Swedish sisters First Aid Kit's harmonies offer musical pain relief
Ahead of their Belfast gig, Scandinavian folk siblings First Aid Kit tell Chris Jones the secret of staying sane while touring ...er, settling down to a good board game.
Received wisdom dictates that it's a bad idea to write an album about how much of a drag it is to be a touring musician. Clearly, Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg have no truck with that, though; their latest album, Stay Gold, is full of sorrowful lyrics about motels and hotels, “coast after coast, cities and states”, and the sense of dislocation that arises when you spend half of any given year away from home.
“I really don't like the physical and psychological strain — when you're travelling so much it really sucks,” admits Johanna, at 23 the elder sister by just over two years. That sense of weariness is writ large across the album, along with a large dose of stoicism, and yet what's miraculous is how they manage to avoid sounding like petulant brats with nothing more important to complain about than having to play their music all over the world. That may be down to how it sounds — Stay Gold is a sumptuous blend of folk, country and indie-pop; sharply written songs carried by the sisters' heavenly harmonies, which they’ll be bringing to Belfast’s Mandela Hall next Wednesday.
For Johanna and Klara, music is in the blood. Their father Benkt was in Swedish New Wave band Lolita Pop in the 1980s and ’90s — he subsequently left a teaching career to tour with his daughters full-time as their sound engineer — and Johanna remembers that there was always music in the house when they were growing up. “Our parents are very into culture in general — any kind of movies, art, music,” she says. “Dad would always be playing his acoustic guitar, and there would always be a record playing in the background. I guess it was the early ’90s so they were more into grunge and New Wave and things like that. We grew up with the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Patti Smith and Nirvana ...”
So, country and folk weren’t early influences then?
“They weren't something our parents had listened to,” says Johanna. “Obviously they had heard Bob Dylan, but they weren't really into it. Now we all listen to that kind of music together, as a family. First, we listened to it, and now they listen to it, which is strange!”
Despite Johanna’s recollections of family life, it’s younger sister Klara who seems to be the driving force behind First Aid Kit. She writes and takes the lead on most of their songs, as well as in our conversation (a three-way phone call with Klara in Manchester, where she now lives, and Johanna in Stockholm), and she was the one who first discovered folk music at the age of 12. American indie act Bright Eyes — fronted by singer-songwriter and guitarist Conor Oberst — was her ‘gateway drug’ to the musical genre, and she was instantly smitten.
“I started listening to I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, which is very much a classic country/folk album, and just loved it,” she recalls. “I started looking for similar music, music that felt real. There was so much overproduced music around us growing up, and this music was a revelation and really inspiring.”
It didn't take long for Johanna to fall in love with the music too. “We felt like we were really close to the writers of the songs,” she says. “It was really raw and there, in the moment, and not overproduced. In general, the songs are so solid — they're very bare and they have to work with just guitar and vocals. That really attracted us. And country music has the best harmonies.”
What Johanna and Klara have come up with is a kind of Americana-via-Stockholm — the music is apple pie-authentic, especially their early work, right down to the frequent references to American places and the fond namedropping of Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash and June Carter in their best-loved song, Emmylou, chosen by Rolling Stone as a Single of the Year in 2012. Without knowing anything about them, you'd swear they were from Kansas or Oklahoma, so it must have been special to go and play there in sold-out venues.
“It's definitely a very special place,” says Klara. “The places are so culturally different and the landscapes! You get to see the desert, snowy mountains, all these different things in just a month.”
“It feels like you're in a movie all the time,” says Johanna.
So it lived up to expectations? “Definitely,” says Johanna. “I think it's even grander than we thought. They really respect
their music — there's a really strong music tradition there and a love for country that we've never seen anywhere else. And the fact that they're so welcoming to us coming from Sweden, this tiny little country, and we're doing our take on their culture — it could go either way.”
Now, First Aid Kit find themselves favourably compared to great country harmony singers like Gram and Emmylou, or Johnny and June, with record sales to be justifiably proud of (2012 album The Lion’s Roar shifted more than 250,000 units worldwide, as well as earning a Platinum certification).
On their recent single, My Silver Lining, Klara sings lead before Johanna joins her in the chorus, their voices meshing perfectly in wordless rapture. And yet they are remarkably matter-of-fact about it. “We didn't realise that it was special until after quite a while, having played live and recorded,” says Johanna. “It was when we saw people's reaction to it that we realised it was something special. I've always admired Klara's voice so much. We've always been singing together — all the time since we were, like, five years old.”
Klara adds: “I feel the same way about Johanna. And singing together — we always did that. We didn't really think about it. We grew up imitating whatever we were listening to. When I started writing songs and Johanna sang with me, it just seemed like a very natural thing.”
It would be tempting to draw parallels between that beautiful harmony singing and the sisters' relationship but, although they are undeniably close, they don't feel the need to spend all their time together. Quite the opposite, in fact, hence Klara's move to Manchester earlier this year. “We don't spend any time together when we're not touring,” says Johanna, “but I think it's good that we have some space because we used to all live under the same roof — our mum and dad, Klara and I and our brother — and it was a little bit too intense. Touring puts a strain on you and we just got really tired of each other. We were friends, but ...”
“Yeah, and I think when you're on tour you're in your own little bubble,” adds Klara. “It's a very special thing. So it's good to get away from that and have a different type of life. I think it's good to interact with people outside of that world.”
Having said that, Klara does admit to some less than rock and roll style behaviour when the pair do spend some rare downtime together. “We love playing board games like two old ladies!” she laughs. “I'm very lucky to be in a band with someone as cool as my big sister!”
Such a tight relationship is obviously crucial as the sisters do acknowledge that it can be hard to form new relationships on the road. “It's very difficult,” says Johanna. “You can't see people for months so you just have to count on them still being there when you come home.”
Klara says: “The friends we have, we've had since before we started touring. They're the people who stuck around.”
And yet, despite the travelling, the physical exhaustion, the stress and the dislocation of the touring lifestyle, the Soderberg sisters' love of music is such that they insist it's all worthwhile. With voices like that, there seems to be no doubt that the Belfast audience will agree.
“Playing shows never gets boring,” says Johanna. “Those moments are so special, and even if we've played Emmylou 10,000 times, every single time is different and unique because the audience is different and you can never really predict their reaction. It's a beautiful thing and that's what I look forward to the most. The shows always make it worthwhile.”
- First AId Kit play the Mandela Hall, Belfast, next Wednesday, September 17. For details, visit www.ticketmaster.ie
Families with girl power...
Other sibling bands to enjoy success over the years include:
- The Breeders – Kim Deal plays bass for the Pixies, but with The Breeders, she and identical twin sister Kelley celebrate the band's 25th anniversary next year
- B*Witched – Boyzone's Shane Lynch once had rivals for 'biggest pop star in the family'. Twins Edele and Keavy had a string of '90s hits and, like big brother's band, B*Witched have also reformed
- The Bangles – Sisters Vicki and Debbi Peterson and Susanna Hoffs had a string of hits in the '80s. They still record and tour
- The Carter Family – perhaps best known for harmonising sisters Helen, Anita and June, who married Johnny Cash, in the '50s, '60s and early '70s.
- Tegan & Sara – heroes to indie girls, they have also flirted with the mainstream, working with David Guetta and singing The Lego Movie theme song