They'll Be Your Emmylou: An Interview with First Aid Kit
These Swedish sisters are barely in their 20s, but now with their second album acknowledging country's storied past, they get big help from the likes of Mike Mogis, the Felice Brothers, and Conor Oberst. The ladies sit down with PopMatters to tell us all about their wonderful journey ...
The Söderberg sisters, Johanna and Klara, are only 21 and 18 (respectively), but they've already recorded with Bright Eyes in Omaha and made Patti Smith cry with their rendition of Smith's classic "Dancing Barefoot". Not bad for a group who only recently put out their second album.
The sisters, who are natively Swedish, are best known for immaculate delivery in pure voices haunted by the ghosts of classic country, some of whom the sisters sing about on "Emmylou", the second single from their sophomore full-length, The Lion's Roar.
"I'll be your Emmylou / and I'll be your June / and you'll be my Gram / and my Johnny too," goes the chorus. The song gains more potency when paired with its music video, which finds Johanna and Klara Söderberg looking rather bohemian as they perform a ritual in the desert. Johanna explains that ritual is, in some ways, a reenactment of one that occurred with country great Gram Parsons' coffin. "The video was recorded in Joshua Tree. [It was] where [Parsons] died and also a place he loved very much. So his coffin was stolen. His coffin was burned in Joshua Tree by his friend. So we kind of sit down and make this shrine to him at the place where they burned the coffin. We go there and we become absorbed by Gram's spirit and all this country music there."
And absorbed by spirits and country they are in their listening habits and astute observations about their own music history and why listeners are seeking out alt-country; asked if American classic country is popular in Sweden, Johanna answers, "No, I don't think so. Klara and I were pretty young -- I think we were pretty rare in that we listened to this kind of music -- especially this old classic country. A lot of people listen to Ryan Adams and Bright Eyes and more contemporary [country]. But we like to really go for the old stuff like the Carter family, Everly Brothers, really old music."
Without missing a beat, Johanna reflects on recent country-tinged acts who have simultaneously found critical and commercial success: "I think there is an interest in country music and folk music in Sweden for sure. It may not be the most popular genre, but I think that there's been a growing interest musically with [the success of] Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons. There's definitely an interest, and I think in this era where everything's so digital and there's so much AutoTune, people just long for the human voice in its pure state."
Perhaps even more unusual about the Söderbergs' love of country is how far the genre is from their parents' music they heard around the house, most of which was punk-imbued classic rock. "They weren't into country at all. I think there's this idea that people have that country music is lame and cheeky. But there's so much more than what's on the radio -- [there's] a lot of good alternative country. They listen to a lot of Velvet Underground and Patti Smith and David Bowie and stuff like that, so that's what we grew up with. We found country music through Bright Eyes, who we got recommended by a friend to listen to. We did, and we fell in love with that music pretty much instantly," says Johanna.
The sisters' love of Bright Eyes made it all the more magical when they ended up recording The Lion's Roar at Arc Studios in Omaha with Bright Eyes' producer Mike Mogis, and guest spots from Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes) and the Felice Brothers. This all came about because the Söderbergs delivered their first CD, The Big Black and The Blue to Mogis and Oberst backstage in 2009 after a Monsters of Folk concert where Oberst and Mogis were performing. A year later, Mogis and Oberst attended a First Aid Kit concert at Austin City Limits and expressed their love for the CD. Later, Mogis contacted the Söderbergs' manager and invited them to come record at Arc Studios.
For the young sisters, recording in a professional studio was quite different than their first record, made in their bedrooms with their father producing. "We were at home in our bedroom, Klara and I and Dad. We had a computer and two microphones and that was it. And we were still in school, so we had to record on holidays and weekends and between homework. Working between homework, we were always thinking about math while recording. On this album, we came to this professional studio with professionals and Mike," Johanna says.
And what of working with Mogis, who is likely responsible for elements such as the twinkly glockenspiel on "Blue" or the ethereal reverb that possesses several moments on the record? "He did so much. He worked so hard on the record. He would get to the studio early in the morning and then work until late at night. He plays on pretty much every song. He was very important to how the record sounds. He really understood too what our ideas were about what the vocals should be and getting the right sounds and getting the vocals to the forefront. That was really important. He found some amazing sounds that created a mythical and dreamy vibe," says Johanna.
Mogis already had some fine songs with which to work, though. Aside from singles like the title track, the Oberst-featuring "King of the World", and the aforementioned "Emmylou", the record features other standout songs. "To A Poet" is a personal number inspired, in part, by the words of poet Frank O'Hara. "In the Hearts of Men" is about "how we want to be represented and who we really are, and the conflict between that. How you are with your friends and family, how you portray yourself. You also always live in your own bubble, and sometimes you feel like you have to be someone else and that's something we think about a lot," according to Johanna.
Though the two make the songcraft sound seamless, they have no rigid process for song creation. "I wouldn't say that there is a definite process. Some songs Klara and I write from the start together. We pick up the guitar and sing. It just evolves naturally. Sometimes on the road we get inspiration and I have my iPad with Garage Band, and we record something and we save it for later, and when we get home we work on it more. Klara will start a song, she'll play it for me, and then we'll work on it together," Johanna says.
Whatever their process is, it's working, and it's proving Johanna's suspicion that perhaps people are hungry for the purity of country vocals from days past. Which, ironically, may be instrumental in the future of popular music.