It all started with Conor Oberst. Or actually, maybe it all started with Britney Spears.
As sisters growing up in Sweden, First Aid Kit's Johanna and Klara Söderberg would listen to American pop music on the radio and harmonize along — Spears, Beyoncé. This came out of circumstance, mostly — it's just what girls their age gravitated toward. But in 2005, the Söderbergs heard "First Day of My Life" from Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. It's a song that found the angsty boy wonder and Bright Eyes' central member Oberst making a transition into a rootsier, more deeply folk sound. They were hooked.
"It was the simplicity of the music and how pure it felt," Johanna recalls via Skype from Sweden, in perfect English and with no detectable accent. "It was so completely different from anything else we've ever heard on the radio. It turned us from music fans to music lovers."
And, in turn, to music makers. First Aid Kit's sound mixes traditional folk and harmonies with a moody darkness inspired by Nordic winters, mystical lyrics and a yearning that's impossible to imagine could come from two girls so young. Though now 21 (Johanna) and 19 (Klara), they began writing in their early teens. They're entirely self-taught, and their freedom from traditional theory or rules allowed them to spend time soaking in influences, and not just from the musical pride of Omaha, but even further.
"We started digging deeper into the folk tradition," Johanna says. "What was Conor Oberst inspired by? Oh, Bob Dylan. Who inspired Bob Dylan? The Carter Family. And we found all these amazing artists."
First Aid Kit's sound is certainly dressed in hints of all those artists, but what is most haunting is their ability to harmonize: The Söderberg sisters' voices ring together in eerie cadence with a sense of uneasiness, of old spirits and witchy tales. The echoing '60s tones might make Crosby, Stills & Nash stop in their tracks.
First Aid Kit released their debut LP, The Big Black and the Blue, in 2010, and that led to an intense year of touring. Their adoration for Bright Eyes led them to connect with Mike Mogis — Bright Eyes' producer and a member of Monsters of Folk along with Oberst, M. Ward and My Morning Jacket's Jim James. The supergroup was playing a show in Stockholm, and Johanna and Klara were able to get themselves backstage. There they blushed and whispered like the teenagers they were, eventually managing to approach the band.
"We handed Mike and Conor our first album," Johanna recalls. "We didn't think it would lead to anything — were just little fan girls. But a year later Mike showed up at one of our shows, said he loved the album and wanted to produce the next one." And he did — First Aid Kit spent a month making The Lion's Roar with Mogis in Omaha. Another friend of the band is Jack White, who had the duo record at Third Man when they were in Nashville — a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Universal Soldier" for Third Man Records' Blue Series.
"Mike is very thorough and a perfectionist," Johanna says. "He can work on something for hours and hours. And Jack seems to be an of-the-moment kind of guy — maybe more impulsive. But in a good way."
Now on the eve of another huge tour, the sisters are spending time "taking walks in the forest by our house and breathing in the Swedish air." But with such a keen interest in American music, they certainly wouldn't mind moving here, hoping to eventually become part of a legacy of roots music and the new folk revival.
"We dream about it," Johanna says wistfully, rattling off places like California, Asheville and Austin. "I can't stand the weather here. I don't know if you've experienced a Swedish winter, but I don't recommend it."
Though if moody, cold, lingering darkness is what helped the sisters create their sound, one has to hope they stay put permanently. Or at least settle for Conor Oberst's moody, cold Omaha basement. That would work, too.
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