With a sound bathed in country, dipped in Americana, and topped with ‘70s AM pop, a casual listener would expect that First Aid Kit had traveled from American coast to mountain range, collecting stories and letting the culture of our landscapes to seep deep within their bones.
Sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg are from Sweden. But surely the duo, which performs at the Fox Theater in Oakland on November 13, would have at least visited the United States prior to writing about American country icons like Emmylou Harris, June Carter, and Johnny Cash, and landmarks.
“No, we’ve never been to America prior to making music,” 24-year-old Johanna says. “We grew up with a lot of American culture – TV, film. We didn’t think ‘Oh, we’re sounding so American’ when we started.”
Since first releasing an EP, 2009’s Drunken Trees, the sisters have been on 11 tours through various parts of the U.S. and have experienced the country they write about. They’ve fallen in love with the cities (Nashville, Portland, Austin, all of North Carolina) and the food (Southern soul food and Mexican). And they even recorded their new album, 2014’s Stay Gold, in Omaha, Nebraska.
“For us, it’s very natural to name-drop a few American cities in our songs,” Johanna says. “It’s part of who we are now.”
The new album, their third, was released in June and reached No. 23 on the Billboard 200 chart. It may push the duo from critical darling to commercial success. It would be one of many peaks reached by the Söderberg sisters since they began making music together when they were teenagers.
In 2014 alone, they’ve toured constantly, released Stay Gold, recorded six tracks with idol and mentor Conor Oberst for his solo record and covered R.E.M.’s “Walk Unafraid” for a soundtrack to upcoming film Wild.
“It has been totally crazy, but I think our lives have been totally crazy for the past year,” 21-year-old Klara says. “They have gradually become more and more crazy. I think that’s good because we’ve had time to (avoid) being an overnight sensation, when all of a sudden we’re on all of these big stages. It took a while to get here and we’ve had to work really hard. We understand that it’s not easy to get to where we are.”
Johanna and Klara have always had a tight-knit friendship. As kids, they played and wrote stories and songs together. The songwriting took on a higher priority in 2006. In 2008, First Aid Kit posted a cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” to YouTube. They were already somewhat known in Sweden, but the cover, shared by Fleet Foxes, gained them attention in the States. That same year, Johanna quit high school. Klara never started high school.
The duo released debut album The Big Black and the Blue in 2010. The Lion’s Roar followed two years later. Yet nothing, so far, has topped 2014.
“It’s definitely been a very, very great year,” Klara says. “I think after this year and after we’re done with touring with this record, we’re going to have to go out into the countryside and do nothing for a little while. Just reflect on everything.
Like their previous records, hearty American country music is the bones of Stay Gold. The duo loves “the old stuff,” such as the Carter Family and Gram Parsons. But new this time around are richer, orchestral arrangements that cross deeper than over into pop territory.
Just don’t expect the album to be recreated on stage, where the sisters typically perform with a drummer and bassist. A few select shows will include a string quartet, but not the 13-piece orchestra used for the album.
“(When) we do live, it’s very simple and it’s very raw,” Johanna says. “People come to hear our voices. Usually, the biggest moments at our shows are when we do a song completely unplugged; just the two of us and a guitar.
Unconsciously, the sisters made one more shift in direction on Stay Gold. For the first time, they wrote about themselves rather than follow a traditional third-person storyteller approach.
They don’t like to analyze their process or question their decisions. Their policy: If it feels good, just go with it.
“We’re older, and I think have more experiences. (Before), we hadn’t been through a lot we felt we needed to write about,” Klara says. “I also think … we’re more confident in our songwriting. We dared to write about things that were more personal. It takes a little bit of courage to do that. It’s a vulnerable situation to (say), ‘This is what I feel like.’”
And what’s on their minds right now is a future that is completely wide open; but one that poses pratfalls. The sisters want to make the right choices, even if they are the difficult ones that include constant travel away from home, waking up in a different place every day, and setting a good example for others who may want to follow in their footsteps.
They’re proud to be young women who get to make their own career decisions, and that they can inspire young girls, Klara says.
Being on the road so much, they miss their friends, many of whom they don’t get to see even when they go home because the friends are away at college. The paths of their lives have diverged drastically, but they don’t regret their decisions to leave school. They don’t miss the classes, the dances or sporting events that loom so large in most children’s lives.
“I’m very happy where we are right now,” Klara says. “Of course you’re always going to miss out on something. Someone said, ‘You can do whatever you want, but you can’t do everything that you want.’ You have to choose.”
First Aid Kit, Samantha Crain
November 13, 2014
8pm, $25 (all ages)