Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, collectively known as First Aid Kit, burst onto the international stage a decade ago, when their cover of Fleet Foxes’ ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’ went viral after the band shared it on social media.
To date, they have released four albums including this year’s much-anticipated Ruins, which peaked at number 13 in Australia, number one in Sweden, and charted across Europe and the UK.
Not bad for a “freaky folk act” from Sweden, as older sister Johanna describes the duo. Especially after an almost four-year hiatus, sparked by an almost-breakdown following their hectic tour schedule from 2014’s Stay Gold.
Music Feeds’ Jade Kennedy spoke with Johanna about the new record, the pitfalls of perfectionism, and how to find success in an online world.
Music Feeds: Hi Johanna! So how’s the tour been going?
Johanna Söderberg: Great, it’s been fantastic. You know it’s always really scary touring any new record. You never really know what to expect, and how the crowd’s going to react to the new songs, but it’s been fantastic so far. There’s just so much love every night, and the fans, they know the new songs already… so yeah, it’s working out great.
MF: Well that’s pretty amazing. Congrats on the new album, by the way. How does it feel to finally have it out there?
JS: Thank you! You know, releasing it was a lot of mixed feelings. I think we were a little scared, and there was also kind of relief to get it out there – we’ve been carrying it around with us for a year almost. I remember when we were in the studio that we loved it, like, we loved making it and we were really proud and really into it. But then, once a year has passed you start thinking, “Is it really good?” you know, “Is it really a good album?” and then when it came out, all of the reviews have been so overwhelmingly positive and then all the love from our fans, our listeners, it’s just been so great to receive that love. We’re thrilled.
MF: Well you mentioned the fan reaction in person, but what has the fan reaction been like online?
JS: Only good, you know, I think a lot of people are excited. Reading reviews is one thing, I think reviewers always have to find that one negative thing, they’re always complaining about something, you know – “They haven’t changed their sound enough,” or, “It sounds too Americana,” or whatever. But the fans are the ones really listening and are honest and their love has been so positive, they’re really into the new songs.
MF: Well the record has hit the top ten pretty much everywhere it’s been released so far – were you expecting that?
JS: No! No, not at all! We never expect that. I don’t think we see our music as having that kind of appeal, you know, like, it’s not for the charts! But apparently it is! No, it’s… it was shocking, definitely. And now the tours are sold out and yeah, it’s unbelievable. I mean, we had been on a break for four years before this record, so we were worried that people had forgotten about us and no one would show up at the shows… so to see the opposite is overwhelming for us.
MF: The last record and the touring schedule that went with it seemed to take a bit of a toll on you both, and your sister in particular. So how do you try to ensure that doesn’t happen again?
JS: Yeah, good question… I don’t know, I mean, we’re trying to take it easy on ourselves and not push ourselves too hard. We try to find days off where we can relax, and be very communicative. I mean, I’m talking to Klare all the time, and talking to our manager, about how we are and how we feel. Because I mean, once you’ve been in that place of stress and that level of trauma, you know where your threshold is, so you know how much you can take, and unfortunately I think it’s easy to fall back once something like that has happened to you. I don’t know, it’s almost like it’s easier to get stressed out. But, we’re trying to take it easy, and not be too perfectionist either. I think we’ve been very hard on ourselves about everything – all the shows have to be perfect, you know, we can’t make mistakes and we can’t half-ass anything. But the reality is when you do this every day you just have to release the expectations a little, you can’t be such a perfectionist – it’ll kill you.
MF: Yeah, for sure – self-care is key. You’ve been doing this for a very long time now, especially when you consider how young you are even now. Was this always the plan? I know that your dad was in music as well, so did it ever cross your mind to do something else?
JS: I mean, we didn’t see ourselves doing this for ten years, absolutely not. When we started out it was like, let’s just take one year off from school and see what happens. But then it went so well we just kept going, and I think it took us a long time to realise what we’d gotten ourselves into. And that came as quite a shock. That was sort of around the break, I think, stepping back and getting perspective and realising what a crazy circus it is. I think that was ultimately really good for us. But no, I don’t think we see ourselves doing anything else now. I mean, this feels like the only option and the only thing that we’re good at! I mean, it’s a skill that you develop all the time, we’ve worked hard on it so why not keep it going?
MF: Oh, definitely! So producer-wise you worked with Tucker Martine this time instead of Mike Mogis – what made you want to work with him?
JS: Well I mean, we love Mike, so much – it had nothing to do with any dissatisfaction with Mike because he’s a fantastic producer. I just think we were curious about trying it out with someone else, because Mike was the only one we’d ever worked with, so we wanted to see what it was like. We also wanted the record to have this vulnerability, and I think one of the easiest ways to achieve that is to work with new people. It was good to also be with someone new in the studio so that you feel a little tension, you feel a bit nervous because you’re trying to impress someone. I think that’s really good for the performances. And yeah, with Tucker we loved everything he had done, we’ve been huge fans for years and years and years so it was a real honour to work with him.
MF: I also noticed there’s a couple of little cameos from some special guests on the album?
JS: Yeah! Yeah, we had Peter Buck from REM coming in. He lives in Portland, so he stopped by the studio – that was obviously a huge honour; I mean our parents played REM as we were growing up.
MF: I love how blasé you are, like, “Oh yeah, he just dropped by to say hi and laid down some tracks, no biggie!”
JS: Yeah! I mean, it was very casual, he was very chill. Although I mean he’s kind of intimidating because he’s such a star, you know? Fortunately we loved everything he did. We were a bit nervous because we were like, oh my God, what if he plays something horrible and we have to be like, “Oh, Peter Buck, we don’t like that.” But he nailed everything, and I think he’s playing on almost every track. It’s very subtle, what he’s doing, but he’s in there, which is very cool. Oh yeah, and then we had Glen Kotche from Wilco on the drums, who is a living drum legend. It was really cool to have a session band, like a real band of musicians who sort of do this every day, because in the past it was just me and Klara and our dad and Mike. It was interesting, but it was also a little limiting, so it was nice to just be able to like, have these incredibly skilled musicians and let them do whatever they wanted, and have that creative freedom.
MF: Oh yeah, for sure. So I know it’s kind of like choosing your favourite child, but do you have a favourite song on the album? Is there something that resonates with you at the moment?
JS: I mean to be honest it changes every day. Especially now doing them live, you know? I really love ‘Nothing Has To Be True’ – the last song on the record – to us it felt a little different to what we’ve done before, in terms of the arrangement. We sort of have this long instrumental outro where everyone who plays on the record comes back and sort of improvises and also there’s no harmonies on the track, it’s both me and Klara both singing the lead. And it was really scary to do that, but also very liberating. So yeah, when I sing those lyrics every night I feel like crying. It’s just a very emotional song for me, about being lonely and being on the road.
MF: Yeah, they are a little bit darker than a lot of your normal stuff.
JS: Yeah, I mean it’s always been a little bit dark. It’s just a lot more evident this time.
MF: Well coming from the space that you were in when you would’ve begun writing this album, I think it’s very evident on this album.
JS: Yeah, absolutely. It had to be. It’s not matter of… well, we didn’t really talk about it and consciously decide to do it, it’s just something that happened organically. It just needed to be said, it needed to come out in the form of song.
MF: You’re one of the lucky bands to emerge victorious from the internet and social media, after going viral with your Fleet Foxes cover – at what point did you realise how big it had gotten?
JS: I remember posting that video and sending it to the band, and they uploaded it to their profile on MySpace… and waking up the next morning to see we had hundreds of thousands of views. I mean, that was quite a shock. That was when we kind of realised that we had the potential to be more than just this little freaky folk act in Sweden. That’s when we realised we might be able to do this for a living. We try to be present online. It’s fun, I like interacting with people and hearing their stories.
MF: So what advice would you give to someone who might be looking for the same kind of success online?
JS: Oh wow… I don’t know. Be good? I don’t know! I think it’s just that we were very lucky at that time. There was this longing for harmonising and it was a very folky scene at that moment. But you also have to be extremely persistent, and I always have been. Push people, invite them – I mean I wrote so many agents and people in the music industry like every single day. I really had that drive and ambition, I think you have to, and you can’t be scared of it, even though it’s sort of awkward you just have to go for it. But I think doing covers is a great way. You know, Klare and I always gain new fans from doing covers. It’s been very helpful for us. I mean, that’s not why we do it, but I think people just see when you perform a song from another artist and you love it so much, people see it – it shines through, and that’s very powerful.
MF: Oh yeah for sure, it can help connect you with a totally new audience as well. So, last of all – you’re coming to Australia soon, yes?
JS: We are, yeah! In March. We’re really, really excited, it’s been too long. I think we were last there three years ago, in 2015 – I think in March as well. We love playing in Australia. And I’m not saying this because I’m talking to you, like, we really do. I think there’s also such a strong folk scene there, and a love for that kind of music in Australia. Australians have been so supportive of us, back from our first or second record. It’s been a love affair so we can’t wait to come back.
Catch First Aid Kit performing live at Bluesfest 2018 — and a handful of their own headlining sideshows — this April, or get your hands on their new album ‘Ruins’, out now.