Sweden's alt-folk duo First Aid Kit find harmony in "The Lion's Roar"
First Aid Kit
If it at first seems a bit odd that the newest stars on the alt-folk and country music scenes would be two young Swedish sisters, it doesn't surprise Klara Söderberg at all. The 19-year old, who makes up one half of First Aid Kit alongside her older sister Johanna, was introduced to these ostensibly American genres as a child via the Coen Brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" whose T-Bone Burnett-curated soundtrack was heavy with 1920s-era blues, country and bluegrass. Then, at age twelve she discovered Bright Eyes, a.k.a. Omaha resident and indie music icon Conor Oberst. The Söderbergs' musical fate was sealed.
"We just loved the music, not because it was American but just because it was good music and it spoke to us," Klara says from home just days before embarking upon a world tour which brings them to Canada in April. "So when we started writing songs, we were never trying to be anything we're not. We just sort of wrote the songs. When the first songs were written, we had no idea that anyone would listen to it; we didn't think about that. We were just making what we wanted, and that was that kind of music. And then we just carried on like that."
It's a good thing they did because their music, which is made distinctive by the sisters' close harmony vocals, has taken them around the world. Their new album "The Lion's Roar" follows up their acclaimed debut, 2010's "The Big Black & The Blue," and Klara says its relative sophistication is simply a result of them growing up.
"We wanted the record to just be more personal. A change from the last record is that we wrote more openly about our own lives and our own fears and experiences, and I think that helped us more in writing. A lot of it is just because we're older and more experienced, really, and that's why the lyrics are developing that way, but it was also something that we were aware of and that we wanted to do."
"The Lion's Roar" was recorded in May 2011 in Omaha, Nebraska. Producing the sessions was Bright Eyes guitarist Mike Mogis, whom the sisters met after performing the Bright Eyes song "Lua" alongside Conor Oberst at a Bright Eyes show in Stockholm last February. Oberst and bluegrass band The Felice Brothers join the Söderbergs on the album's final track, "King of the World," a huge thrill for the young singers.
"I really like where 'King of the World' sounds like this big party," says Klara. "And it really was that to us because all of a sudden we had these people that we admired for such a long time playing with us, and so it was a joy having them with us."
"Emmylou," the album's first single, pays tribute to singing couples Emmylou Harris & Gram Parsons and June Carter & Johnny Cash. Klara says the song "is sort of about singing with someone and how even if you can't be together, at least you can sing together, and how you can get so close to someone just singing with them because you just have to sort of step out there and sing and you can't really hold anything back. It's a very intimate thing, singing with someone."
Filming the video proved to be a special experience: not only was it shot on Parsons' birthday at Joshua Tree National Park in California (where Parsons' manager Philip Kaufman cremated Parsons upon his death from a heroin overdose at age 26 in 1973) but also because the Söderbergs stayed at the Joshua Tree Inn & Motel, where Parsons died.
"It was just so sad to be there and it was so beautiful," Klara recalls. "Such a magical place. It was a warm desert night and the sky was pink. And there was this little altar or shrine fans had made for him there at the motel, and it was just so touching to see that. It just felt really good being there because we knew that Gram had spent so much time there and loved it so much. We could really understand why he loved it so much when we were there."
If it seems like First Aid Kit has come a long way in a short time, it's because they have. The then-teenaged duo first came to the public's attention in 2008 via a YouTube cover of Fleet Foxes' "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" which was shot in a forest outside Stockholm. I ask Klara how she and Johanna have changed personally and professionally since that was shot.
"Seeing that video, it seems very distant," she says. "I was fifteen and now I'm nineteen, and to most people that's not a very long time -- four years -- but when you're my age it seems like six months ago you were a lot younger. It feels like a different person but also feels like I'm very much the same, just with a little more experience.
"It's hard to say how I've changed or how our music has changed. I feel like we're just more confident and we just know what we want to do even more than we did back then. I'm still proud of that, and it's cool to see it now and think about how things were then and how we didn't know how things were going to turn out. I think I'd be very happy if I knew."