First Aid Kit on Finding “Strength and Freedom” in Palomino

Swedish songsmiths Klara and Johanna Söderberg didn’t notice it at first, as it was developing. But looking back on the last few turbulent years of their lives as the folk/alt-country duo First Aid Kid, a subtle equestrian theme starts to emerge, leading up to their glittery, galloping latest effort, Palomino. In addition to adventurous lockdown covers they cut, like Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” and Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” the girls were grafted onto—believe it or not—animated horse bodies as recurring Treetaur Shaman characters in Megan Nicole Dong’s surreal two-season Netflix series Centaurworld; both Johanna’s Big Tree and Klara’s Little Tree sang appropriate centaur-related compositions in various episodes, as well, alongside an impressive voiceover cast that included Santigold, Lea Salonga, Jamie Cullum, Fred Armisen and David Johansen—none of whom the Söderbergs ever met in person during the process, unfortunately. “We never even met Megan, actually—only on Zoom,” reports Klara, on a Zoom call from her sibling’s Stockholm house, not far from her own. “It was made during the pandemic, so we recorded it all in a studio here, and we only saw her briefly once on Zoom.”

How did First Aid Kit receive such an unusual assignment? “I think when they were writing it, they were thinking of us,” Klara, who turns 30 in January, elaborates. “It was crazy, like, ‘Here’s this animated show and we have this role for you guys!’ And they even wrote these songs that were perfect for us, and we just read our lines in Stockholm and they animated to our voices—it was such a huge honor.” The sisters were already huge fans of cutting-edge contemporary cartoons like Rick and Morty Adventure Time and Regular Show, which can appeal to both children and snark-humored adults. Given that their mother happens to be a film professor, they grew up in a home constantly illuminated by flickering images. And if there was a cinematic quality to First Aid Kit’s earlier material, from their folksy 2008 Drunken Trees debut EP through their film-noir-ish, breakup-inspired 2018 album Ruins, there’s a tangible new one coloring the reels of Palomino, which feels like its every ’70s-vibrant number could sit nicely on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s brilliantly evocative Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.“We love that movie, and of course we love Tarantino,” confides Johanna, who just turned 32 on Halloween and who actually tried to craft a Tarantino-score-ready song at one point. It’s almost as if all four full-lengths leading up to this were introductory B-film experiments, and Palomino was First Aid Kit’s first proper summer-blockbuster feature.

In every song and its accompanying video, the Söderbergs exude a newfound poise and confidence, all the way down to their ’60s-Nashville-retro hairstyles, Flying Burrito Brothers-vintage Western stage wear, and seamless blending of pop hooks, pedal-steel-underscored country twang and Leonard Cohen-pensive folk. In “Angel,” “Turning Onto You,” “Out of My Head ” and the title cut, it all coalesces into a distinct hybrid look, sensibility and sound that is all the band’s own, couched in scenic sisterly harmonies that have grown even warmer, more intricately wreathed with time. But despite selections like “Palomino,” “Ready to Run” and “Wild Horses II,” says Johanna, their pandemic creativity was never saddled with a horse-cantering motif. Neigh, if anything, it was quite the opposite. “We don’t ride, and we’re actually kind of scared of horses,” she bashfully admits. “But it was beautiful imagery—the golden horse, which is such a powerful … ”

“Symbol of strength,” Klara says, finishing her sister’s thought, as she often does in conversation. “A symbol of strength and freedom to us.” They chimed in on all things Palomino in the following candid Paste chat.

Paste: It kind of feels like everything in your career has been leading to this record. You have your own idiosyncratic First Aid Kit sound now.

Johanna: You think so? I mean, we feel like it’s our best record. But we always feel that way when we’re releasing something. We just kind of do whatever feels right at the moment.

Klara: I would say that … we didn’t feel like we had any limitations when we were making this record. On a lot of our previous records, we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do, and also what we didn’t want to do. And with this one, I feel like we knew ourselves so well, and what we like and don’t like, that we kind of could try anything, and it wasn’t scary—it was just fun. Like, I don’t feel like we needed to prove to ourselves anymore that we belonged in this country-folk genre. It was like, we don’t have to fit into that—we can do whatever feels fun and good.

Paste The key ingredient to Palomino, too, is its producer, Daniel Bengtson, who puts a cool slapback on your voices and adds booming Duane Eddy guitar notes everywhere.

Klara: He’s an incredible musician, and he plays almost everything on this record. He really does. He’s so great, and intuitive, and fun, and playful. We found him through our dad—our dad became friends with him, and our dad used to produce our records. But he was like, “Why don’t you make a record with Daniel?” Because we were originally thinking of going to the States to make the new record …

Johanna: But then there was the pandemic, and it was kind of impossible. So we found Daniel, and we tried to work with him, and it was just … magic!

Klara:: For sure. And we did a lot of things with our vocals that we haven’t really done before, like we layered them a lot and added effects. We were unafraid to experiment a little bit. And he has an amazing reverb in his studio, and it just did so much to the record and to our voices, and I think that was what originally got us interested in working with Daniel, was his vocal sound, just the way our voices sounded in the studio. I think for us, that’s the most important thing when recording, that our vocals come through, because it’s our statement. It’s our thing, it’s our trademark, our harmonies. And I think just the fact that when you’re in the studio, everything sounds great from the start? It’s really inspiring when you’re doing vocal takes.

Paste: How did Sweden’s long dark winters and conversely bright summers affect you, psychologically, during lockdown?

Klara: Well, it was interesting. It was kind of like the whole country closed down during the winters. But not really—I mean, it wasn’t like a proper lockdown, but people kind of kept to themselves. And also, the virus was spreading way more in the winter. Then in the summer, it was kind of like everything went back to normal. But yes, it was hard at first, and of course there was so much worry. But it was different in Sweden—it was kind of up to you, how much you wanted to lock yourself in your house for a little bit. It was up to the individual, so we were somewhat free to roam the streets. So we didn’t experience it the same way as the rest of the world, and there was a lot going on, a cultural exchange. But not being able to travel? That was definitely hard on us, just in terms of gaining new experience and things to write about for our songs. So a lot of the new songs are very retro.

Paste: I thought humanity would have two, three years to do a collective reset. But we’ve learned nothing.

Klara: Yep. Absolutely. I remember early on, when there were all these pictures of Venice, and it was like, “Look! The animals are returning! The world is healing! Nature is healing!” Then it was like, “Umm … yeah.” I feel like it’s worse than ever now—it’s like we got greedy.

Paste: And right-wing autocracy is coming back everywhere now—Hungary, Brazil, Italy.

Klara: Yeah. And we have the same situation here. We just elected a … well, our new government is based off of this neo-Nazi party. [New Moderate-rooted prime Minister Ulf Kristersson was elected with the backing of the Swedish Democrats, a long-shunned extremist party that was founded by Nazi sympathizers and now campaigns on populist issues like tougher immigration policies and stronger police powers.]

Johanna: They claim that they’re not anymore, but the party grew out of the neo-Nazi thing, so they’re a right-wing extreme party. And they’re getting a lot of votes.

Paste: Do they at least acknowledge climate change?

Johanna: No. No, no, no. They just said the other day that there’s no scientific evidence for climate change, apparently. Sooo … whoo-hoo!

Klara: Ugh. They think it’s a hoax. So it’s basically Trump, but in Sweden.

Paste: And in the midst of all this universal darkness, Johanna gave birth to new life. Congratulations on your daughter.

Johanna: Thank you. Her name is Harriet. And it’s scary to have brought her into the world when it’s like this—it makes you more angry than you were before about what kind of future she’s gonna get. But anyway, it’s a wonderful thing, I think. And it’s definitely changed me, and changed the way Klara and I bonded. I think we just realized that we’re not just working together, but we’re also family, and how important that relationship is. We’re growing up!

Paste: And Klara got married?

Klara: I did! And a lot of these things wouldn’t have happened if it had just been business as usual.

Paste: Like maybe recording your own take on Don Henley’s classic “Boys of Summer.” A punk band cut a version several years ago, and changed the “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” lyric to a “Black Flag sticker.”

Klara: We love that song! It’s one of those songs that everyone just knows instantly, even though no one knows who it is, at least in Sweden. But they definitely know the song. And we actually thought of changing the lyrics, as well, to a “Backstreet Boys sticker.” But then we didn’t—it didn’t feel quite right.

Paste: But there’s been a physical transformation, too. Klara’s hair is blonde now and Dolly Parton big, her bangs are gone, and both of you have got this amazing new wardrobe of modern Western wear.

Klara: Wow! Thank you. Yeah, the suits that we had made for this record are the most beautiful things we’ve ever worn. Like, I’ve never felt more beautiful than when I wear them. And we asked a friend of ours, Lisa Sanders, she’s a designer—she reached out and asked if she could make something for us to wear onstage. And then we started talking, and we wanted to create Nudie suits—that kind of thing. But we are in a very different place than we were when we made Ruins. And I really needed the break to gain some perspective on everything that we’ve been through, because it felt like it was just continuing, and there was no real proper break, ever, now that I look back. I mean, even though we’d have six months off, we’d also be writing a record, and then we’d go record it and go on tour. So to have a couple of years to look back and gain some perspective was really important, because you also learn what matters, what you actually can take with you from those experiences, too. And you learn that, OK, there are things that you can dream about, and you get to them and it’s fun, like playing certain TV shows or venues. And it’s wonderful, but at the end of the day, that’s not what you can take with you. When I look back, I think of all of the people that have come to our shows throughout the years.

Johanna: I’ll just look at all of our awards and prizes. That’s what drives me! That’s what I want!

Klara: Ha! You do?

Johanna: No, I’m just kidding!

Klara: But you can get lost in those things, because it’s exciting. So you have to take care of yourself—bottom line.

Paste: Where do you both live now? Far from each other?

Klara: We live really close to each other.

Johanna: Yeah. We’re at my house right now, and Klara’s house is really close. It’s in kind of the suburbs of Stockholm, and it’s like we’ve actually moved back to where we grew up. I live 20 minutes from our parents’ house, where we grew up, and it just feels … safe.

Paste: And there’s that strange phenomenon in Stockholm, where you might see a star like Lykke Li on the streets, but you never approach them.

Johanna: Yeah. I don’t know the word, but here’s a lot of that, for sure. We have a lot of integrity. Like, you don’t approach anyone—you really have to be friends with someone if you approach them.

Klara: Yeah. You have to have been over to their house for dinner, met their whole family. I like it—it’s like the opposite of the American way. And we can tell, when we’re in the U.S. And I love it, but it’s hard as a Swedish person, because if someone invites me out to their home or to a party, I’m like, “Ooh! OK, so we’re friends!” But they invite you, and then you never hear from them again. It’s a different culture, for sure. And we have great friends, close friends, but when we’re walking around the streets, I know that we are very famous in Sweden. But no one ever comes up to talk to us—like, it’s very rare that someone will say anything, and it’s not like everyone’s looking at us and whispering and stuff. So it’s good—you forget that you’re in a band, and it allows you to be anonymous, even though you’re not.

Paste: I always looked at breaking bread with someone as kind of sacred, something that’s shared by only family or the closest of friends.

Klara: I agree. But I think it’s confusing, because Americans sometimes, they talk to you, when you see them, like you’re they’re best friend when you don’t really know them, and it confuses a Swede. Because it makes us feel like we’re closer than we actually are, so it’s hard for us to know, relationship-wise, where we are with people sometimes. They’re like, “I love you! Oh my God! I’ve been thinking about you!” And you’re like, “Huh?”

Johanna: Like, “Uh, I haven’t seen you in four years, and we haven’t even spoken. No postcards, either!”

Paste: Charting the changes and revelations you experienced over the past three years, what real Rubicons did you cross?

Johanna: I think there were a lot of things. Like, Klara and I do a lot of things separately, and that’s the way we’ve always been, ever since we were teenagers. We’re usually joined at the hip when we’re working together, but this time we had some distance, and both Klara and I tried writing songs with other people, and we did that together, but also separately, and got to try a lot of new things. And I think we both gained confidence from that.

Paste: Like what new things? I’ll bite.

Johanna: Well, songwriting, for example. And I took a random course in graphic design, I had a daughter, and becoming a mom was a completely new role, and very challenging. And I’ve always done art—I did all our merch when we first started, although we have a graphic designer now. I don’t really have time for it anymore because I have so much to do. But yeah, I think it was time for us both to try new things, and that was really good.

Klara: And I was kind of just writing, but writing more like fiction—I’ve been trying to write a film for a long time, a screenplay, but it’s really hard. I’m so used to writing a song, where you have three minutes or so to say what you need to say. And this is a completely different thing—it’s really challenging. But I want to keep challenging myself. And it keeps changing, but it’s definitely inspired by some of my personal experiences. I’d say it’s a dramedy. Definitely a dramedy. But I don’t know how much comedy there actually is in there. But there’s some. There’s some. It’s not like a heavy drama, though—it’s more like a light drama.

Paste: Is the sequencing on this record important, from “Out of My Head” all the way to the closing title track?

Johanna: Oh yeah, it always is, for sure. And we did feel like “Palomino” was the perfect closing track, because it just has this feeling of being on a road trip or something, like you’re going somewhere. It’s kind of open-ended, like you don’t really know. And that’s our favorite thing in movies, too—the open endings. It’s kind of a hopeful but unsure message, So sequencing is super-important to us. I mean, it doesn’t tell a story in that sense—our records never do. They’re not concept records.

Paste: Not yet.

Johanna: Not yet! Maybe we’ll turn your script into an album!

Paste: What philosophical conclusions did you come to courtesy of the coronavirus?

Johanna: There’s a lot of things that maybe everyone experienced during the pandemic, like we don’t take what we do for granted, you know? I think we have a different appreciation for what we do, because having a kid, I don’t have the same amount of time like I used to. So whenever we are working, I see how lucky I am to get to do this job. Time is just so precious, and I just love what we do. And getting back to touring this summer, it was just so incredible, and I feel like we felt it from the audience—everyone was a little bit extra-excited. And we didn’t listen to music for awhile—we took a break from it and then got back to it, and I think we found the joy of playing again when we made this record. And “29 Palms Highway”—that’s a song about going back to music, and I wrote it when she went to Joshua Tree.

Klara: Yeah. And it was really a powerful spiritual experience, finding the joy of music again by being in that place. This was November of 2019, and I was there with a friend of mine, and at that point, I had a couple of months where I really was struggling to feel like I could ever feel excited about going on tour and playing music again. And I was in the car with my friend and we were driving out to the desert, and I played her Gram’s music the whole way there, and just told her about his life and everything that happened with him and Emmylou—everything, you have to tell the whole story. Then we got to the Joshua Tree Inn, and it just says on the door, “The home of the spirit of Gram Parsons.’ And I just wept. I was just crying so much, and I just felt like, “Oh, my God! This is what it’s about!! This is the thing!” So I feel like I spiritually connected to that place, because it’s become like this mecca, this symbol of music, and the power and beauty of music. And I really felt it.

Watch a 2012 First Aid Kit performance from the Paste archives below.