It’s been 10 years since Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit uploaded its now famed YouTube cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” kick-starting a career that would have Klara and Johanna Söderberg recording albums and touring the world practically non-stop for eight years with their heartfelt, harmonized folk-country, working with names like Conor Oberst and Jack White along the way.
“This is for you, Fleet Foxes; it’s a little gift from us,” Klara says, smiling, before playing her guitar in the video that now has more than five million views. She was 15 at the time (Johanna, 17), unknowingly on the edge of a complete life change.
But after a breakout hit with the 2012 album The Lion’s Roar and a major label debut with 2014’s Stay Gold, spending their teen and early adult years working full-time as a musician took its toll.
“I was just burnt out,” says Klara, over the phone from Saint Paul, Minn., where the sisters are back on tour to support their fourth album, 2018’s Ruins.
“It was just so sad because here we were, touring the world and doing what we'd always wanted to do and loved, and then I just felt like, I can't do it; I don't have any energy. It was a physical thing, my body just said stop.”
Klara says that at first Johanna was “a little upset; she has more of a drive than I do,” but Klara forcing a halt to their project made Johanna realize how exhausted she was, too.
So in 2015, they stopped. Klara moved to Manchester, England, with her then-fiancé, while Johanna stayed in their hometown of Stockholm. The two went from seeing each other and talking everyday to not speaking for months, then occasional visits.
“We got to miss each other, and we are really truly best friends,” says Klara. “It was good for us to take a break. Work on some perspective. And I sort of understand everything from Johanna's point of view and she could see mine. It was a really good thing.”
Klara’s will to write and perform came back quickly. “As soon as the pressure was off I started writing songs because that's just what I do and what I love,” she says. The sisters planned five weeks of writing in L.A. for April 2016, but before they got there, Klara and her fiancé broke up. The writing session for what would become Ruins morphed into a catharsis.
Nearly a year passed before Klara and Johanna would finish writing and recording the songs. Having done their last two albums with Mike Mogis (Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis, Bright Eyes), the sisters went to Portland, Ore., in January 2017 for this fourth one to record with Tucker Martine (Neko Case, the Decemberists, Mavis Staples). He brought in a heavy-hitting list of session players: Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, Midlake’s McKenzie Smith and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, who already knew Klara and Johanna as they had covered R.E.M.’s “Walk Unafraid” for the 2014 film Wild.
“I fell so hard, so blindly/ had to come back and find me/ I wanted you so much, so freely/ now I have to take it back,” Klara sings on album opener “Rebel Heart,” which starts over dreamy electric guitar, crescendoing into Klara’s question, “Is it all because of my rebel heart?” The song nearly closes before rebuilding into a foreboding family anthem, the sisters singing “Nothing matters/ all is futile” as the horn section plays them off in a flourish. The song sets the stage for the nine that follow, the sisters exploring a fuller sound while Klara sings out her heartache and Johanna stretches her elastic vocals around her sister’s, both as salve and support.
“Why do I do this to myself every time?/ I know the way it ends before it's even begun/ I am the only one at the finish line,” Klara cries to the tune of a waltz on “Fireworks,” revisiting some of the moments when she knew her relationship wasn’t working. It’s not until “Hem of Her Dress,” the penultimate track of this break-up record, that if feels like Klara is piecing herself back together: she growls and yells amidst honeyed harmonies, singing "I learned some things never heal with time" before leading into a swell of gang vocals and horns that la-di-da their way to hoots and hollers of appreciation. The euphoria doesn’t last long — the final song, “Nothing has to be True,” is another beautiful heartbreaker — but the stage is set for the new First Aid Kit.
One song that’s not on Ruins is First Aid Kit’s 2017 International Women’s Day release, “You are the Problem Here,” which Klara and Johanna wrote during summer 2016 after reading the victim impact statement from Emily Doe, who was raped behind a dumpster on the Stanford University campus by Brock Turner. They also read Turner’s letter blaming the assault on “party culture,” and after Turner was convicted of three charges and given six months in jail (he was released after serving three), they had something to say.
“It was just so heartbreaking and scary to read all these different perspectives and just realizing how crazy the world is and how we look at women,” says Klara. “I mean, how men see women in this world, it's just insane. So that song was just written out of pure anger and frustration.”
“We don't need to be diminished/ to sisters or daughter or mothers/ I am a human being/ that is how you relate to me,” Klara and Johanna harmonize on the second verse, in between choruses that end with Klara seething: “I hope you f--king suffer.” (The sisters donated all proceeds from the song to Women for Women International.) It’s a punk-rock track that doesn’t sound like most of their original recorded material, so the sisters decided to let it live separately from Ruins.
“The record is a break-up record, we didn't really want there to be any confusion or where it's like, huh, did something happen to them?” explains Klara. “It just felt weird because [Ruins] is about our relationship and [this song] had nothing to do with it.”
Back to that break-up record: now almost two years after that fateful L.A. writing trip, Klara feels far enough removed from the songs to give them her all onstage. And she's on watch for future signs that she — or Johanna — need a break.
"I feel like I know myself better. I know my own limits," Klara says. "You have to put yourself first and really think about your own health. That's what I've learnt from all of this."
Klara and Johanna Soderberg are on their Ruins tour now — catch them in Toronto and Montreal on Feb. 5 and 6, respectively. Listen to Ruins today.
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