FIRST AID KIT (SWE)
24.1.2019 @ Helsinki, Jäähalli
There's a line in the title track of Ruins that is the most
direct the Söderberg sisters have ever been. “I lost you, didn't I?” asks Klara
Söderberg. “But first I think I lost myself.” The whole album will take you
back to the first time your veins were squeezed to the point of suffocation by
that first heartache – the one that left you anchorless, questioning your
purpose, your world, yourself.
Klara, the younger sister to her sparring partner Johanna,
isn't sure that she knows when she's written one of those lines. It's the facts
that pour out of her. “Life just happened and it dictated what the record was
about,” she says. “Most of it is the aftermath of a relationship ending, where
to go from there, figuring out who you are after that happens. It's a
documentary, and it's quite sad.” Johanna, however, does know. She acts as the
executive producer to Klara's ideas, identifying the golden moments, telling
her which to pursue and how to make them sing. “Johanna puts it all together,”
explains Klara. “She knows that it's good but it needs something else. I'll
argue that it doesn't. Then we'll do it, it'll sound perfect and I'm like, 'Oh
fuck it's true – it is better now.'”
“Rebel Heart” – the album’s opener – documents a love doomed
from the start. “It's A Shame” – the lead single – is a plea to live in the
moment because everyone disposes of each other eventually. On “Postcard” and
“To Live A Life,” you feel the breath-stealing weight of despair when a
shattered love leaves you bereft of hope. “Fireworks” introverts the blame with
self-loathing. Overall, it's a nod to the traditions of the classic folk rock
sound, a sound First Aid Kit have revived via their breakthrough album Stay
Gold (2014) and previous Wichita releases The Big Black And The Blue (2010) and
The Lion's Roar (2012). The difference is that this time they've lived. The
results are intense. No longer in thrall to their forebears, they now channel
the hurt and longing felt in their heroes' works – Gram Parsons, Townes Van
Zandt, Johnny and June. Long gone are the days of covering Fleet Foxes and
singing fairytales, of leaving school to pursue music, emerging in flannel from
tall tree’d forests. Here is First Aid Kit as you've never heard them before:
wounded and biting back hard.
To understand the journey that they've been on for the last
decade you have to go to the root of it: Stockholm. Their birthplace is a maze
of memories. A boat trip to one of the city's islands takes the sisters past a
theme park where they've played; a walk through the city's center recalls the
night they performed at the Polar Music Prize for Swedish royalty and moved
Emmylou Harris to tears. Walking past the old town, Klara remembers the days
when she'd busk outside to pocket enough money to dye her hair. Her parents
weren't into the hair idea. Klara is the “rebel heart” of the album’s opening
track. Her arms decorated by maps of black ink.
Johanna agrees that there's a rockstar inside Klara, no
longer screaming to get out. She's arrived, guts spilled on the floor, her
sister here to steer the fruits of her choppy journey. When the pair landed
with their 2010 debut they oozed natural talent, possessing that Swedish sixth
sense for melody, their harmonies an offering from the halls of Valhalla. Their
music was stunning but no less earnest. With Stay Gold they perfected the art
of gorgeous songs steeped in darkness. Today they admit had they not stopped,
they'd still be on the road with it. They had to stop.
“At one point you have to say no. You have to start thinking
about yourself, your health, your sanity,” offers Johanna. “It got to the point
where playing felt so repetitive. We didn't have our soul in it any more.
Listening to music felt like work. It was all just, ugh.” Klara chimes in.
“We'd been on a continuous tour since I was 16. That's all we knew. We got to a
point where we were like, 'What do we have back at home?' We wanted to return,
to be 'normal'.” “You especially,” adds Johanna. “You were going crazy.”
Suffering from exhaustion on the road, Klara went to live in Manchester with
her fiancé to escape and find her own space. “Now that I've moved back to
Stockholm, I've proven that I am my own person, but I needed to figure that
out,” she says. Johanna returned to Stockholm, and wondered where the remnants
of her past were. “I had a crisis coming back,” she says. “You get restless. On
tour, you were always going somewhere, there'd be people waiting for you,
excited. I was depressed.”
When they came back to each other, the relationship had
evolved. “I was actually excited to see Klara!” says Johanna. They've had to
learn how to work with each other, have clearer lines of communication,
essentially grow the hell up. “Now our relationship is better than ever, but it
was pretty rocky,” says Klara. Johanna continues, “You can be really rude to
someone you love, somebody you know will always be there.” At this moment,
Klara bursts into song as she's prone to do. “You always hurt the one you
love…” Johanna looks at her, full of adoration.
Ruins was made with one target in mind: make it sound more
real. In many ways, First Aid Kit's largest asset is their biggest problem.
Their voices are so damn pretty. “The records were always so perfect,” says
Johanna. “We don't want it to feel perfect. We want it to feel rough,
gut-wrenching.” Given the material, the lyrics had to be the focus. These
sentiments didn't need to be dressed up. They needed to be naked.
Four years ago, lyrical ideas began to stem from Klara's
Manchester life, particularly the end of her engagement. “We'd been on a break
from music,” says Johanna. “Not listening, not writing.” During a trip to Los
Angeles last Spring, just after Klara's breakup, they hunkered down for six
weeks to gather inspiration. They went to Joshua Tree to a house as decimated as
their hearts. “All you could hear was a storm outside,” recalls Klara. The
place was filled with Ouija boards and tarot cards. “We were kind of freaked
out.” Nothing was as scary as the reality they had to face in the studio. Lead
single “It's A Shame” was written during that time. It's a song about the
desperation of loneliness. “It's also about being in L.A.,” adds Johanna.
“Everything's so beautiful but we felt like shit.” At their most prolific yet,
they came away with more ideas than ever.
Long after Los Angeles, in January of 2017, they committed
those songs to record, working with Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, Laura
Veirs) in Portland. “There was an ice storm. It was terrible!” recalls Johanna.
“No one could go anywhere, you couldn't drive, you couldn't walk. We were just
stuck in the studio.” Locked in with a group of amazing musicians—McKenzie
Smith of Midlake, drummer Glen Kotche from Wilco and REM's own Peter Buck—they
set the demons free.
With the Söderbergs back to their old selves, their bond
stronger and their desire fuller, their enjoyment of playing again is as
reassuring as learning how to re-connect. Having felt the loss of human
relationships so strongly – Klara with her ex, and the sisters with each other
– the greatest reward will be to experience the catharsis of performing Ruins
to new audiences, others who can relate to their lessons. “It's different, I
play bass now,” says Johanna. Klara: “Yeah, Johanna feels free. She's rockin'
Despite the time apart, and the ups and downs as bandmates
and sisters, the Söderbergs are full of the joys. Earlier in the day, they were
at the bow of a boat, looking out on their hometown. Suddenly they held each
other and broke out into that harmony: “Near, far, wherever you are, I believe
that the heart does go on….” Singing the theme song to Titanic on a boat while
looking at the sea has the potential to be the shmaltziest of moments. Not for
First Aid Kit, though. They have overcome stormy weather and they believe
again. They believe in themselves.