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First Aid Kit are still each other's ride or die

21 November 2022, 08:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Olof Grind

On their vibrant fifth album Palomino, First Aid Kit are working with a new sense of perspective. They meet Alan Pedder to talk about how taking time out to grow as individuals has only strengthened their bond.

“Oh my god, I’m gonna have a heart attack,” says First Aid Kit’s Klara Söderberg, putting her head into her hands. Johanna, her more stoic older sister, looks across her shoulder and shrugs. “Oh yeah, we’re gonna die.”

It’s a slate-grey Monday morning in Stockholm and the sisters are on their way to an asylum-themed escape room for an interview with Swedish paper Nöjesguiden – a choice they’re starting to regret. But first, a spot of breakfast with Best Fit to keep the ‘hanger’ at bay.

“Stressful situations don’t bring out our best sides,” says Johanna, ordering two plates just to be safe. “I’m worried that we’re gonna start yelling at each other in front of the journalist.” Klara nods, sipping her tea. “We do fight a lot. I can’t think when Johanna gets stressed out, and then I get annoyed. It’s not pretty.”

Don’t be fooled by their demurring, though. The Söderbergs are self-professed adrenaline junkies, or at least they used to be. Reform has been a slow and necessary process after more than a decade of non-stop hustling in service of First Aid Kit had left them running on empty. “We were very, very driven and took our music so seriously,” says Johanna. “For me, the band was everything. It was life or death.”

She's not kidding. In little over 5 years, the Söderbergs went from school-age sisters uploading their demos to MySpace to a globally in-demand touring duo with over half a million album sales. But the faultlines of successive burnouts during the long months on the road for their second and third albums left the sisters vulnerable to bigger emotional earthquakes.

Thick with gathered storm clouds and relatable candour, their fourth album Ruins found the sisters navigating a more lived-in version of the youthful fatalism that had always been a hallmark of their work. Klara had split from her British musician fiancé the year before, and Johanna’s five-year relationship came abruptly to an end in the same week as the album hit the shelves. It was not a happy time. “There was a lot of personal trauma tied up in that record,” says Klara, shaking her head and poking at her avocado toast. “Everything just became too much.”

Despite their attempts to slow down and soldier through, the multiple aftershocks of touring behind Ruins laid the truth unavoidably bare: the old ways had become desperately unhealthy, and something had to change. Calling off their 2019 summer tour citing “unforeseen medical circumstances,”, the sisters grasped for solid ground.

Together with her musician boyfriend Gustav, Johanna bought a house close to where she and Klara had grown up, and in the summer of 2020 the couple had a baby daughter. Klara had a similarly eventful few years, adopting a Spanish street dog named Pablo and marrying her boyfriend Michael, who works as the press secretary of Sweden’s Green Party. They also bought their first house – a 1940s fixer-upper not far from Johanna – and have been doing it up since.

There’s a lot of house talk and swapping pictures of dogs over the course of the hour we spend chatting, and some mutual gnashing of teeth over Sweden’s political lurch to the right (“I fucking hate it,” huffs Johanna, summing up how we all feel). But mostly we’re here to welcome Palomino, the fifth First Aid Kit record and the first to wear its classic pop influences proudly.

Recorded at the north Stockholm studio of producer Daniel Bengtson and featuring several co-writes with Swedish pop royalty Björn Yttling, it’s the sound of a band revitalised and thriving, with not a pedal steel in sight.

FIRSTAIDKIT black highres Olof Grind
BEST FIT: It’s almost five years since Ruins. And what strange years they’ve been. You’ve both certainly had huge changes in your lives. What is your mindset going into this record release, compared to how it’s been before?

KLARA SÖDERBERG: It feels very different! I feel like a grown up in a way that I never have before. I feel very at ease with a lot of things. Making this album was a really joyful experience. I feel like we’ve never been as honest with each other as we have been while making this record. We’ve had to really work on our relationship, and, for me, that’s made the writing and recording process, and everything, so much more open.

Also, I feel like we are just so much more comfortable with who we are and what we want to do. [turns to her sister] I don’t know if you agree?

JOHANNA SÖDERBERG: Yeah, I do. Also, I feel like we just have a different perspective when it comes to the band these days. It’s just this amazing thing that we get to do, and we're very privileged to do it, but it’s not like it was before when, for me at least, it was everything.

I guess I'm not as worried about our success anymore. I’m just thankful we get to do this and wherever it lands, it’s gonna be fine.”

When you started talking about writing songs for this record, back in 2018, you had this idea that you wanted to make something more upbeat. You wanted to write happy songs but you didn’t really know how to go about it. Would you say that you figured it out?

KLARA: No! [laughs] I kinda feel like we’ve failed. The songs on this album, they’re not happy.

JOHANNA: [deadpans] Sad is what we’ve achieved.

KLARA: But I also don’t think it would have been an interesting record if it was ten happy songs.

JOHANNA: There’s more hope.

KLARA: Less dread.

JOHANNA: I think going into this record we had the mindset that we wanted to stray away from the kind of examining ourselves in the way we were when we made Ruins. It was very self-deprecating. But now, through a lot of therapy and just growing up, maturing, I think we wanted to write Palomino with a more nuanced view.

KLARA: It’s still rattling with all that life throws at you, but not in a self-deprecating way.

You both seem quite settled now. Would you say this is the happiest time of your lives?

JOHANNA: I don't know. In some ways, yes. But I'm very nostalgic, and when I look back at when we started I think, ‘Wow, that was so incredible!’. I sometimes miss that sense of wonder that we had. I think we still get in touch with it occasionally, but I think at that age, when you’re in your early 20s, that stuff is so precious.

[wistful pause] Now is the healthiest time, maybe.

KLARA: Yeah. I’m thinking of this quote from one of my favourite films, Before Sunset. Jesse, Ethan Hawke’s character, says something like, “When I was younger, I was healthier, but my problems weren’t as big. Now I'm older and my problems are deeper, but I'm more equipped to handle them.”

I feel like that’s just how it is. As you get older, you have bigger things to deal with. But I feel, in myself, like I know how to ask for what I need in a way that I didn’t when I was younger. I feel like I know myself better.

JOHANNA: [rolls eyes] She always quotes Ethan Hawke.

KLARA: Yeah, I try as much as I can to talk about Ethan Hawke. Johanna loves it. He actually came to one of our shows in New York and I was freaked out.

JOHANNA: We didn't tell you he was there. We tried to hide it from you.

KLARA: Yeah, but I saw his name on the guestlist.

JOHANNA: We were like, she can't handle it on stage. She’s gonna freak out.

KLARA: [indignantly] I handled it! I did great. I played an amazing show. Because I was like, he's here, I'm gonna give it my all.

On the subject of shows, more and more musicians these days are being incredibly honest about the challenges of touring and its toll on mental health. Does it feel like some of the stigma around that has been removed since you cancelled the Ruins tour?

JOHANNA: Yeah, definitely. I think there's a ‘show must go on’ kind of approach that everyone's always had. For Klara, just the idea of cancelling the shows was hard. [faces her sister] I think you were burnt out just from even thinking about cancelling. It was so hard for you.

KLARA: Oh yeah, I felt so much pressure. When we’re at our full capacity we have, like, 12 or 14 people travelling with us. For me, that was a lot of responsibility. I really didn’t want to cancel, but then I got to a point where I couldn’t not cancel. I couldn’t risk playing a show and having a full-on panic attack on stage. In that case we’d have to cancel anyway but I’d also have had to have that traumatic experience. I just had to make that choice.

JOHANNA: And we’d never cancelled anything, ever.

KLARA: Yeah, it had been kind of a prideful thing. [puffed-up voice] No, we don't cancel shows. The show must always go on… But then it’s like, well, you’re actually a person and it’s okay to cancel shows.

JOHANNA: And the world didn’t end. People are still coming to our shows now, which is great.

KLARA: Everyone in our team was so supportive as well. Everyone understood like, ‘Oh, this is real. This is not nothing.’

JOHANNA: Now we only go on tour for two weeks at a time. Because I have a daughter, I don’t want to be gone from her. Two weeks is good but [frustrated sigh] we’ve been kind of used to doing long tours, so this summer was tough to just break away from it. But I think it’s good to end a tour feeling like you want to do more.

KLARA: Yeah, I absolutely think so. And I think it works with our dynamic as well, because I've always kind of wanted to do less. And now we're on the same page about it, it just helps.

Would you say you were the driving force, Johanna?

JOHANNA: Sometimes, yeah. Before I would say I have quite strong workaholic tendencies. I still have to kind of battle with that because there’s a part of me that’s just like ‘More, more, more!’. So I have to kind of keep that inside of me.

But then I think about my daughter and wanting to be with her, and it feels really good to do less. It makes sense to me. Also, this is just how it is right now in our lives. I'm trying to think of the longer perspective. We'll see what happens in the future.

There’s a lot of looking back on this record. The songs are almost like vignettes from a film of your lives, with all the nostalgia and sadness that comes with watching past versions of yourselves.

JOHANNA: We are always looking back. That probably applies to all our records, I think. We’re extremely nostalgic people.

KLARA: It's funny, because we wrote these songs over a period of years and only when you have them all together can you start to see the patterns. The same things come up again and again.

JOHANNA: Also, the pandemic made us very nostalgic. Because nothing was really happening, it gave us time to get some perspective on what we're doing. When there was a void of everything, I just realised how fucking crazy this job is.

Our lives have been so strange, intense and adrenaline filled. When we did the first shows back after not having done them for a long time, I was shocked by the intensity of it.

KLARA: You forget how much focus it takes. We both really care about people having a good time when they come to our shows, but then it’s also a lot to ask of yourself to go up on stage and be present, be on point and just give it your all every single night. And you can’t, you really can’t, and that’s okay too.

We feel so lucky to do something that so many people dream about, and that we dreamed about since we were little, so it’s difficult to feel like it’s okay to think that it’s hard work at times.

With the work ethic that you’ve had growing up, do you feel like you missed out on things that you would have liked to experience?

JOHANNA: Yeah, for sure. I mean, we started so early, when we were 14 and 16. I was kind of a loner at school, I didn't have many friends. And then we just started touring, so I didn't really have that experience that I think most young people do.

I didn’t really go through the normal rites of passage. I didn’t have any time to just party and do reckless things. I was always very aware of myself. I just realised that now. I didn’t see that it was strange at the time.

KLARA: Yeah, when it was happening we were just so happy to be playing music.

JOHANNA: You know, we toured with our dad. We lived at home. We were just with family all the time. It was very isolating, in a way. We only had each other, and it was like that for a long time.

Gradually we’ve accumulated some of our own friends and we really do have our own separate lives, and that’s been so healthy for our relationship. During the pandemic we started doing things separately a lot more and it’s made a big difference. Before it was almost like a cult kind of feeling.

KLARA: [nodding vigorously] It’s a lot of pressure to put on your relationship with your sister. To work together and to always hang out with each other. And we were very naïve.

JOHANNA: I think we were in denial that it actually had an impact on our relationship, but it did. And we’re still kind of working on figuring out what to do and how to handle it.

The album cover for Palomino has a really strong sense of togetherness, which maybe reflects how much more at ease you are with each other. What made that photo ‘the one’ for you?

[In unison] Oh god, we just kind of knew!

KLARA: It’s strange. I don’t know if this is a sister thing, but we agree on 99% of creative decisions.

JOHANNA: Yeah. Out of a thousand photos, we would pick the same ones.

KLARA: Olof Grind who shot the cover is a really incredible photographer and he took so many beautiful images. We had so many to choose from.

JOHANNA: We actually shot the album cover in October 2021, before we even made the record. We kind of let the cover dictate the sound of the record, which we’ve never done before. We wanted it to be more summery and to have a by-the-ocean feeling to it ­– the opposite of Ruins, which was very black and white.

KLARA: We had these incredible suits and dresses that designer Lisa Sander made. She’s a mastermind who we’ve loved for a long time.

JOHANNA: She’s an artist.

KLARA: Yeah, and it’s so cool that she loves our music. With Palomino, I felt that she really understood what the album is about. She read all the lyrics from all our albums and picked out all this imagery and put it into the clothes. It’s so fun to play live wearing those suits.

JOHANNA: It feels like I’m wearing the record.

KLARA: They’re a big part of the visual aspect of the show. Everything feels connected.

Palomino is the first album you’ve recorded in Sweden since your debut, which you made with your dad. How did you end up working with producer Daniel Bengtson?

JOHANNA: Umm, actually through our dad. He’s really good friends with Daniel.

I think we just have a lot in common. We’re very nerdy about audio, especially me. I'm very particular about who we work with and how they record. With Daniel, we just felt this instant connection.

Creatively, we have great chemistry. He’s very positive and enthusiastic and has a million ideas, and we need that kind of person. We’re quite sensitive so if we’re with someone who’s very low energy, it just doesn’t work. It seems like we need someone to pump us up and get kind of high on our own music.

KLARA: Yeah, that's the best thing.

JOHANNA: Dan also knows all of our references. He listens to the same kind of music. Music made by bearded men.

What are some of the records you listened to together in the studio?

KLARA: A lot of Tango in the Night by Fleetwood Mac.

JOHANNA: We initially wanted the whole record to have a really ‘80s sound, but we found that some songs just didn't click. It felt forced.

KLARA: But that was a big deal for us because we hated that music, like, 10 years ago, and now we love it.

JOHANNA: It was the music of our parents, who were young in the ‘80s. We just hated it and now we’re like, oh my god, Talking Heads are the best band ever. Talking Heads was their favourite, so we’ve kind of come around.

KLARA: And then who else? Tom Petty.

JOHANNA: Also part of the ‘80s influence. Yeah, and Bruce Springsteen.

KLARA: People we thought were kind of cheesy before. We wanted to embrace that now.

JOHANNA: I’m thinking also Hall & Oates.

KLARA: Yeah. We wanted to have a soul kind of groove to the songs that we’ve never really had before.

JOHANNA: Kind of moving away from country and folk a little bit and going into more of a pop sound. But not a modern pop sound, kind of retro.

JOHANNA: Also ABBA and other Swedish ‘70s artists like Ted Gärdestad.

KLARA: Who was produced by the guys from ABBA!

JOHANNA: Yeah. Actually, our first time working with Daniel was on a cover of one of Ted Gärdestad’s songs called ‘Come Give Me Love’. It was kind of an audition for him, and he did a great job.

You co-wrote with Björn Yttling for the first time on this album. Judging from “Out Of My Head”, it seems he was a perfect fit. Did the song come easily?

JOHANNA: Yeah, “Out Of My Head” was the first time we wrote a song with someone else and it felt really, really easy, because I think we all like simple things.

KLARA: Yeah, I don’t like to complicate things, musically. I don’t really like to use fancy chords just for the sake of it. I mean, I like it if it works and it’s cool and it feels like it’s doing something emotionally. And I feel like Björn is very much the same.

For me, it was really cool to just be in a room and not be the one playing the guitar. It was so freeing. I could just focus on singing instead of having that part of my brain going, ‘What chord do I got to now?’

JOHANNA: I think after 15 years of working together, I think we were both ready for some fresh input.

KLARA: And, of course, he’s really great at songwriting and he had some really good advice.

JOHANNA: Yeah, when we were stuck on a few songs, he just came in and tweaked them, and we’ve never had anyone like that before. I've always had that role with Klara. So it was fun to have a third party.

"Our lives have been so strange, intense and adrenaline filled."

The first single was “Angel”, which has that big pop chorus. Were you more excited or nervous to put that one out as an introduction to the new First Aid Kit sound?

JOHANNA: It’s funny because “Out Of My Head” was meant to be the first single, but then we were told we had to release another song first, and that was “Angel”.

KLARA: Yeah, and honestly, I was scared about “Angel”. I felt that the lyrics were too direct and a little cheesy. The first version we worked on the studio, I really didn’t want to put it on the record. Then Daniel came up with this beautiful acoustic guitar part that reminded me of The Mamas & The Papas, and after that I loved it.

I do think it's a little scary to be that direct, lyrically, because it's quite vulnerable. But I’ve read so many comments about the song and what it means to people, and that’s incredible. And the day after we put out the song, we met a wonderful trans woman in Halifax who had been to our shows previously, but as her old self. She was like, 'This song is about my life.’

Honestly, it makes me emotional just talking about it, because it’s so incredible that our songs have their own lives. It’s not up to us to judge them. We just put them out and someone finds them and it helps them, and I just feel so privileged.

You said it took a bit of time to find the right sound for the record. What kind of ideas did you have to throw away in the process?

KLARA: I mean, usually, if we finish a song it’s because we believe it in enough, so what’s left is just loads of scraps of songs that we gave up on.

JOHANNA: I think there are three songs we finished that we didn’t put on the record. But there are definitely songs on the album that we struggled with, like “Ready To Run”, which we did many versions of. I wasn’t sure it was gonna end up on the record because I didn’t really like it, but then Daniel nailed it. It’s always a process.

KLARA: It’s tricky because you want to put different kinds of songs on a record. Like, if you’ve written four slow ballads, maybe you have to get rid of two, or whatever. But generally we’re on the same page with the songs that we’re excited about.

JOHANNA: There’s one song we wrote that’s about being a parent that I really liked but we didn’t put it on the record.

KLARA: Yeah, I wrote it from the perspective of being a big sister to our brother, who’s 11 years younger than me and 13 years younger than Johanna. And Johanna wrote a verse about being a mum and giving advice to her younger self.

JOHANNA: We’ll put it out at some point. It’s funny because I get so many people asking me when I’m gonna write a song about being a mum, but it’s kind of hard to do. I’m sure it’ll come later.

How was it recording all the strings with the orchestra? Did they come and record in person?

KLARA: Oh my god, yes, that was the best day. The best!

JOHANNA: I think it’s the biggest string section we’ve ever had. Like, 20 people. It was a big group.

KLARA: We were just watching these people in awe and it’s so weird that they take a melody that came out of your head and make it sound so beautiful. I’m always like, ‘Oh, that’s my thing, but also it’s not.’ It’s really such a trip. I don’t understand how they do it.

I remember “Nobody Knows” sounded super insane in the studio. It was very emotional to hear that come to life. We wanted it to have this kind of old school 1950s Everly Brothers kind of vibe.

JOHANNA: But also a little bit Tarantino, or like a Bond song.

The producers will be calling you up next.

JOHANNA: We are so ready!

I have to ask about “Wild Horses II” because I know it’s obviously a reference to the Rolling Stones song, but there’s a line in there that seems to be a nod to “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen. Was that intentional?

KLARA: Ooh, that’s my favourite song on the album. And yes, exactly. “I thought I couldn’t change it, so I didn’t even try” is a good spot. Nice! It’s funny how that happens. There’s another song we wrote that’s not on the record where we actually sing the words ‘famous blue raincoat’.

There’s always some part of Leonard Cohen on our records. There’s always something of Gram Parsons, obviously, and there’s always a Townes van Zandt thing. They just seem to find their way in. It’s not even like we’re trying to do it. It just happens, you know?

Joshua Tree is a place you’ve talked a lot about over the past ten or so years, and “29 Palms Highway” on Palomino takes us back there again. Has your relationship to the desert changed over the years? What keeps drawing you back there?

JOHANNA: It sounds very hippie-ish but I do feel like it’s a spiritual home for me.

KLARA: It is where you go to be a hippy and embrace that side of you.

JOHANNA: Yeah, I love it. I was just there in August and I went to this meditation ceremony where we were just lying out in the desert looking at this completely clear sky. There were just three of us out in the middle of nowhere in the desert, and we could see all of the stars. There was a woman there playing some kind of singing bowls and it was just a beautiful, powerful experience that I keep coming back to.

It's just a crazy place. When I’m there I just feel so grateful to get to witness it. It’s so timeless, you know? Like, here in the city it’s always changing, but the desert has just always been the way it is. And it’ll be that way still when we’re gone.

Okay, last question. On the title track you sing about galloping off into the unknown. Is that just a nice metaphor or are you really horse girls?

JOHANNA: I wish! I really want to be.

KLARA: I’m actually scared of horses.

JOHANNA: Growing up, I secretly wanted to be a horse girl, like all the other girls. I think it was too expensive then, and our parents couldn’t afford it. But maybe I will do it later in life. I did ride an Icelandic pony once. You have to do that, Klara. They’re quite small, but I did find it a bit intimidating.

KLARA: My best friend is horse crazy, and she has a horse that she rides and takes care of and stuff. So, okay, yeah, I have to try.

JOHANNA: It's gonna happen. I kinda want to do a music video where we're riding.

[In unison] But not for this record!

Palomino is out now on Columbia Records. First Aid Kit kick off a UK tour on 28 November, finishing with two nights at the London Eventim Apollo on 8/9 December. Last remaining tickets available via the band's website.

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