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First Aid Kit: Fortune in the Fall

Music Features First Aid Kit
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First Aid Kit: Fortune in the Fall

The Farmer’s Daughter Hotel in Los Angeles is just like it sounds. Located on Fairfax in the West L.A. sprawl of affluent neighborhoods that includes Beverly Hills, this spot advertises “country style room” and “down-home hospitality.” In the hotel’s outdoor restaurant, complete with pitchforks and shovels decorating the walls, sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg are finishing their breakfast with their mother, who is warm and eager not to intrude on our interview, still beaming with that pride you imagine your own parents would have if you were successful enough to fly them around the world to have breakfasts at bizarre, country-themed hotels. Despite the blue-collar associations most have with farmers, the hotel is very nice, and it is easy to imagine why First Aid Kit never wants this lifestyle to end.

The music of the sisters’ band makes this unusual meeting place sensible. Though they hail from Sweden, land of Robyn and The Knife and Lykke Li and Little Dragon, their project sounds nothing like the dance or pop that informs many of their fellow Swedish artists. Indeed, the best-selling acts in Swedish history are ABBA, Roxette and Ace of Base.

First Aid Kit is informed by traditional folk and country music, as well as the Laurel Canyon sound of the ‘70s and the Omaha music scene made famous by Conor Oberst and their producer, Mike Mogis. They have adopted this very American musical language wholly, right down to the twang to their voices when they sing, and though they are not the only folky Swedish musicians making a name for themselves in America these days—the Tallest Man on Earth and former Best of What’s Next artist The Tarantula Waltz come to mind—after their third full-length album, Stay Gold, hits stores in time for summer, they will likely be the most successful Swedish folk-rock band yet.

“I think it is getting more and more popular,” older sister Johanna, who plays keys and is often mistaken for the younger of the two, concludes in a discussion on the presence of folk and country music in Sweden. This resurgence wasn’t always the case, particularly when the sisters were young. Though music was encouraged from a young age, particularly because their father played in a rock band before they were born, the girls showed little interest in it outside of the pop music they heard on the radio. Singing in church proved boring, and they turned down offers for music lessons.

“Our dad listened to The Velvet Underground and Television and T-Rex,” Johanna continues, “which is more what we grew up with. We found this style of music on our own and our parents were skeptical. There is the thought that country is kind of corny from their generation, but I don’t think they had heard the range of country music.”

Indeed, their parents probably hadn’t heard Bright Eyes, the band younger Klara used to woo Johanna, or Fleet Foxes, the Seattle group that the sisters witnessed at a local music festival in 2008, falling hard enough in love that recording a YouTube tribute cover of the ballad “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” seemed like a reasonable thing to do. The clip, now, is both remarkably raw and masterful; it is not surprising that it is the reason many people know about First Aid Kit to begin with. The chemistry of the pair is plainly evident with how they laugh mid-song when Johanna leans way back to control the volume of her voice. They lean on each other at times with a combination of sisterly affection and encouragement, sure that their “little gift” to their favorite band will be heard by someone.

Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold would post the video on the band’s Myspace, and, though the girls had already put out an EP on The Knife’s label at that point, this action launched their career to a wide audience, and better, to the audience they would ideally be seeking. It is not something the duo downplays in conversation. They are fully aware that it was their big break, one that they seized despite being still children.

Six years later, the young girls have noticeably grown up to become women since the clip was recorded, but at 21 and 23, they are hardly free of their youth. This shows in conversation with both of them, as they often speak simultaneously, finishing each other’s thoughts, correcting each other’s ideas or qualifying the other’s statements. The title of their newest collection is Stay Gold, and funnily enough, any concerns that they may have about the impermanence of things are foiled by their band dynamic. Their connection is special, one that that few musicians can match, and whether or not the spotlights dim over time, they will have each other until the day they die. Family is about as permanent as things get.

The reference in their new album title is familiar to many who paid attention in American Literature class, coming from Robert Frost’s compact, timeless poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The title track of the album doesn’t hide Frost’s influence, directly using the line “as dawn goes down today” and slightly altering the concluding idea into “no gold can stay.” Frost’s poem manages to tell a singular truth in a specific image, in a metaphorical comparison and in an overarching Western idea—essentially the sunrise, a plant and the Fall of Man. That’s a lot of ground to cover in eight lines, especially when the link between the three elements is something as complex as Felix Culpa, which means “fortunate fall” and refers to all of these (flowers giving way to leaves, sun rising to day, Adam and Eve sinning and leaving the Garden of Eden) as having ultimately positive effects, rather than being solely tragic.

The song doesn’t take the same view as Frost does, though, and First Aid Kit concludes that they hope to stay gold, even if it is impossible. They aren’t alone here, as the book (and film) The Outsiders features a character on his deathbed telling the protagonist a similar bit of wisdom, to stay gold. When the sisters are asked about the film and book, they admit to not being familiar beyond a knowledge of its existence.

“I had written the first verse already, and was on this path of ‘gold,’ when I got stuck and looked through this book of poetry for inspiration,” Klara says, “and that’s when I came across the Robert Frost poem.”

“The song, now that we think about it, is sort of about our situation,” Johanna adds, “where what we are doing is so fantastic and amazing, but we are worried it could go away. And also that our appreciation remains, that we don’t stop seeing how amazing it is.”

Klara partially takes issue with this, saying “I don’t really worry about the appreciation going away, because I don’t think that can ever happen.”

“Eventually, though, if you are doing it every day?” Johanna asks.

“I think it can be anything good,” Klara says, “not wanting it to go away, and that we can’t hold on to anything. That is a scary thing.”

Klara seems like she would be comforted by the idea of the fortunate fall, though it is hard to imagine anyone seeing a benefit to losing the steam that First Aid Kit is running on. But later when the band talks about wanting a family in the future, the potential fortune of losing this lifestyle is affirmed, though it is unlikely that they can see this from their perspective.

Running a subtle parallel is the song “Shattered and Hollow,” which would open their show a couple months later at a sold out El Rey Theatre. A highlight of the new album that recalls Lykke Li in the atmospheric production as well as Neko Case in the vocal melodies, it is a dramatic choice to begin their performance, which fits into their new, more elaborate stage presentation, with reds and golds shimmering behind them, sometimes genuinely impressive with its beauty.

Lyrically, though, the song confuses, as the situation described is instantly relatable, of wanting to leave behind the past or your home to make a better life for yourself. Appearing on an album that the two had deemed “more personal,” it is reasonable to make the leap that the pair in the song is Johanna and Klara, and that the five years they are reflecting on is the time since their career was launched in proper and they left home to become touring artists.

But this also doesn’t seem in line with what they have spoken about previously, as they like their home city of Stockholm and never gave the impression of wanting to leave in the way the song describes. Klara’s quotation of Joni Mitchell rings true: “If you listen to that music and see me, you’re not getting anything. If you listen to the music and you see yourself, it’ll probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself.”

After the show, I ask the musicians about this, to which Klara answers “it doesn’t have to be a physical place. It could just be wanting to get out of your situation. I think most teenagers have that desire to get out of where they are from and do their own thing.”

And in many ways, First Aid Kit have done just that, admitting that it could be a bit of a bittersweet achievement, with Klara saying “it is human nature to never fully be appreciating the present. We always look to the future and the past.”

But living in the present is what she and her sister seem to always be reminding themselves when they talk about appreciating their good fortune. In this light, the idea of staying gold could be the hope that if things change, you won’t let those things change you.

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Now on their third full-length and first for a major label (though it was still recorded independently before reaching a deal with Columbia), First Aid Kit have followed the lead of country and folk influences like Emmylou Harris to craft their own type of pop song, very different than what you’d find in the Top 40. It is not just Sweden that loves pop music after all, and the U.S.’s pop craze stands in stark contrast to Stay Gold, which is, in the girls’ words, “a darker record than we realized when we were making it.”

Their second consecutive album recorded in Omaha with Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk, the more introspective lyrical content didn’t arise from the conditions in which the album was made. The pair describes Mogis’ ability to speak the same language as them (and no, not Swedish), by not coming from an overly technical or theoretical place in music.

“We spent a month in Omaha making the last record and then toured with him, so it is like we are just friends now,” Johanna says. “We stayed in the guest house next to his house while we were recording, and next to Conor’s house. When you see someone every day for five weeks, you become close. We had Thanksgiving dinner with his family.”

“It helped a lot in making the record, because we were so comfortable and could be really honest with each other,” Klara adds before noting Mogis’ appreciation for making lyrics the center of a song, as Bright Eyes does so well. “He doesn’t just get the lyrics; he gets the emotional message behind them, what we are trying to say. A lot of times we aren’t even sure what we are trying to say, but he can see it and take it to another level.”

This environment allowed the band to collaborate with Oberst on his new album, Upside Down Mountain, for which First Aid Kit provides backing vocals on five tracks. The “casual” guest spot came together while both were using different rooms at Mogis’ studio. This is a fitting payback to Oberst, who memorably sings a verse of “King of the World,” a standout from First Aid Kit’s previous album, The Lion’s Roar.

Last year, in Santa Monica, Calif., the relationship that the band has with Oberst and his camp was on display at the second day of Way Over Yonder festival, where Oberst headlined with First Aid Kit and The Felice Brothers supporting. All the acts ended up jumping on stage and playing with each other in what felt like a family celebration, a community that wasn’t defined by country or by gender or by level of success. Two young women from halfway around the world being treated as contemporaries with one of the great songwriters of current music, and a fellow former young music prodigy, is just one of confidence-building events that have found First Aid Kit.

With all this in mind, the “darkness” of Stay Gold that stems from the fear that this all can’t remain as you want it, becomes more understandable. It also is a product of the duo’s general disposition and taste. “We listen to the most tragic music,” Klara says, with her sister adding “It’s not like we are depressed, miserable people. We just write about that kind of stuff, and listen to it.”

“It’s interesting that in economical crises or wartime, comedies become more popular,” Johanna says later, “Like people want to escape their day-to-day life, rather than face reality.”

“But for me,” says Klara, “it has always been so comforting to listen to sad music when I am sad. It makes you feel like you are not alone.”

“You wouldn’t listen to ‘Happy’ by Pharrell when you are feeling down,” says Johanna, “It would be annoying. Like, ‘why are you so happy!?’”

“And it’s also helpful to gain perspective,” adds Klara. “Like ‘this person’s life is so much worse than ours.’ Something like ‘Waiting Around to Die’ by Townes Van Zandt makes you realize that your situation really isn’t that bad.”

The songwriters are somber when they delve deeper into the state of the world, noting the tragic news events that frame our moment in time, from Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which is a mystery still months after the interview, to the South Korean ferry Seawall which capsized and sank, causing nearly 300 deaths, mostly of children. “I think people are really scared,” Johanna bluntly states, her possible explanation for less-emotional pop and dance music that is widely popular at the moment.

“You see it not just in music,” Johanna says, “but in films, too. Like the popularity of superhero movies that are so simple, just find the bad guy and save the world. People need that right now, I think. It’s so easy now to just escape, with our technology particularly.”

Not that First Aid Kit doesn’t love pop music. Later they discuss both Miley Cyrus and Justin Timberlake, praising the emotional impact Cyrus is able to convey on a song she didn’t write with “Wrecking Ball,” and expressing a deep appreciation for Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” Surely they need to escape too, from time to time. But, they also call Emmylou Harris their musical role model (whom their most well-known song, “Emmylou,” is named after and references). Klara quotes Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen multiple times throughout the conversation—and not lyrics, but interviews they had given about being songwriters. While it may seem strange to wear their influences so on their sleeves, at 21 years old, Klara’s trust in the great songwriters indicates the kind of band First Aid Kit wants to be. They intend to last.

This attraction to the greats has proven mutual. Their history is littered with brushes with icons, from their brother going to the same kindergarten as The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson, which led to their first record deal, to the Fleet Foxes cover, to giving Conor Oberst their album when he was on tour in Stockholm, to Jack White approaching the band to record a single at Third Man while they were traveling through Nashville. Not only were they backing singers for Oberst, but they also provided harmonies for countrywoman Lykke Li when they toured together in 2011. Twice they have covered the songs of legends with the original artist in attendance, at ceremonies honoring Patti Smith and Paul Simon. They grew from any of these daunting encounters, and this is why they have been accepted so fully into the ranks of great songwriters.

Still, if there is anything the band is about, it is humility. While they know that life can’t remain this unbelievable forever, that doesn’t mean they can’t still be continuously appreciative and thankful for the fortune they have received. This sets them apart from so many young people who have seen success early and allowed it to change their view on the world, become entitled or medicate themselves to an early grave.

This extends to their trust in their audience, not thinking that they have all the answers as songwriters. “You never know what someone is going to get out of your music,” Klara says before echoing her own interpretation of Mitchell’s quote, “Hopefully when they hear it, they see themselves and something that they can apply to their own life. That’s the beautiful part about music, to be able to make that connection.”

Their charmed life doesn’t mean they aren’t missing out on things. Klara dropped out of school to tour with her older sister, and though they speak of the reminder that the time between albums allows them to be normal people again, that time is so brief that one wonders if being able to regain it would be the fortune in the hypothetical fall.

“After the last album, I feel like I needed the time between to remember who I am. For so long, I have been ‘Johanna from First Aid Kit,’ but then I found myself restless back home, I was so used to having a schedule. When you travel, you feel like you always have purpose. At home, I would feel guilty if I wasn’t doing something.”

“Right now, we have this opportunity,” Klara says, “to do what we really love. We love playing music, we love going on tour. We love everything about this. We are young, we have the energy to do it. We don’t want to throw away everything else in our lives, and there are other things that are important, too. We are missing some things, and our friends might have a hard time relating to what we are doing, but we have also surrounded ourselves with people that can understand what we are going through and share in our excitement. This is…our dream.”

Above all, they have each other. Discussing their writing process, Klara confesses to writing too many words at times than can fit in a line or a song, and Johanna edits her down, with Klara often putting up a fight before admitting her sister is right. A self-awareness strikes both of them at this moment, and Klara asserts the importance of the editor on the songs, not wanting to diminish her sister’s role in the songwriting.

“It’s really good that you can do that for us,” Klara says, locking eyes with her sister to let her know she means it. “You’re the Ezra Pound to my T.S. Eliot.”

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