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First Aid Kit (the Band) Is Always Listening

Talking to Klara and Johanna Soderberg, the preternaturally talented sister duo, about their new album, ‘Ruins’

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First Aid Kit, the Swedish Americana duo of young sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg, have a great tradition going where they make their heroes cry. It happened in 2015, at a lush Stockholm banquet for the Polar Music Prize, a sort of global lifetime-achievement award doled out that year to alt-country icon Emmylou Harris. “When we were 14 and 16, we discovered the music of Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons,” Johanna announced from the stage. “We were so inspired that we wrote this song, which is about the joy and magic of singing together with someone that you love.” The duo then launched into their 2012 breakout hit, “Emmylou,” a tender and very faithful tribute to that prestige-vagabond sound, with its wistful pedal steel and gentle ’70s-outlaw charm.

Meanwhile, the lady they named the song after sat at a banquet table, blinking rapidly.

I’ll be your Emmylou
And I’ll be your June
If you’ll be my Gram
And my Johnny, too
No, I’m not askin’ much of you
Just sing, little darlin’, sing with me

By song’s end, Harris was full on dabbing at her face with a napkin.

The same thing happened in 2011, at another Polar Music Prize banquet—this one for Patti Smith, who at first sat poker-faced as a much less famous First Aid Kit rumbled through her stormy 1979 hit “Dancing Barefoot.” But in the final minute, as Johanna uncorked the song’s fraught spoken-word climax—“Grave visitations / What is it that calls to us? / Why must we pray screaming? / Why must not death be redefined?”—a single tear rolled down Patti’s cheek.

How does it feel, exactly, to make your musical inspirations cry, sometimes by singing their own songs back at them? “Weird?” Johanna offers, chatting on the phone in mid-January. “It’s weird. It’s impossible to get a grip on. You can’t understand it. It’s just surreal. I don’t really think that actually happened. I mean, I know there’s video proof. Otherwise I wouldn’t believe it actually happened.”

The Soderberg sisters started out as teenage prodigies, precocious and profoundly reverent toward music that was often several decades older and native to a country on a different continent an ocean away. As a result, they’ve become master translators and interpreters, both geographically and chronologically. And they’re getting better as they get a little older and more worldly, which in turn only makes that alchemy more complicated and rewarding. Now they can cast the occasional forward glance, too.

All of which is to say that First Aid Kit’s new album—Ruins, out this Friday—is probably their best record yet, and definitely contains their best song yet.

“It’s a Shame,” admittedly, with its bouncy acoustic guitar and warm organ pulse and wry moroseness, is another fond look backward. “It’s, like, a total Bob Dylan rip-off,” Johanna says with a laugh.

“Noooooo!” Klara, her younger sister, protests.

“It’s something that we’ve wanted, for sure, for a long time to have on a song,” Johanna says.

“Like, any time I have ideas for production, it’s always just like, ‘So, how about an organ?’” Klara allows. “And everyone has to go, ‘Noooo. You can’t. You can’t.’ But this time, yeah, I guess we got to really do our Blonde on Blonde homage.”

One difference now is that four albums in, “It’s a Shame” sounds like First Aid Kit just as vividly as it sounds like anybody else. Klara and Johanna’s voices expertly, lovingly intertwine, sketching out a jovial tale of impending romantic doom—“Tell me it’s OK / If I ask you to stay / Sometimes the night cuts through me like a knife”—delivered so expertly it sounds almost triumphal.

Ruins brings that same vivacity to every mood and style it attempts: the spare country lope of “Postcard,” the stark and Leonard Cohen–esque “To Live a Life,” the blustery and boozy sing-along that jolts “Hem of Her Dress.” The album’s lushest song, “Fireworks,” has a vintage power-ballad grandeur to it, bolstered by a gauzy video in which Klara and Johanna load up on hairspray and recreate the ’80s prom experience they never quite got to have.

“We went to international English school, so there was, like, prom, but it was really poorly executed,” Johanna recalls. “And it wasn’t at all like the American one. So no, we don’t have that tradition, no. And we’ve always loved the prom scenes in movies—in general, just loved high school. I don’t know why they’re so fascinating. I think it’s ’cause they’re so American. Like there’s something so exotic about it.”

From the onset, this has been First Aid Kit’s greatest strength: channeling the exoticness of American culture into something singular, and wildly appealing, and somehow even more exotic. One major turning point was their viral 2008 cover of Seattle folk-rock band Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” recorded in the forest when Klara and Johanna were both still in their teens.

In 2012 came their breakout sophomore album, The Lion’s Roar, which featured “Emmylou” and was produced by Omaha indie-rock luminary Mike Mogis, with his fellow Omaha indie-rock luminary Conor Oberst dropping by to sing on the boisterous closing number, “King of the World.” Stay Gold followed in 2014, a fine improvement that Johanna describes now as “very polished, and beautiful, elegant, a lot of strings, very soft.”

Meanwhile, the Soderbergs flaunted their preternatural ability to cover any artist at any time, from Paul Simon to ABBA to R.E.M. (which showed up in that Reese Witherspoon hiking movie) to Black Sabbath. Most intriguingly, they recently released their version of “Perfect Places,” the last track on Lorde’s heartbreak-fueled 2017 highlight Melodrama. This is intriguing in large part because for once, Lorde is younger than they are.

“When we started, we wanted to be seen as grown-ups, and we wanted to grow up really fast,” Johanna says. “And now I think we realize that we were just kids, and it wasn’t weird that people reacted that way, because it’s not common for a 14-year-old girl to be inspired by Bob Dylan and write songs like that. It’s just—it’s weird. It just took a while to gain respect, and to show that this is something that we’re really passionate about for real, and we’re gonna be around awhile. You know?”

As for Lorde, “we love that whole record—she is an incredible lyricist,” Klara says. “It touches on similar themes as our record, so we found some comfort in that. It’s not like we’re that much older than her. She’s kind of embraced the youth, writing about that. And I think we’ve kind of been straining away from it.”

“We tried to write, like, songs, storytelling about old people, old couples,” Johanna adds. “I totally ignored the fact that we were teenagers, and it’s almost like we’re experiencing those things now. Like the reverse.”

“Just like feeling,” Klara says, “like we don’t have to prove that we’re older or more mature than we are.”

The Soderberg sisters are always listening, and these days synthesizing the present just as capably as they’ve long synthesized the past. Given how dark and contentious the present has been lately, this has had some remarkable, and very terrifying, effects.

In March 2017, in honor of International Women’s Day, First Aid Kit released “You Are the Problem Here,” a furious single about sexual assault with a fearsome Neil Young crunch and a snarling dual-vocal performance 50 times angrier than anything the band had ever attempted. Opening lines: “I am so sick and tired of this world / All these women with their dreams shattered / From some man’s sweaty, desperate touch / God damn it, I’ve had enough.” Closing line: “I hope you fucking suffer.”

“We just felt like, ‘Well, there’s no point in trying to make this sound pretty or tone it down,’” Klara says. “It’s just, it’s angry. It should be angry. It was scary to release it, because it’s so, like, in your face and angry, and a different style for us. But it also felt natural.”

The song’s power derives in part from how wildly unexpected and anomalous it is, but the Soderbergs reserve the right to go back to that poisonous well, should circumstances not improve. “I mean, if we’re inspired,” Klara says. “The way the world’s looking right now, if it doesn’t get any better, I’m sure there’ll be a lot to sing and be angry about. We’ll see. We’re open. Just whatever we feel like—whatever inspires us.”

“We’re still young,” Johanna adds.