For most Austinites, the South by Southwest Music Festival is a bizarre, fairytale version of the city. For Johanna and Klara Soderberg, two sisters known better as acoustic folk duo First Aid Kit from Stockholm, it's the first experience with Austin — and the United States — they ever had.
‘It was pretty chaotic, but it was really great. Just being a part of that much music was an amazing experience, even if we were very tired of seeing music by the end of it,' laughs Klara. ‘But it kind of softened the impact of coming to the United States a bit. When you come from Sweden, you grow up on American movies and TV and music, so being in the United States kind of feels like being in a movie. And during South by Southwest, Austin seems a lot like that dream land we imagine, where everybody plays amazing music or looks like a Hollywood actor.'
Johanna and Klara grew up surrounded by music, their mother a devoted aficionado and fan of Television, the Velvet Underground and Elliott Smith, their father a member of a pop band known as the Eds. But the Soderbergs developed their own taste for a music very different from that favored by their parents: dark, wind-swept country and acoustic folk — a love that started with Bright Eyes.
‘I started listening to Bright Eyes when I was 12, because a friend asked me what music I was listening to at the time, which of course was all pop, and was like "Why are you listening to that trash? You should listen to Bright Eyes,'' ' says Klara. ‘So I listed to "First Day of My Life" and the simplicity and honesty of it just kind of blew me away. I never really looked back. It was a huge part of opening that door and making me believe that I could make music myself and write songs.'
Klara and Johanna had sung since they were children — they're now 17 and 19, respectively — but were inspired to pick up guitars after they began to investigate folk music. Klara penned songs and invited her sister to play at her first gig, at a local library. It wasn't the intent of either of them to form a stable duo, but their tight, sisterly harmonies were the perfect addition to Klara's story-driven folk jewels.
‘After that we realized that we had to do it together because there was something so special about us singing together,' says Klara. ‘When we sing together the harmonies come very naturally to us, we don't have to talk about it a lot. It's a very special thing.'
Among those in agreement was Karin Dreijer Andersson, one half of Swedish electronica duo the Knife. Her daughter attended the same kindergarten as Klara and Johanna's little brother, and Dreijer Andersson grew enamored of the girls' music — spare compositions that evoked the Fleet Foxes. The Soderbergs covered that band's ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song' for debut EP ‘Drunken Trees,' released on the Knife's Rapid Records label, and a YouTube video that went viral.
Debut album ‘The Big Black and the Blue' followed in January. Like its predecessor, it's an album of stories — lived-in, heartbreaking tales of broken marriages and people in the autumn of their lives.
‘You cooked his dinners/And you raised his children/And still he's not satisfied,' sings Klara on ‘You're Not Coming Home Tonight,' one of several songs on ‘Drunken Trees' charting a collapsing marriage.
Not exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from the 17-year-old daughter of a happy marriage — but, Klara says, she's following the lead of many folk artists before her.
‘I approach a song like an author writing a story. People have this idea that songwriters have to write autobiographical stuff, which would be hard for us because we haven't really experienced all that many things,' says Klara. ‘We really like that old country and folk tradition where songs have a narrative base. We try to be storytellers.'
First Aid Kit plays at 12:15 p.m. Saturday on the Honda stage.