleet Foxes and touring with Bright Eyes, bringing it all back home, so to speak, in the span of four short, head-spinning years.

That’s basically what happened with First Aid Kit. Johanna Soderberg (now 20) and her younger sister Klara (18) grew up in Stockholm, the children of parents who, Klara tells me, “listened to a lot of Patti Smith, Elliott Smith – a lot of Smiths. And the Velvet Underground…that kind of thing. And then we found similar music ourselves.”

Johanna’s quick to add, lest you think they’re too cool for school, “when we were six, seven years old, we listened to Spice Girls and stuff like that,” but clearly they’d outgrown that by the time they began writing songs around 2007 or so. Says Klara, the first of the sisters to seriously pick up a musical instrument, “Bright Eyes were kind of the reason why we started making music. I started listening to Bright Eyes when I was 12, and through that we both found loads of folk musicians, like Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen – all these amazing songwriters. Before that, I listened to music, but not in that kind of way. And it just blew my mind. I got a guitar and started playing.”

I’m always curious why some younger people respond so favorably to older music while others don’t. What was it about Leonard Cohen songs or Dylan songs that resonated with Klara and Johanna, as opposed to what most teenagers gravitate toward?

“The honesty and simplicity and straightforwardness of it all, I know, had an impact on us,” offers Johanna. “And I think the harmonies and the vocals, as well, ’cause we always loved singing together. But we didn’t really do harmonies until we heard these country songs, and tried it out ourselves.”

With help from their father, Benkt, a bassist who once played in a Swedish new wave band named Lolita Pop, First Aid Kit recorded demos in Johanna’s bedroom, leading to an EP, Drunken Trees, released on Swedish indie label Rabid Records in the spring of 2008. By the time London’s Wichita Records picked up Drunken Trees for wider distribution (and an expanded tracklisting) a year later, First Aid Kit’s notoriety had swelled, due largely to a refreshingly low-key video of the girls singing Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” live in the woods. Enough people were charmed, spreading the clip through blogs and social networking sites, that the Soderbergs quickly became a mystifying minor sensation. “Who are these girls?,” everyone seemed to be wondering, “and why am I so captivated by this?”

I’ll tell you why it works for me. They are endearingly sincere, but not dull. They are full of enthusiasm and love for older music, but they don’t try to stiffly recreate it. Their sound is uplifting, even when they’re singing sad songs. They’re not trying to be hip, or avant-garde, or cutting edge – there’s no hint of “freak folk” pretension in what they do. The simplicity of their music is timeless. Their voices sound lovely together. And their songs are wise beyond their years.

“You don’t expect a writer to write from their own perspective. Just because you’re a singer/songwriter doesn’t mean everything has to be autobiographical,” Johanna points out. “We’ve just always been fascinated by older people, and middle aged people…”

“When I was a kid, I would write novels,” adds Klara. “Well, not novels, but short stories. The word for short story is novell in Swedish! I did not write novels when I was a kid! That would’ve been cool, though…But I did write a lot of short stories about old people just, like, looking back on their lives. There’s so much focus on youth. I think it’s interesting, like, older people looking back on their dreams and everything that didn’t happen. It’s very sad, kind of, but also…I don’t know…it’s something we like to write about.”

Drunken Trees was followed by their debut album, The Big Black & the Blue, in 2010, as well as a hastily-arranged single recorded with the ubiquitous Jack White for his Third Man label. The songs on the latter – Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” and the Tampa Red blues “It Hurts Me Too” – clearly reflect an interest in older, genuine-article folk music that has grown even deeper with time.

Which brings us to The Lion’s Roar, First Aid Kit’s second album, scheduled for release on January 24. Recorded over the course of a month in Omaha with Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis, it brings the girls full circle, pairing them in the studio with Conor Oberst and other members of the group that first inspired them (and with whom they would later tour), expanding the Soderberg’s musical palette while retaining their delicate essence.

“[It’s] a little more interesting, I guess,” laughs Johanna. “But it’s still very simple, and the songwriting and our singing is still very much us.”

“We were just able to do what we always wanted to do but weren’t able to do, since we recorded our first album and our EP…”

“…in my room!” Johanna pipes in.

“Yeah. And we couldn’t just call up and have a string quartet come in and play. So that was really special,” Klara continues. “The Felice Brothers, which is also a really great band that we’ve liked for a long time, they were just playing in town, so they came by the next day and played some violin and some accordion… Very spontaneous… Nate Walcott from Bright Eyes, he did string arrangements, played some trumpet – that was great. And then we had Conor come in, and he wrote a verse for a song, and sang…”

Johanna: “It’s pretty funny, because [on tour] we sing with Conor onstage the [Bright Eyes] song ‘Lua,’ which was the first song Klara learned to play on guitar, ever.”

“I haven’t really told him all this,” Klara confesses.

One song from The Lion’s Roar that will likely prove to pique the interest of the old fart brigade, since it employs a bit of name-checking, is “Emmylou,” the lyrics of which in many ways tie together the Soderberg sisters’ love of older music and older songwriters and the sheer ageless joy of singing itself. “I’ll be your Emmylou, I’ll be your June,” the chorus goes, “if you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny, too. Just sing, little darling, sing with me.”

 “We love Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash and June Carter, and the way they sing together,” Klara reiterates.

“It’s about the connection you get when you sing with someone else,” continues Johanna. “It’s a love song, but we namedrop some country artists!”

Though Johanna speculates that, in the wake of their success and the constant opportunities and demands that have ensued, she and Klara are “more like work buddies and colleagues than sisters now,” Klara confesses to a more deep-rooted sibling bond: “It’s very special getting to tour around the world with someone who’s not only your sister but also your best friend, that you can trust, and you know that she feels the same way.”

“Awwww!!!” Johanna blurts, only half-jokingly.

“No, but it’s great getting to experience these crazy things, but then having your sister beside you, and you know that she’s also freaking out, you know, and you feel the exact same way,” Klara continues. “I always kind of feel safe having her around.”

That’s what First Aid Kits are for.

Photo by Neil Krug.