Is the best folk act in America a pair of teenage Swedish sisters? That’s a trick question, because the girls of First Aid Kit don’t live in America, and by now they’re both in their 20s. But if you saw them at a U.S. gig in, say, 2009, they’d be contenders for the title. Don’t believe me? How many times have I said it—you can’t predict the strange world of the Artist Spotlight.
“The Lion’s Roar” is the title track from First Aid Kit’s second LP, released in 2012. But Johanna and Klara Söderberg were a band long before that. They got into music after a friend introduced them to Bright Eyes, and from there they learned about American country and folk artists like Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Bob Dylan. A viewing of O Brother, Where Art Thou? pushed them farther along this path.
As children, the girls busked around Stockholm and started writing their own music, naming Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie as influences. Their dad, a former guitarist for the Swedish rock band Lolita Pop, knew enough to help record and produce his daughters’ songs. They put their first demos on MySpace in 2007, and got radio airplay, despite singing in English, for their song “Tangerine” that summer.
Johanna was 16 years old, and Klara just 14.
Around this time, the girls’ younger brother started kindergarten with the daughter of Karin Dreijer Andersson, a.k.a. Fever Ray, a.k.a. one-half of electronic duo The Knife. The moms talked and decided First Aid Kit (a band name Klara and Johanna picked out of the dictionary) should sign with Andersson’s label rather than be taken advantage of by a big, mean, major label. Hmm.
Their first EP, Drunken Trees, came out in 2008, and lots of people liked it. But it wasn’t until they put a cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” on YouTube that they really started to blow up. That band’s singer loved the cover, promoted it, and even brought First Aid Kit on stage to sing it at the Crossing Border Festival in the Netherlands that autumn, where both acts were playing. Here it is, but honestly, YouTube is full of nobodies doing decent covers, so I’m not super impressed by this.
I may be in the minority on that opinion, because the resultant bump in First Aid Kit’s popularity and respectability got them signed to big-time indie label Wichita Records right after. Their first LP, The Big Black and the Blue, came out in 2009.
This record depends heavily on vocals. From the a capella harmonies ringing through the first half of “In the Morning” to Klara’s alto warbling on “Ghost Town,” the girls’ impressively haunting voices carry every song, most of which are nice but not really groundbreaking.
Do you care about authenticity at all? I used to, but now I’m not so sure. Because First Aid Kit is a pastiche act at best. “All of these ghost towns I keep travelling through/All of these traffic signs and lonesome bars blind the view” … come on. These girls grew up in the suburbs, with both parents—in Sweden, that perennial short-lister in every quality-of-life measure. By comparison, Gram Parson’s parents were both dead by the time he was 21, and Townes Van Zandt went through insulin shock therapy (i.e., daily induced comas) for his manic depression. “You have to grow up, start paying the rent and have your heart broken before you understand country,” said Emmylou Harris in a 2014 interview.
If you’re willing to put all of that aside, you can still listen to First Aid Kit and marvel at how these girls pull off their musical impersonation. I first saw them perform in 2012, supporting Wild Flag at a show in L.A. They came on second, and my wife, who had only come to the show for my sake and was eager for it to be over, mistakenly thought they were the headliners. “That’s not even them?” she whined. It turned out she liked First Aid Kit better, and we saw them headline their own show the next year.
The Lion’s Roar is far better than its predecessor. The lyrics are more mature, the production is better—all the things you expect from a young act’s second record. Moreover, First Aid Kit has come to terms with their identity. They’re no longer just playing folky country songs; they’re interpreting the whole genre, aware of their limitations and their forebears (hence the almost distracting name-checking in “Emmylou”). They just want to be a part of this music and lend their voices to its spirit. The video is great, too, but I’m a sucker for anything shot in Joshua Tree.
They also made Harris herself cry at a performance in her honor last year. Go ahead and put those concerns about authenticity in the trash.
Bright Eyes multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis produced 2014’s Stay Gold, as he did their previous effort. It makes use of a grander musical palette, ranging from strings and winds to Mogis’s dulcimer and zither. Their dad also played bass, and their mom and younger brother are credited on percussion for one track.
This orchestral, chamber-pop style is a hit-or-miss proposition for First Aid Kit. I understand the balancing act that producers must play with their musicians, pushing toward a contemporary or marketable sound while retaining their individuality, but in this case, I think Mogis went too far. The plaintive vocals and melancholy sparseness of their songs was what made First Aid Kit work in the first place, but those attributes are diluted by everything else happening on this record. They’re in danger of sounding like just another Edward Sharpe or whoever else does this kind of music.
Also, lamentably, Stay Gold has some pretty crummy lyrics. Clichés are everywhere, like “tired of looking for answers,” “keep on keepin’ on,” “I lie awake at night,” “woke up in a hotel room,” “it’s a dark, twisted road,” and so on. They do sing “shit gets fucked up” on one track, I guess to show us that they’re all grown up now.
Still and all, First Aid Kit is hard not to like. I’m always looking forward to what they do next. I saw on Twitter that they’ve been working on something new (and that Klara is blonde now) so with any luck, I won’t have to wait much longer.