First Aid Kit Love Making You Cry
After enduring their toughest phase as a band, Klara and Johanna Söderberg are back with a risky, robust new album. And they're back to doing what they're best at—making everyone bawl.
Have you ever seen First Aid Kit cover "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath? During the Söderberg sisters' worldwide run for their 2014 LP Stay Gold, "War Pigs" was their party trick. They'd annihilate it. During their last festival appearance in Gothenburg, Sweden, younger sister Klara paced up and down the stage, aping the song's doom-laden riffs on her acoustic guitar while Johanna pounded her keys, headbanging her shaggy mane around her face. Then came the harmonies: “Death and hatred to mankind / Poisoining their brainwashed minds!” "War Pigs" is a song that Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler once described as "evil." If you know one thing about First Aid Kit, you know they're not evil. If they ever came close to crossing over into the darkside, it was during that time, an era in which the sisters were at war with each other.
The story of Ruins, their just-released fourth album, starts here, a decade into their career together. Stay Gold was First Aid Kit's commercial apex. Within six months it had sold over 200,000 copies worldwide. It won a Swedish Grammy for Album of The Year. It was produced by Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes. It could have gleaned them greater successes had they not pulled the plug earlier. Klara, only 21 at the time, was at the end of her tether.
"It wasn't because of anything to do with Johanna," the now-24-year-old says at a restaurant in Los Angeles.
“Go on… I won't take it personally,” Johanna, 27, smirks.
Klara needed space from everything, her sister included. She couldn't write more songs, she couldn't play frontwoman. “I was exhausted,” she says. Since the age of 14, touring was all she knew. Their parents pulled them out of school to live on the road for seven years with their musician father. “It's a strange situation and it had a big impact on who we are. It took its toll," she says.
"We realize now how special it's been,” says Johanna.
Klara's move two years ago was driven by necessity. She went to live in Manchester, England with a now ex-fiance and a dog. She went into therapy. Johanna, on the other hand, was left rudderless. She struggled in Stockholm without her little sister: learning to drive, taking Japanese lessons, getting lost. For the first time, they had to learn how to be women without one another. “It was scary without you, but you didn't feel scared,” she shrugs at Klara. “To me, my identity was being your sister. Who am I without you? Ah! I still don't know. But I feel more secure in myself.”
Klara had her own enlightenment. Who is she without Johanna? “How do you answer that question?” she ponders. “I needed to know that I am more than what I do.”
The sisters are jetlagged today. They performed on Ellen show, they're fatigued from rehearsal yesterday, plus promotional travel via London and Paris last week following the album's Friday release. They wear sleepy smiles. On Ellen they played the album's lead single, "It's A Shame." It was penned when the pair reunited in Joshua Tree in early 2017, returning to the songwriting well. Still recovering from Stay Gold and the dissolution of Klara's Manchester romance, California's sky felt oppressive. The sun was jeering at their sadness. On the single, Klara sings, "In LA the sun's almost too bright/I cannot get it right, the emptiness I feel."
"Today, when we were playing 'It's A Shame', I was asking myself, 'What is that song even about?'” she says now. “It's about acceptance. I accept that it's desperate of me to not wanna be alone. I'm okay with it." She's in a very different place from where she was the last time they were in LA, and specifically at Ellen.
"I didn't wanna be there." Johanna nods at her, continuing the story. "We had a huge fight over it. We were lying on the ground in a Seattle dressing room crying and yelling at each other. It was extreme." Johanna is the arranger to Klara's songwriter. Her role is to make sense of Klara's impulses, like older siblings often do. But she's also been the ambitious one—an auxiliary parent. "It was an ordeal," she continues. "We had to fly from a Minneapolis show to Ellen then get on a red eye to a Denver show." Today they rewrote that first piece of history. "It was therapeutic."
With every moment of Ruins' unveiling, Klara understands more of what went wrong. "We weren't fighting about Ellen,' she says. "We were fighting about where the band was going, how much pressure I could take. I felt like I was never doing enough. Now I know myself better. I trust how good we are."
Johanna couldn't agree more. "Being in the songs, playing with our band… That's why we're doing this,” she says. “We haven't been on the same page like this ever.”
“Ever!” Klara interjects.
“I was terrified to say any of this.” Johanna cuts in. “I also over-reacted to everything you'd do.”
“Thank you for saying that," Klara says. "You didn't wanna lose control.”
“We were drifting apart. I tried to control it. But I had to let it happen,” Johanna continues.
I tell them I feel like I'm at couples' counselling. They smile at me. “Well, in some ways you are.”
If you have preconceptions about First Aid Kit, join the club. Society has preconceptions about First Aid Kit. I had preconceptions about First Aid Kit. First Aid Kit had preconceptions about First Aid Kit. Last summer as Ruins was being completed, I went to Stockholm to meet them. Immediately, those preconceptions were dashed. First Aid Kit are not to folk music what IKEA is to furniture. They are rare treasures, not cookie-cutter-made Fleet Foxes fans, fit for mass consumption.
In Stockholm, I found two women who weren't cute, precious or self-censoring. They didn't emerge from a wooden hut in a forest like two Sylvanian Families creatures. They had a lot to say and a hunger to spill it. They showed me around a city where they grew up with music as their religion. It became apparent why they've thrived. Klara pointed out the square where she'd busk for pocket money. In bars, Johanna egged her to get up and join the bands in residency onstage. Performing on a whim is something they do everywhere. First Aid Kit always use their instruments—voices included—to affect the least likely listeners. They're experts at moving the stoniest of cynics. They can't wait to find their next victims.
Those victims have included Emmylou Harris, who was moved to tears when they dedicated their song "Emmylou" to her in 2015 at the Grammis (Sweden's answer to the Grammys). Four years prior they'd covered Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot" in front of Smith herself. The footage of that is very good for a few minutes before it becomes impossibly great as Johanna interprets Patti's final spoken-word poem like her lungs are amok, and Klara yodels repeatedly over the top of her. At the end of the performance Patti applauds and beams, the tears streaming down her cheeks.
"It's always been like that," laughs Johanna. “It's our trademark." They can't remember the first time they made someone cry. In Boston during their first American tour, folk singer Mary Lou Lord wound up in the crowd. "She cried so much and so loudly," says Klara. "I went to hug her. She told me: 'I knew Kurt, I knew Elliott Smith, and you have it, just like they did.'"
Klara shivers, or maybe it's me shivering. "We drove away. I was lying in the back of the van, looking at the New York skyline, a 17-year-old compared to Elliott Smith." She's still speechless.
Johanna tries to fill in. “That emotional bond we create is unique,” she says. “I don't mean to boast, but going to other shows it's rare that I feel that connection—that kind of hold.”
As a huge advocate of confident, proud women, I tell them they don't need to apologize. "I always say sorry," says Johanna. "If you're a man you don't have to work as hard to be taken seriously." Last year, they released a one-off single called "You Are The Problem Here," written as a response to rape culture. In the post-Weinstein climate, it endures. "I hope you fucking suffer" is Klara's most inflamed lyric ever. She doesn't think the music industry or any industry is doing enough in reaction to the crisis. In November, together with Robyn, Tove Lo, and over 2,000 other Swedish women, they signed a letter calling out sexual assault in Sweden's music industry.
"Women are finally being heard, but it's not like anything revolutionary is going to happen until men take it upon themselves to make a change," says Klara. They feel the effects of sexism every day. "I was telling a man friend yesterday that I'm afraid I'm gonna get killed or raped every time I get in an Uber," says Klara. "Every time I walk alone I think I might be assaulted. He went, 'Oh ok!' I thought, 'Wait, you don't know this?!' Every man needs to hear this. Even the men I love most in the world."
When stories of rape and assault surfaced involving people they knew, the sisters were incensed. "We were so angry," says Johanna. "We were on the promo tour, constantly around men thinking, 'Oh my god, you fucking assholes!' Then we'd be interviewed by all these middle-aged men, thinking about how much better our conversations are with female interviewers." They feel "lucky" to have been in control of their image and safety from a young age, attributing that to their "badass" mom, and the likes of Karen Dreijer of The Knife, who put out their first EP. When they perform "You Are The Problem Here," they pass on that strength to women in the room. "They light up," says Johanna. "But it's difficult. I look at the men in the audience. I wonder what they're feeling."
"I hope they feel uncomfortable as fuck," says Klara. "I feel empty after I play it. I get so angry. If you don't like that song, you have a serious problem." Johanna sighs. "I'm tired of talking about this. Why aren't men talking about it? Where are the men who are discussing this? We get to talk about it at every single interview, what it's like being a female in the music industry. God."
The first time First Aid Kit made me weep was during that Stockholm trip. As a city made up of islands, it requires a lot of travel by boat. We were on the bow of a commuter ferry, and Klara and Johanna burst into Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On'. You might be reading this thinking, For fuck's sake! but there's only one time in my life where I thought I might know what it's like to be Patti Smith or Emmylou Harris. It was there, with a little something in my eye. Klara and Johanna aren't merely convincing at covering other artists' songs, they are experts at getting inside songs, re-decorating them, and building them a brand new home.
Ruins is about love. Love never ever gets old. It didn't for Kurt, nor for Elliott. It just got more complicated. Klara and Johanna have learned that the hard way. "We're experts at longing," says Johanna. "It's all we do!" The record documents the freedom that comes when love goes wrong—in their own relationships and with each other. They recorded in Portland, Oregon with producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, Laura Veirs), R.E.M. legend Peter Buck, and Wilco's Glen Kotche. The idea was to let go of all the rules that had dominated their career. Ruins is riskier but more robust. It's comfortable with meeting Johanna and Klara where they're at in life. “I lost you didn't I?" they sing on the first track. First I think I lost myself.”
"We've had time to grow," offers Johanna, who gets to rock a bass now too ("I love it, it's gross," she says). "When we were teenagers we wanted to be so grown-up, to be true music nerds, to be part of this folk scene. We didn't wanna be seen as two young girls. We thought that was limiting and that we wouldn't be respected [otherwise], so we wrote songs about old couples." It might be a cliché, but 'Ruins' is a coming-of-age album. They see parallels with Lorde's Melodrama, and they're grateful that at the age of 21, Ella Yelich O'Connor has the gumption to not try and be older than she is. It's inspiring to them.
Ruins closes the chapter on their toughest ride. Now that it's out, the feeling is one of overwhelming relief. "It's been fucking four years," says Johanna. Some things don't change though. "A lot of the comments have said, 'Why do you have to make me cry so much? Goddamn you!" They laugh, chinking their glasses of wine, poking their forks into a charcuterie board. First Aid Kit still know how to cut like a knife.
Eve Barlow is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter.