Johanna and Klara Söderberg, the Swedish sisters who make up the band First Aid Kit, sat down with WGBH's Andrea Wolanin to discuss musical influences, working with family, and their latest album Stay Gold.
ANDREA WOLANIN, INTERVIEWER: Your father was a musician and a producer. Can you tell me about growing up in that environment? Did it influence your interest in music?
JOHANNA SÖDERBERG: We grew up in a very new-school family; music was always around us. Our parents are huge music nerds.
KLARA SÖDERBERG: Yeah, and our dad played in a band in the 80’s, and he quit when Joanna was born and became a teacher. But there’s always that kind of, well, we knew our dad played music…
JOHANNA: We were like, “he’s a rock star!” [laughs]
KLARA: Yeah, but it was like well maybe that’s something that we can do. I don’t think a lot of people have that.
JOHANNA: And they were very encouraging and supportive of us whenever we were doing anything creative, and that really helped.
WOLANIN: How do you describe your music? What do you describe your style as?
JOHANNA: We find it so hard to describe our music; I think that’s the hardest question to get asked.
KLARA: You kind of just want to say, well listen, but that’s a boring answer.
JOHANNA: But people do like to put stuff into genres so we say that its folk and country Americana-inspired pop music, basically, with lots of harmonies and storytelling.
WOLANIN: Along those lines, what influences do you think directed you towards that sound, specifically?
JOHANNA: A lot of different bands have inspired us. I think we first got into this kind of music through the band Bright Eyes, that I started listening to when I was 12, and you were 14. And it was kind of a revelation to hear that music because it was just so simple and honest. It was really inspiring as an insecure 12-year-old to hear this music that was just like “this is me, I’m just a regular dude just singing about my life,” and that you didn’t have to be this perfect pop star, you know? That you could connect to it was really inspiring.
KLARA: And then through Bright Eyes we found Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Gram Parsons and so many amazing musicians that we became kind of obsessed with.
JOHANNA: Yeah, and now its like we’re still exploring, I mean there’s so much good music out there and you can keep on digging.
WOLANIN: That’s a great list you just made. So, because you have this sound and you are so influenced by North American musicians, are people surprised that you’re from Sweden?
JOHANNA: People are often surprised that we’re from Sweden. They come and hear us speak and sing and they don’t think we’re two Swedish girls.
KLARA: I think, I don’t know it’s a strange thing its almost like because the way we grew up with the Internet and everything just having the whole world at your fingertips you can listen to music from anywhere in the world or watch a TV show from anywhere in the world it kind of made the national borders disappear.
JOHANNA: Yeah, like when we started making music we didn’t think, “oh we’re going to sound American,” it’s just what came naturally to us.
KLARA: Yeah, we didn’t even think about it.
JOHANNA: And in Sweden they don’t dub TV shows so we grew up watching The Simpsons and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and that’s how we learned English. So for us it just always felt really natural. And it’s amazing to come here and see people liking what we do and this is where everything started.
WOLANIN: So your new record Stay Gold is about to be released, and I listen to it on NPR persistently. Could you talk more about your recording process?
KLARA: Sure, we made this record in November in Omaha, Nebraska with a guy named Mike Mogis who is part of the band Bright Eyes. We made our last record with him as well, so we came back and we had these 10 songs and we had a lot of fun with it, we experimented more with strings and brass and things like that…
JOHANNA: Brass? No you mean flutes. Brass is like trumpets.
KLARA: Didn’t we have some brass?
JOHANNA: On one song. Yeah, so when we record we try to do it live and together in the same room. We’ve tried to do it separately but it’s so different because of our harmonies and how important they are. When we can see each other and we’re in the same room they get tighter and it feels better, so that’s how we do it.
WOLANIN: One thing I noticed with the album was that it had a lot of themes of displacement. I was wondering how that came about?
JOHANNA: I think a lot of the songs are written from the perspective of being on tour and being a musician, I mean that’s what we do so obviously that’s what we’re going to write about. And you know I think when you’re doing this you can sort of feel out of place and isolated in a way because you’re far away from your family and your friends and you’re on your own. I mean it’s a lovely amazing thing but I think we felt a little bit lonely.
KLARA: Yeah, but I also want to say that it’s not just a record about being on tour and how hard that can be, it’s just about being a human being and feeling lost in a more general sense. Just trying to find your place in the world and trying to understand how it all works, and how you fit into it.
WOLANIN: So now I’m going to say a song title, and you tell me what emotions or memories come to mind. Ok? So, “Shattered and Hollowed.”
JOHANNA: Well, its about the feeling you have when you’re young and you’re afraid of ending up where you started from, like not being able to go out into the world and discover things and being stuck somewhere.
KLARA: Yeah, and its sort of about how things can be hard but you’d rather deal with it and get the good stuff than not feel anything at all. Like there’s a line “I’d rather be broken than empty, I’d rather be shattered than hollowed.”
WOLANIN: “Cedar Lane.”
JOHANNA: Ryan Adams. Nostalgia. Memories.
KLARA: We say Ryan Adams because we were inspired; it’s not about Ryan Adams. We’ve never met Ryan Adams.
JOHANNA: It’s about having this memory that you’re haunted by but you also kind of like it as well and you don’t know how to get rid of it. And it has lots of strings on it, super amazing to record.
WOLANIN: “In The Hearts of Men.”
KLARA: “In the Hearts of Men,” that’s a song that came very quickly, I remember writing the lyrics for that and it was just one of those. Which happens very rarely, that a song writes itself almost, it sounds silly but it kind of happened with that song. I’m still really pleased with the lyrics in that one, I feel like I kind of nailed it there [laughs]. You don’t always feel that way, so it’s cool when that happens.
WOLANIN: “Lion’s Roar.”
JOHANNA: “Lion’s Roar”…I think of head-banging because that’s what we do on stage.”
KLARA: I think of Scottish moors.
JOHANNA: We wrote it when we were in Scotland so…
KLARA: Yeah, so the very dramatic landscape of Scotland because we were driving through Scotland when that song started coming together.
JOHANNA: A lot of people think it’s about Game of Thrones, like the Lannisters…Lannisters right?
KLARA: I actually don’t remember; it’s been a long time since I watched it.
JOHANNA: Yeah, but they have the lion as their symbol.
KLARA: And then we have a song called Wolf as well.
JOHANNA: Yeah, so people think that’s about Game of Thrones as well [laughs].
WOLANIN: You guys are huge Game of Thrones fans.
BOTH: Yes, yes [laughing].
WOLANIN: “Stay Gold.”
JOHANNA: “Stay Gold” is the title track of our new record. It’s a song that when we wrote we were like “we want an epic sound on this.” Big drums, big strings…
KLARA: Just to sort of capture the feeling that things are changing and running out of our hands and we have to grab hold of it. And wanting that to feel very dramatic, that sort of fear, if that makes sense.
WOLANIN: Was it really influenced by The Outsiders and all that?
JOHANNA: We’ve never seen or read The Outsiders….
WOLANIN: Everyone must ask you that though.
KLARA: Yes, we have to see it; it’s really bad [that we haven’t].
JOHANNA: It’s all from the Robert Frost poem [“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which is also seen in the film The Outsiders].
WOLANIN: “My Silver Lining.”
KLARA: I think of the strings, I think of Townes Van Zandt who was a big inspiration for us when we were producing the song, when we were arranging the song. Having these strings that are almost like a choir, it’s almost like the vocals and the strings are talking to each other and they’re answering. They never repeat in the whole song, it’s always a new line. They were so cool. Nate Walcott, who’s also a member of Bright Eyes, wrote all the string arrangements for the record and when we heard this it was like “whoa,” he just captured exactly what it is was we wanted.
JOHANNA: Well, it’s about our love for country music and singing it together with someone. It could be someone you’re in love with but it could also be someone like your sister or a friend. Just how special it is to sing with someone, it’s so different from talking and it’s just a completely different form of communication.
KLARA: You have to pay really close attention to the other person and what they’re doing; it’s a really interesting way of communicating.
JOHANNA: You become very close to someone through singing. And it’s about Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash and June Carter, and their harmonizing and how special it is.
WOLANIN: So you’ve been playing together since 2007, has the music business changed a lot since you’ve started?
KLARA: I think the music business is changing drastically, because people aren’t really buying CDs, but we’ve never kind of experienced a time when we were musicians and people weren’t buying our CDs. People were well on their way…
JOHANNA: And it had already started.
KLARA: Yeah, so I think it’s probably harder for bands who started out and had to get used to the fact that people don’t buy CDs anymore.
JOHANNA: But for us, we love the Internet and the fact that we found country and American music was through that and we wouldn’t be here without it so we’re very positive towards it.
WOLANIN: You started playing out and getting more attention when you guys were fairly young. Was it intimidating to be garnering that much attention from fans and other bands like The Knife and Jack White when you were still so young?
JOHANNA: I don’t think the fact that we were young when we got attention was anything. We never even thought about it, like that’s never even occurred to us, like, “we’re so young it’s so weird,” you know? I mean it felt weird and surreal, but I don’t think we had time to reflect on it because so much happened to us and it’s been such an amazing adventure so far. But hopefully we’ve grown a lot since then and become more confident and comfortable.
WOLANIN: If you weren’t playing music for a living what would you be doing?
KLARA: I don’t think we ever really had time to come up with a plan B or a plan A. We just started making music and strangely enough people wanted to hear us. And then it just kind of continued.
JOHANNA: Yeah, I mean we quit school, and you didn’t go to high school, I mean it was just so fast. But we would love to do many things. Anything artistic or creative.
KLARA: Yeah, I’d I love to write; I mean I love writing in every kind of way. I think in a lot of ways songwriting is the best thing because I’m not very patient so I usually give up on things quickly but with songs it’s pretty short usually. But there are loads of things I’m sure we’d love to do. I think we have this sort of romantic idea about having a normal job, and a normal life, waking up in the same place everyday and going to the same place of work. It’s strange but to us that’s something exotic and sometimes we definitely long for that too.
WOLANIN: How is it performing, touring and recording with your sister?
JOHANNA: It’s great working with your sister. We have a special bond, we’ve always been friends since we were kids. A lot of people say “how could you work with your sister, I would never been able to work with mine, we hate each other,” and things like that. Not hate each other, but you know. For us it’s never been a problem. We do argue from time to time but it’s always about silly little things. I think when you’re on the road with anyone I think you’ll encounter problems and you’ll be tired and stressed out and you need someone to take it out on. And it just happens to be the one you know the best, and then you forgive each other, quickly.
KLARA: Yes, hopefully [laughs].
WOLANIN: Great, thank you guys so much.