Five years and one bro­ken heart since we last met, Stock­holm’s coun­try-soul sis­ters re­turn to the fray in fine fet­tle.

Q (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs: Alex Lake

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.

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