Who They Are: Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg have been performing as First Aid Kit since 2007, when the precocious pair earned web acclaim for their self-made MySpace videos and for their “Tangerine” demo tape, which became an unexpected radio hit in their home country. They’ve released four albums, four extended plays, and dozens of singles since that time, to wide-spread international acclaim. Since their early folk duo days, Klara and Johanna have expanded their live band into a rock-solid and sympathetic quintet, with Klara generally on guitar and Johanna playing bass. Marcia and I caught them in Vancouver, British Columbia, while playing hooky from a work trip in October 2018, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve seen in recent years, with brilliant songs arranged for a tremendous band, and the sisters’ sublime vocals serving as the icing on the beautiful, tasty cake they set before us. Just so. Just perfect.
When I First Heard Them: During the summer of 2014, soon after the release of their third LP, Stay Gold, which immediately became a resonant and resilient family favorite. Try as I may, I cannot actually recall what it was that drew me to acquire that record. “Teenage Swedish sisters singing country-pop music” is not a descriptor that would generally fit in with my broader musical interests and draw me to quickly hit the “purchase” button on whatever music site I was using at the time. Especially given the role that Bright Eyes and Fleet Foxes (neither of whom I care for) played in First Aid Kit’s creative development, as inspirations and as the sources of songs that the sisters covered, to great acclaim. So, they were a counter-intuitive choice for me at the time, made for reasons now mysterious, and perhaps even mysterious then. I did go back and acquire their earlier releases, and have everything they’ve done since my introduction to their work as well. I don’t know why I picked up on them, at bottom line, but I am very, very glad that I did.
Why I Love Them: I’ve been writing and posting (in both traditional print and modern digital media) “Best Albums of the Year” reports since 1992, giving me 29 years worth of critical choices available for perusal in this and other spaces. During that nearly three decade period, I have only awarded three artists “Album of the Year” honors more than once: David Bowie, Björk, and First Aid Kit. That puts them in fine company, for sure. I recognized the Söderberg sisters as having released the best of the best records in 2014 (for Stay Gold) and 2018 (for Ruins). We still play both of those records, and the various singles and EPs that they’ve released since 2014, regularly around our household, happily, eagerly, enjoyably. In a recent series of comment conversations with my friend Roger Green, we noted that as “gentlemen of a certain age” (ahem), we tend to write about beloved musicians who are either as old or older than we are, or who are already dead. Folks our age don’t generally glom on strongly to artists who are significantly younger as influential or important cultural references. But First Aid Kit certainly stand as important singers, songwriters and performers of great accomplishment and acclaim in my personal pantheon, even though Klara is but 30 years old this year, and Johanna is only 27. I consider their youthful attainments to be of near Beatle-esque stature, with their body of work being unique, distinct, mature, and accomplished in ways that many artists never achieve, after decades upon decades of hard work. First Aid Kit’s sisterly harmonies are warm and wonderful, without doubt, and their instrumental arrangements are always pristine and perfect, but it’s really their songwriting skills that set them apart from 99.999% of their age-appropriate peers. It blows my mind, regularly and repeatedly, to consider how perfectly they capture and present universal lyrical stories for their listeners, and how adept and astute they are in structuring their works. I would cite “Cedar Road” (which appears high on my personal favorites list below) as a particularly sublime bit of song craft, and if asked to teach a songwriting class, I’d feature it prominently; it begins with a fairly standard verse/chorus structure, but it shifts gears late in its run into a magnificent, swelling musical outro and coda structure that completely changes the ways in which you hear their words, and which deeply enhances the emotional impact of the song, even if you don’t actively realize how effectively the sisters are using the art of songwriting to actively attune your response to their music. Klara and Johanna are young geniuses, when all is said and done, and I certainly look forward to their continued work, eagerly. I guess that’s the benefit of deeply appreciating a musical group of such precocity: from an actuarial standpoint, they’re certainly likely to be making and issuing brilliant songs for as long as I’m around to listen to them.
#10. “Emmylou” from The Lion’s Roar (2012)
#9. “It’s A Shame” from Ruins (2018)
#8. “Ugly” from Tender Offerings EP (2018)
#7. “Waitress Song” from Stay Gold (2014)
#6. “Ruins” from Ruins (2018)
#5. “Come Give Me Love” from “Come Give Me Love” single (2020)
#4. “Nothing Has To Be True” from Ruins (2018)
#3. “The Bell” from Stay Gold (2014)
#2. “I’ve Wanted You” from Tender Offerings EP (2018)
#1. “Cedar Lane” from Stay Gold (2014)