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Hearing the high, lonesome harmonies of First Aid Kit brings to mind old-fashioned country starlets wearing Nudie suits with fringe cascading down the back and spangles up the front, dazzling under the beam of Opry stage lights. But in reality, these golden odes come from a barely post-teen sister duo, Swedes in woolen jumpers, ladies of the fjords doing a pitch-perfect proffer of lilting Laurel Canyon Americana.
Klara and Johanna Söderberg, 18 and 21 respectively, came to country through the back door, as tweens, and found it to be a "revelation." "The first 'country' album we heard was Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, in 2005. We stumbled upon the record through a recommendation of a friend," Johanna says. "We felt at home; we'd found 'our music.' It was different from anything we'd ever heard before. It's simple and sincere." They read interviews with Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and ferreted out records by artists who had influenced him—Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons—then kept digging until they hit that music's original foundation: Bill Monroe, Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family.
"The backdoor kind of discovery might have been necessary, because at the time we found Bright Eyes, we'd probably have labeled a lot of the old-school traditional country as 'too' country," explains Klara, who was all of 12 at the moment of collective conversion. Although both had been exposed to plenty of Shania and other pop-country of that era, they'd thought it cheesy, having been raised on an aural diet of Television, Patti Smith, and the Velvet Underground. Which isn't to say they shunned the mainstream altogether: "Of course, we also listened to what other kids our age liked—Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and Britney," Klara adds.
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First Aid Kit could have listed toward the radio pop the sisters loved, but writing country songs had an intractable pull. "There's something direct and uncomplicated and pure," Johanna says. "We discovered country could be about real, raw emotions." "I'm a goddamn coward/But then again, so are you" they spit on the title track of their new album The Lion's Roar (Wichita), their voices twinning and rising in an approximated Appalachian angst.
While writing together, the pair tended to hit on dark topics, which accounts for the bleakness and heavy melancholy at their songs' edges. Roar is full of golden sunsets and dusty pledges of forever fealty ("I'll be your Emmylou, I'll be your June/If you'll be my Gram, and my Johnny, too," they sing on "Emmylou") that mash together vintage Nashville with the pall of epic Nordic winters and the idle rootlessness of life on the road.
"A lot of our songs are about fears for the future, fears of living an empty, meaningless life," Johanna explains. "While we're generally quite happy people, we definitely experience that everyday tristesse. We've been touring constantly for the past three years and thus, spent a lot of time in our own little bubble, far away from friends and family. It's like a warning to ourselves not to lose touch with the place where we come from."
For the duo, the sadness and anger in their music is also just a matter of tradition. "We're fascinated with the contrast between melancholy and cheerfulness that exists in vintage country," Johanna says. "Lyrics speak of brutal loneliness and ugly heartbreak, while the music is light and beautiful. It adds another dimension to the music. It's something we've been very inspired by, but it's not something we've tried to imitate on purpose."
"Some people overlook the sadness in our music and just listen to the harmonies and the arrangement," Klara says. "The Lion's Roar might sound like a happy record at times, but it's pretty darn sad."
First Aid Kit plays Webster Hall on Wednesday, March 28.