Five years and one broken heart since we last met, Stockholm’s country-soul sisters return to the fray in fine fettle.
The Söderberg siblings of Stockholm first found fame as precocious teenagers First Aid Kit, a duo with a gift for immaculate, lovelorn country-pop. But when the younger Klara moved to Manchester for love around their third album, the pair faced a crisis of identity. After that relationship broke down, they faced an emergency. Laura Barton finds out how it informed their best work yet.
just before Christmas, and in a small bistro in Berzelii Park the tables are slowly filling, a steady stream of diners arriving pink-nosed in heavy coats. Long windows look out over the dark public gardens. Outside, a tannoy plays Christmas carols into the cold night air.
At a corner table sits Klara Söderberg, one half of First Aid Kit, making her way through a Moscow mule and engaging in a little Friday night self-analysis. “I’m very good at hiding my emotions from everyone,” she says slowly. “It’s just the role I have – or that I have taken upon myself.” Her eyes slide to the empty chair beside her. “I keep looking for Johanna but she’s not there!” She laughs, and then for a moment looks faintly terrified.
First Aid Kit, made up of Klara, now 25, and her sister Johanna, 27, first found fame in 2008, when a YouTube video of the pair covering Fleet Foxes’ Tiger Mountain Peasant Song went viral. They were teenagers then, still at school, and there was something in their naivety, as well perhaps as their Scandinavian heritage, that suited the new folk wave of the time.
Over the course of three albums – 2010’ s The Big Black And Blue, 2012’ s The Lion’s Roar and 2014’ s Stay Gold, they honed a sound that spoke to that image, records that seemed enchanted, as if dusted with a deep-wooded, fairy tale magic, the music pristine, their voices immaculate. It proved enormously successful, winning acclaim, sales, awards galore. At the heart of their appeal has been the intensity of the relationship between the two sisters – the force of their bond, the way that their voices entwine, as if they are bound together, near-interchangeable. Once, in a previous phone interview with the band I recall how even in conversation their voices – sweet, lilting, mellifluous, tangled up down the line.
And so to spend time with them separately now seems mildly unsettling. But it is also fitting – after all, the songs on Ruins, their latest album, grew out of the long stretch they spent apart, when, after touring Stay Gold, Johanna returned to Stockholm and Klara moved to Manchester to live with her fiancé. What happened in that time – the strange isolation they both felt, the end of Klara’s engagement and the sisters’ reunion in California – has led to their finest album to date, though it was, for both of them, not the easiest of experiences.
Long before then, Klara says, she was aware that something needed to change. She had been a pop star since she was 15, writing, recording, touring without a break. “It kept on rolling and it was so exciting,” she says.
“It was such a huge thing to be alone. It was the f irst decision in my whole life that I’d made just for me.” Klara Söderberg
“But I remember about a month before going into the studio to make Stay Gold, I freaked out a bit, like, ‘Oh fuck, I’m really stressed out already, and we haven’t even made the record yet…’” At the root of that stress was, “Just… just… just working all the time,” she says. “Just travelling constantly and not being in one place. And also having to perform all the time and being aware of yourself from that aspect, and having to be onstage and having to present that persona. And wanting to do all that, and wanting to play our shows and do it all, but then…” She trails off.
Still, her talent for hiding her emotions meant that she carried on, uncomplaining. “For a long time it didn’t show,” she says. “Because I was just projecting it all on myself, I wasn’t showing anyone. Which is why I think it was so shocking when all of a sudden I was just like, ‘Aaaaah!’” She makes a soft hissing scream. “‘Gotta stop NOW!’ And everyone was like, ‘What? We thought you were loving it!’”
This was late 2014, when First Aid Kit were preparing to shoot a new video in Sweden on a short break from their European tour, scuppering her chance for a few days at home with her partner. “And that just broke me down,” she says. “I just remember crying for hours, and doing the soundcheck in tears, and then playing a show that night, and having to just forget about it.” She gives a small smile. “You have to put away whatever you’ve gone through in the day and just perform,” she says. “And you just get good at pretending sometimes.”
It was another year before they got to take time off, and then for Klara the move to Manchester proved liberating. “I was scared of doing it,” she says. “And it wasn’t a popular thing at first with Johanna. But, oh, I loved it, I loved it, totally,” she says, her face lighting up. “For me, it was such a huge thing to be alone. That was kind of the first decision I’d made in my whole life that was just for me.”
She got a dog – a seven year-old former racing greyhound – started cooking, took long walks and a night-school acting class. “I thought maybe I’d be better at it from the start because I’m used to being onstage.” She looks sheepish. “But it was a different thing,” she says, “and extremely freeing, because so much of what we do is having to go into our own heads, and here I could just be someone else.” She was best at the roles that required her to cry. “Not so good at being angry. That’s still something I’m working on.”
In the spring of 2016, the realisation that her relationship was over and that she would leave Manchester hit her unexpectedly. “It was weird, but I just kind of felt that I was done there,” she says. “It was just time. But it was really sad.” She returned briefly to Stockholm, bought an apartment, then headed to Los Angeles with her sister. “It was all so new, everything that had happened, and I got so much perspective from being in a different place,” she says.
She speaks about that time now with none of the fevered anguish of the tracks on Ruins. Across the restaurant table her face is calm and pale and still. “It was weirdly very easy to write about in the songs,” she says. “It just kind of came out of me.” The songs are not too confessional, she says, not too personal. “It wasn’t like I was writing straight from my diary, but it felt really good and meaningful to stay true and honest about it. And that’s the music that I love – the most emotional stuff, where you feel this hurt so much [ when you] write that it feels important.”
When she first played the new songs to her sister, Johanna seemed unstirred. “That happens sometimes,” she shrugs. “But I know that they’re good and I know that
Reunited: Klara (left) and Johanna Söderberg, Berns Hotel, Stockholm, 20 December, 2017.
Swing out sisters: (far left and this pic) live at Roskilde Festival in 2015.
It takes two: the Söderbergs in Stockholm, December 2017.