Sweet-singing Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg didn’t exactly get the royal treatment during one of the first times they stepped on American soil. But they did get treated to a meal at America’s diner.
“Austin was the first city we went to in America,” said Johanna, Klara’s older sister in the sublime roots duo First Aid Kit. She laughed thinking back at their introduction to the Texas capital before performing at South by Southwest in 2010. “I remember we went to like a Denny’s. And we were kind of like baffled by like, ‘We’re in America. Oh my God! Oh my God!’ It was such a big deal for us.”
That was because the Soderbergs were already entrenched in various forms of American culture before becoming teenagers. They gradually shifted their musical appreciation from Britney Spears, the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys to meatier fare, getting infatuated with Bright Eyes and the songs from the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou.
"I think we loved the harmonies," Klara Soderberg, 19, said when she and Johanna spoke over the phone last month from their small family home in Enskede, on the outskirts of Stockholm. "They could sound so cheerful but be so sad at the same time with the lyrics."
Raised by a musical family that includes their father and sound technician Benkt, who played guitar in a Swedish band during the 1980s called Lolita Pop, Klara Soderberg was only 12 when she got her first guitar and started writing songs in 2005.
After her next birthday, Klara decided to give her band a name just in case she decided to ever form one. Looking up random words in the dictionary, Klara came across First Aid Kit and thought, “That makes sense. That’s what music is to me. It’s a First Aid Kit for me. If I ever made music, that’s what I would want the music to be like, a First Aid Kit for the people that listen. I would want to help them.”
The Lion’s Roar, their second full-length album, does that and more. Lush and luscious, the exhilarating passage into backwoods country was produced by Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes (with a guest appearance by group founder Conor Oberst) and includes Benkt Soderberg on bass.
The album, with a deluxe limited edition released by Wichita Recordings on October 2, seems to be written by a couple of old souls from vintage Appalachia, not two young but grounded Swedish women who talk more like Valley girls.
Klara, the primary lead vocalist, and Johanna, who plays keyboards, autoharp and supplies most of the beautiful harmonies, became fluent in English after spending four years at International English School mainly because “it was close to our house,” laughed Johanna, who will turn 22 on Halloween. (From left, Klara and Johanna Soderberg.)
“And it’s been like a really useful thing, knowing English,” she added gratefully, already speaking the language before they were 10 but crediting their American and British teachers for giving them the necessary writing skills to pursue their passion. “I don’t know if we would have been doing this (otherwise). For us, lyrics are such an integral part of music. For us, if a song has poor lyrics, we can’t listen to it.”
Klara recalled the reaction she received from classmates as she made the transition away from pop. “It was kind of weird in school when I was like 14 and I was listening to old country,” she said. “I was listening to the Carter Family and the rest of the kids in my school were listening to Rihanna or whatever.”
Sharing the same musical tastes brought together the siblings, who still have everyday quarrels, Johanna admitted, adding, “You can’t escape beings sisters and can’t not fight. That’s just like a part of sisterhood. But I think we’re on good terms with each other.”
And their impact can’t be denied. First Aid Kit already ranks No. 15 on Paste’s list of “The 15 Greatest Sets of Musical Siblings” that includes Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson, the Beach Boys and the Allman Brothers, but not Tegan and Sara, the Carpenters or the Louvin Brothers.
Yet it’s their fixation with all things all-American that has made this experience so memorable. In the past two years, the Soderbergs were proud to meet and play for U.S. musical treasures Patti Smith and Paul Simon at the Polar Music Prize in Stockholm, leaving an awestruck Klara to say, “They really turned out to be such great people.”
They also had the opportunity to work with Jack White, who their 8-year-old brother Isak idolizes, but were really over the moon about their celebrity encounter with “the Star Wars guy,” American film producer and director George Lucas, after playing a show in Chicago for retailer and former Michelle Obama stylist Ikram Goldman.
“That was pretty special,” Klara said. “That wasn’t something we thought we’d ever do. We keep getting surprised each and every day.”
Since their mother Anna and other family members often join them on tour, the Soderberg sisters look forward to spending more time in America, where they are currently headlining while visiting cities such as Washington D.C., Atlanta and Nashville. But what about leaving Sweden behind forever?
“Yeah, we think we have a dream of getting a house in Topanga Canyon or something and living that hippie California life,” Johanna said jokingly. “No, I don’t know. We just hate the winters out here.”
Now if they could only run into their dream queen of Americana on one of these trips to the States, which this year involves going back to the city where it all started when they play the Austin City Limits Musical Festival on October 12 (1:15-2:15 p.m., Honda stage).
With Johanna on lead vocals, they paid homage to Emmylou in the ethereal song of the same name from The Lion’s Roar, which also romantically references the late Johnny and June and Gram Parsons.
Though they don’t know if Emmylou has heard “Emmylou” yet, they were pleased to get endorsements from Rosanne Cash and Polly Parsons, daughters of the legends. “To us that’s pretty crazy,” Klara said. “Nothing we ever expected.”
But certainly more satisfying than a Grand Slam Breakfast.
Five quick ones about Austin for First Aid Kit’s Johanna and Klara Soderberg:
What similarities do you find between Austin and Stockholm?
Klara: “That’s a hard question. Why we really like Austin, it’s because it’s such a music city. Isn’t it called like the Live Music Capital of the World or something like that? There’s definitely a lot of music here in Stockholm as well, I think. And in Sweden, music is a very big part of our culture.”
What do you remember most about your first appearance at the ACL Music Festival (also in 2010)?
Klara: “Well, it’s really special for us because that’s where we first met Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, who then ended up producing our record, The Lion’s Roar.”
What can the audience expect from First Aid Kit (which also includes drummer Mattias Bergqvist)?
Johanna: “They can expect two sisters singing their hearts out.”
Klara: “Harmonies, head-banging.”
Johanna: “I think it’s a bit more rocking than you would expect. We kind of go all out.”
Other than your performance, what excites you most about coming to Austin?
Johanna: “I don’t know what we’re gonna do (during their day off). Probably go shopping, ’cause there’s some really nice stores. We might buy some cowboys boots, maybe. Eating some barbecue, maybe.”
“Keep Austin Weird” is the local motto. What would your slogan be?
Klara: “That’s a pretty great slogan. Everything weird is good in my book.”
Publicity photo by Neil Krug.
Next in the series: Sara Quin of Canada’s Tegan and Sara.