We caught up with Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg of First Aid Kit when they were in New York for a concert last month. With upcoming appearances at Bonnaroo and Coachella and a recently-released music video for new song “Fireworks,” the two are certainly keeping busy. Editor-in-chief Indira Cesarine chatted with the sisters about their musical background, upcoming album “Ruins,” and advice they have for young women in the music industry.
Indira: I have a million questions for you, why don’t we just dive in? I’d love to get an idea of your childhood. I know you guys have been collaborating together for a long time. Did you grow up with a lot of music in your household? How did you end up evolving into the duo that you are today?
Johanna: We grew up in a suburb outside of Stockholm, it’s a very calm and quiet neighborhood. And our parents are both really into culture and music. Our mom works in film and our dad was a musician in the 80s, then he quit to become a schoolteacher. There was always music around us all the time. It was a big part of our life from the start. And Klara and I were always singing and performing whenever we got the chance to, although at first it wasn’t really folk and country music—what we do today—but more pop and stuff like that, whatever was on the radio. But then we found Bright Eyes and through Bright Eyes we just discovered folk music and country and it was a revelation to us. It was like nothing we’d ever heard before. It really touched us. Ever since then, we’ve been a duet. For 10 years now.
Indira: When you were kids, did you always want to be musicians? Or was that something that kind of evolved? A lot of kids rebel from their parents, you know obviously being in a very musical household, I imagine that was a positive influence, but was it always your dream?
Klara: When we were really young we wanted to be pop stars. At the time we had bands with our friends and we’d just do choreography and little pop songs. Our parents didn’t listen to folk or country so when we found that, that was kind of rebellious for us because they were young in the 80s and they listened to a lot of punk rock, stuff like that. So the country and folk stuff was definitely our own thing.
Indira: I love that! You guys rebelled from your punk parents with folk music, that’s totally turning it on its head, no one would really expect that. And I understand that you used to busk a lot in Stockholm to earn money, to dye your hair and everything. Can you tell me a little about what that was like?
Klara: It was something I did when I was like, 12. I didn’t do it loads, but I did do it occasionally because our parents wouldn’t let us like color our hair, so I was like, “well if I pay for it myself then there’s nothing you can do about it.” I needed money, so I was like, “well you know, I can stand on the street and sing and maybe people will give me money,” and they actually did! A lot of people were really mean as well and would point and laugh at me. And I mean some people would come up to me and be like, “are you okay?” “are you hungry?” We stood like outside the liquor store because that’s where people gave me the most money. I do think it was a good exercise to learn how to be on stage, how to perform for people and not really give a shit whether they listen or not. Because when we started touring, started playing shows, error definitely showed where we just had to play even though people weren’t paying attention and talking the whole time.
Johanna: It was just me and Claire so we were obviously very vulnerable on stage because it was just so sparse and bare. It was tough, but you get tough from that. You learn a lot.
Indira: I would imagine. I think busking would also be rather confidence-boosting like you say—you kind of build your armor against performing in front of a crowd whether people like it or not. What is your collaboration process like? I understand you both write music, correct? Or does one do more writing than the other? And with regards to instrumentals, how do you collaborate?
Johanna: Claire starts most of the songs with a verse here and there a chord sometimes, or a few lines of lyrics. Then we always finish the song together and go through and through again. And sometimes a song can formed by different songs—Claire had a few lines there, but its not a fully-formed song—and I will take them and put them together with another little line. Sometimes can be a puzzle. I’m more like the editor, the editor of First Aid Kit.
Klara: I let Joanna hold the reigns when it comes to arrangements. I come up with a lot too, but I trust her in the studio. We both have really similar inquisitions musically, and we both usually know what we want and are very vocal about it. So if the producer does not agree with us, we’re not afraid to take that fight.
Indira: Which instruments do you each play?
Johanna: I play bass guitar. I used to play keyboard but I switched this year.
Indira: Do you like bass? It’s a powerful instrument.
Johanna: You feel badass playing it, and its very liberating for me because I’ve always been behind the keyboard. I’ve always felt crunched up, but now I can go out on stage. It’s just a totally different thing.
Klara I play guitar! That’s all I’ve ever played.
Indira: Do you guys find that you get along working together or do you argue a lot? I know that I could never work with my siblings, so I find it kind of awesome that you two can collaborate. How is it being on set with the two of you or behind the scenes?
Johanna: We’re half Swedish and all our crew is English speaking. We switch to Swedish when we have argue so they know and step away which is really great. We get along really well and we’ve never had a band with anyone else, so we don’t know what’s its like to not have a band with your sibling.
Klara: We don’t know what its like to like work without a sibling. We work together so much—we’re family—and it’s not always easy, but I think that goes for anyone. Our work is such a huge part of our lives. It’s not only a job that we go to and then go home. It’s such a huge part of our lives that sometimes it’s tricky, but like I think we do really well.
Johanna: I think sometimes I wish that we had separation between family and business because our parents are also involved; our dad is on tour with us and he produced our first record. So sometimes I wish that we were a normal family and that when we have dinners we wouldn’t all talk about First Aid Kit. But at the same time it’s a beautiful thing and it works for us. So I’m very grateful for it. And it makes you feel less lonely when you’re out traveling, to have such a strong family connection. It’s beautiful.
Indira: I can imagine. Who would you consider your biggest musical influences?
Johanna: That’s a tough question.
Klara: We’re always finding new music, both old and new.
Johanna: I think it’s changed a little bit, but starting out our first heroes were Bright Eyes, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, these old men.
Claire: Or dead men.
Johanna: That’s how it started and then we discovered other genres as well, like newer stuff.
Klara: Yeah, newer music. It’s been really cool; there are a lot of really awesome female songwriters. We really like this girl Julia Jacklin who’s Australian, we like Angel Olsen, this band called Big Speed, Mitski. There’s tons of new, really awesome ladies making music.
Johanna: And that’s what inspires us right now, for sure.
Indira: You must be excited for the release of your album, “Ruins”, which comes out in January. How do you find that the new album differs from your debut album, “Stay Gold?” Is there an evolution in your sound or style?Johanna: Well, this is our fourth record.
Indira: It’s your second on Columbia, correct?
Klara: It’s our second on Columbia but our fourth in total.
Johanna: It’s different, but not drastically so. What we wanted to achieve was a feeling, or capture more of our live sound, a raw quality to the record. We feel like Stay Gold was really polished and pretty, and that’s what we wanted for Stay Gold; there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s what we wanted at the time. This new record feels more personal and more painful in a way, it’s sadder and darker and it needed to feel more in the real world, where Stay Gold was more of like a fantasy, a beautiful fairy tale kind of, and this is just real life.
Indira: How would you guys describe your sound and style in your own words?
Johanna: That’s really hard. I’m really bad at describing music, but I would say bittersweet. It sounds beautiful but if you listen closely to the lyrics it’s pretty melancholy. And we like that tension.
Klara: Yeah, we like that juxtaposition of a really beautiful, happy-sounding song and then you listen to the lyrics and you’re like “oh they’re really, really different.” There’s something really interesting [about that].
Johanna: Like when you listen to old murder ballads they’re always so beautiful and gorgeously sung but they’re really dark and creepy.
Klara: It makes you feel a little weird.
Johanna: Yeah, I like that. In terms of genre you could say we’re country, you could say we’re folk, you could say we’re kind of pop-influenced, kind of rock as well. It’s very varied, and I don’t like being put in a certain genre.
Klara: Lyric-focused, a lot of harmonies. And really great, I think!
Indira: What tracks resonate with you the most from your new album “Ruins?” Tell me a little about what tracks you’re really excited about and the inspiration behind them.
Johanna: We’re excited about all of them of course, but “It’s A Shame” was special. It sums up a lot of the themes of the album like desperation, loneliness, craving another human, just connection. And “Ruins,” the title track, is obviously very important as well. The record is sort of a breakup album, based around a breakup that Klara went through.
Klara: It’s pretty personal but I feel happy to share it with the world. Having gone through something like that, it’s been so rewarding getting people’s feedback from the songs we’ve released so far. There’s a song called “Fireworks” that we’re super excited about. We really love the production on that song; it was really fun. It’s something we haven’t done before.
Johanna: It’s like, eighties meets fifties—like a fifties ballad with eighties keyboards and guitar. And that’s a new sound for us, although it feels like us. It’s about your ideal life and how you [think] life should be and seeing it unfolding and just not turning out the way you expected.
Indira: What about “Rebel Heart?” What was the inspiration behind that track?
Johanna: “Rebel Heart” we wrote in Joshua tree. Claire and I went to L.A. for five weeks to write songs for the new album. We went on a road trip to Joshua tree and rented a dome house in the desert. It was dark and there was a storm, and in this house there were lots of old occult board games: Ouija board, tarot cards, stuff like that. We got kind of carried away with that so we listened to Patti Smith, the “Ghost Dance,” and got really in the mood and wrote this song on the fly.
Claire: We’re so excited about it. We love the production and the ending.
Johanna: It’s very Fleetwood Mac and that’s what we wanted. Totally different sound.
Indira: You wrote a song for International Women’s Day called “You Are The Problem Here,” which obviously is a very dramatic title. Can you give me a little bit of insight into the track and what the lyrics are about? I know that you donated the proceeds to Women for Women International.
Klara: It’s a song about rapists. It’s the most straightforward song that we’ve ever written because there wasn’t a better way or poetic way to be like, “men need to stop raping.” It was written out of pure desperation. We were reading a lot about the Stanford rape case that happened last summer. It was just heartbreaking. The rapist wrote a letter where he said, “this happened, I raped someone because of youth culture and alcohol and that’s the problem with society.” He wasn’t mentioning this woman that he had done this horrible thing to; he was just talking about himself and how sad it was that this had happened to him. Reading that made me so angry, so we wrote this song in response to him—but not only him. It’s such a huge problem, and with the #metoo hashtag, at least people are talking about it more now. We just hope things are going to change because they really desperately need to.
Indira: Absolutely. The rape epidemic is very serious as well as the sexual assault crisis that has been going on across all the creative industries. The song definitely resonates. At the end of the day, it’s important to reflect on what the problem is, versus people making excuses for their behavior.
Klara: Absolutely. A lot of women don’t ever go to the police when they have been sexually assaulted or raped because they get asked so many questions about what they were doing or what they were wearing; things that have nothing to do with the crime. So we wanted to turn that and just be like, why don’t we ask these men, “how could you do this?” What is wrong with you? How can this turn you on? That’s really what I’d like to know.
Indira: It’s a very tragic situation, and I think that your International Women’s Day song talks about a lot of that. I felt it was timely to bring it up again and address these things.
Klara: It is tragic, but it’s always been this way.
Indira: This is not a new thing, unfortunately. It’s just finally being emphasized in our culture. I think everything that’s been revealed the past few weeks has really emphasized what a big problem it is and how dark it is. In any case, moving on—you must be super excited for your headline tour next year and all of the performances that you’re going to be doing. Is there anything we can particularly look forwards to in regards to your tour?
Johanna: We’re going to start rehearsing pretty soon and we’re beyond excited because we haven’t performed a new record in—oh my god—it’s going to be four years. So we’ve longed for this. We’re going to change things up a little bit, of course do the new songs for the first time ever live; we have a fantastic live band. We have a new keyboardist, Steve Moore, whom we met in Portland when we made “Ruins” and he’s the best; he’s an incredible man and musician. We’re going to throw in a new cover. We can’t say what it is, but it’s pretty much one of our favorite songs. I think that our live shows have grown a lot in the last year. We’re going to change things up and just try to do new things.
Klara: We’re excited.
Johanna: We love touring the U.S., it’s definitely one of our favorite places to tour because the crowds are so fun. They’re so responsive and rowdy, but in a good way.
Indira: I understand you recently performed in New York City when we did our shoot at New York City’s Town Hall. How did that go?
Johanna: We loved it. The crowd was so amazing. It was a seated show but people were just standing up and dancing. There was one lady who was insane, she was this hippie lady who was standing the whole show. It was beautiful. I wish we could hire her to tour with us.
Klara: Yeah, just to dance with us! It was great. She made us very happy. We can’t wait to come back.
Indira: What advice would you give to a young girl trying to break into the music industry?
Klara: Don’t let anyone give you any shit! The fact that you’re a woman has nothing to do with your ability to play awesome music.
Johanna: For sure. Don’t let men in the industry bring you down with their stupid comments about your appearance. Fuck those dudes, honestly. Don’t be afraid and don’t be ashamed of what you do even if it’s not perfect. I think today, there are so many expectations for women to be perfect—to look perfect, to sound perfect. You can be really hard on yourself, and that’s just not creative. Embrace your imperfections.
Klara: We really found that whenever we make mistakes at our shows, that’s part of it. It’s real. I like that, when I listen to records and there are mistakes in there. It’s okay to be vulnerable.
Indira: Absolutely. Last question, do you guys have any words of wisdom that you live by?
Johanna: We’ve grown a lot over the last few years from not touring and just doing our thing. We’ve grown a lot stronger. And our mom has always been a huge role model to us. She taught us about feminism when we were like, six years old. She really told us to give zero fucks, to do whatever you want.
Klara: She tells it like it is and she always has!
Johanna: She sees through bullshit. That’s how she is. In a lot of situations I think, what would mom do?
Photography and Interview by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine