First Aid Kit: Swedish Americana

Music Features First Aid Kit
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For many, the introduction the Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg of First Aid Kit came via their YouTube cover of the Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” The video shows the teenage sisters sitting tightly together alone in a forest, vulnerable to the surrounding wilds like modern-day Babes in the Wood. But when they began to sing, the towering pines seemed to quake and quiver from the sisters’ harmonic sincerity and innocent power.

This same melodic and pastoral demureness continues with the release of First Aid Kit’s second full-length album, The Lion’s Roar. But the Söderbergs have since infused an exquisite melancholia into their songwriting, mirroring their growing appetite for cowboy folk and outlaw-country music. This is most evident in “Emmylou” a pedal-steel-drenched homage to Americana iconoclast Gram Parsons and his muse Emmylou Harris.

Although they have yet to meet Ms. Harris in person, the song touches on personal experience. On a trip to California, the sisters visited the Joshua Tree Motel where Parson met his untimely end due to an overdose.

As Klara tells it, “We would love for Emmylou to hear it and hope she understands the song as a tribute. Hopefully she can hear how much her music means to us. Visiting the Joshua Tree Motel was a very emotional moment for us. We stayed close to the room where Gram Parsons died. When we arrived, it was a beautiful warm desert night. The sky was pink and there was some sort of magical feeling in the air. We understood why Gram loved this place so much. It was special to feel so close to him. We teared up a bit when we saw his shrine.”

Since the album was recorded on U.S. soil at ARC Studios in Omaha, Neb., with producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk), it’s not surprising that a sense frontier resilience and enduring solitude seeped into the record. Yet, this sense of place is clearly rooted in the Söderbergs’ homeland of Sweden, where the starkness and isolation of long winters make one question if the darkness will ever give way.

“We had demos with basic arrangements ready when we came to Omaha,” Klara says, “so Mike wasn’t directly involved in the songwriting. But he was very careful to find—and not change—the essence of the songs. He built up dramatic arrangements with very small means, using very delicate instrumental changes and add-ons to create atmosphere and dynamics. He taught us how much you can do with so little.”

Sonically the new songs capture a more inspired pace than First Aid Kit’s first full-length, The Big Black and the Blue. This is due in major part to being more of a full band with the girls’ father Benkt on bass, Mattias Bergqvist drums, and a cast of Omaha-based musicians including Mogis and fellow Bright Eyes member Nate Walcott adding various textures. Lyrically, though, the newer songs belie a more prophetic and solemn tone—one that conjures a sepia-toned visage of a pioneer heralding the coming of hard times.

When asked what draws them to Americana folklore, Klara responds, “We think it’s the singing and the storytelling. The focus is not on the person who is singing or playing, but on the quality of the songs in themselves. And the quality is often very high. There’s something very haunting and mystical about the old country and folk recordings of the Carter Family and Louvin Brothers. We love folk music because in its simplest form anyone can perform it. It’s real, and it’s not designed to appeal to some kind of commercial market. These bands and artists sing with their own voices about matters that are important.”

While there are some more upbeat moments such as the near-pop of “Blue” and the closer “King of the World” (a loose foot-stomper featuring Mogis’ other bandmate Conor Oberst and fellow folk rockers, The Felice Brothers, who happened to be passing through), it’s bleak, desolate moments on “To a Poet” and the title track that show First Aid Kit’s growth and fearlessness to delve into darker corners of lost love, fear, decay and solitude. The music’s allure and believability stems from the juxtaposition of subject matter with such sincere and inviting harmonies that only siblings could so deftly summon with such ease.

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