The day before I spoke to First Aid Kit, they were nominated for the Brit Award for International Group of the Year. It’s the Swedish band’s third nod from the Brits – they were listed in the same category in 2015 and 2019, too – but Johanna and Klara Söderberg still “can’t wrap their heads around it”. “It’s strange,” said Johanna, the older sister, over Zoom. “It’s such a big award. The other nominated artists include Beyoncé [in International Artist of the Year]! We’re not on that tier.”
First Aid Kit won’t be able to attend the ceremony this time, but Johanna recalled their last experience on the Brits’ red carpet, where they were “sandwiched in between Dua Lipa and Sam Smith. I was like: ‘I’m not a pop star! What am I doing here?’”
Johanna and Klara, aged 32 and 30 respectively, have been First Aid Kit since they were teenagers. Klara was 16 when they both quit school to write and play music full-time. They called from an office in Stockholm, and sat close together to fill the frame, speaking animatedly and interrupting each other’s sentences. They speak English with a California-inflected drawl. The sisters have a particular affinity for the UK because, they said, it was the location of their first ever tour. In those days it was just them and their father, a musician turned teacher, driving up and down British motorways.
Since then, the sisters’ blend of breezy Americana and bright pop has become a source of comfort and resilience to millions of fans. First Aid Kit’s third record, Stay Gold (2014), brought their bell-like vocal harmonies to the mainstream. Its lead single “My Silver Lining” remains their most popular track, having been streamed more than 183 million times on Spotify. On the song, which glimmers with strings and piano, they are defiant: “I don’t want to wait any more/I’m tired of looking for answers,” Klara begins. “I won’t take the easy road,” they sing together on the chorus.
Their next album, Ruins (2018), detailed the breakdown of Klara’s relationship. It was praised by critics and sold almost 100,000 copies in the UK and Sweden alone, but behind the scenes Klara was suffering. Exhausted by the pressure of constant touring and album promotion, she crashed, and the band cancelled their 2019 summer tour. The event shifted something in the sisters’ minds: they had to recalibrate. Their latest record Palomino, which offers a distinctly hopeful, Eighties-infused strand of their signature country-pop, was released in November 2022. It marks a new phase in the Söderbergs’ understanding of how to be First Aid Kit.
Johanna and Klara have always played different roles in the band. “I am very ambitious and very driven and I’ve always propelled the band forward a lot,” said Johanna. At first, her goal was for First Aid Kit to be “the biggest band in the world. I feel like everyone else was with me on that, the label and our manager.”
Of course, Klara was initially excited by the prospect of huge success. But soon she realised that hers and Johanna’s ideals were “in conflict”. First Aid Kit would play a show “and then someone would come up and go, ‘Alright, on to the next thing!’” Klara said. “I felt like we weren’t allowed to enjoy what was going on. I didn’t have Johanna’s ambition. We love the fact that we can say this is our job: it’s incredible! But at the same time there is a limit to what my body can withstand. I’m diabetic, which is something that I forget about. I saw what it was doing to me and my life and I noticed that the validation that I felt in the moment would quickly pass, and I would feel very empty because I didn’t have anything else in my life. I had put everything else on hold. I felt quite lonely.”
From the outside, being in a band with your sister sounds idyllic. The media has portrayed First Aid Kit as two innocent, smiley sisters singing spellbinding harmonies. But close listeners have detected a wistfulness in the band’s music, an indication that life is not wholly sweet.
Johanna, too, can find the all-consuming nature of recording and touring lonely. While Ruins was a record about Klara’s break-up, Johanna separated from her own boyfriend in its week of release. She wanted nothing more than to throw herself into work. “I was a workaholic and I didn’t really feel tired. I could probably tour all the time. When you crashed and we had to cancel,” she looked to her sister, “I was depressed because I felt like I had no purpose in life: my whole identity was surrounding the band. Because we’d been touring for so long, I didn’t have that many close friends at home. I’d always been away. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend. It was a lot. I felt really lonely and I realised this was not a good way to live.”
They were forced to compromise. “Klara just didn’t want to tour as much as me,” Johanna said, plainly. The pandemic halted travel regardless. In that time Johanna had a daughter, who is now two and a half, which altered her priorities. Both have permanent bases in suburban Stockholm, and agree not to be away from home for more than a few weeks at a time.
In autumn 2022 they played a UK tour in support of Palomino. Their gentler, slower approach is paying off: it felt like how playing to fans is supposed to, Klara said. “I could really take it in and process it because I was there. I was present, in the moment. When touring is your whole life, it’s hard to see how special it is, because you get used to it. When it’s all you do, it does become kind of mundane, even though it isn’t. I felt like we had to make a change in order for us to appreciate it again. It had become this autopilot thing. Music is not supposed to be that.”
For a while, the sisters went to therapy together. Their therapist encouraged them to think of First Aid Kit as a business. Since they started the band – “as children!” Klara emphasised – the Söderbergs hadn’t ever thought about the formal structure of their operation. “If you had a business, you wouldn’t have set it up this way. Just because it’s music, you don’t consider that. But so much of our day-to-day is like anyone else’s.”
“We just fill out forms!” Johanna joked, waving a handful of paper in front of the camera.
But while the sisters have often had opposing opinions about how to run First Aid Kit, when it comes to the music, they are “strangely in sync”, Johanna explained. They do sometimes disagree about lyrics, but they know how to trust one another. It’s important that they acknowledge their differences. “We’re not one creature,” Johanna said.
Without prompting, she looked to Klara. “You’re really good at just writing and not thinking about what you’re writing, which is what a good songwriter does. You’re very good at…”
“Yes? Keep going!” Klara laughed.
“You’re really good at disassociating yourself from what you’re doing. It’s like a stream of consciousness that comes from very deep within. I think that’s why it’s so moving, and why people relate to it so much. You’re not afraid of that.”
“Oh, Jesus, OK!”
“That’s what creativity is, I think. When you’re able to let go of yourself. You’re not even yourself. You’re so in the music that you’re just floating around in it.”
“But there’s no other way I’d be interested in writing lyrics,” Klara explained. “The music that means something to me are the songs where someone is being vulnerable. It’s such a powerful thing because it’s so… we’re all the same. We all feel these things but we keep them inside so much. To listen to music or to write music – it’s freeing.”
[See also: Marcus Mumford: (Self-Titled) Album Review]
This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con