“Nothing gold can stay.” So says Robert Frost, at once encompassing everything from man’s fall from innocence and the fleeting nature of beauty to lost love and ultimately death. It was that line that caught Klara Söderberg, who along with her sister Johanna makes up Swedish duo First Aid Kit, and stopped her in her tracks.
“I started writing the first verse of the song ‘Stay Gold’ and I was kind of stuck,” says Klara. “I had this collection of poetry and I thought, ‘I’ll open this and see if there’s anything in here that inspires me.’ And I came upon ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay,’ that was literally the first thing I saw, and it was perfect.”
So perfect that Klara plucked it for the chorus of the song, which grew to become the centerpiece, and title of, First Aid Kit’s new album and Columbia Records debut, ‘Stay Gold.’
“It’s a song about change, and maybe not wanting to change,” adds Johanna.
Much has changed for the Söderberg sisters in the past six years. They had been earning a stellar reputation recording and performing as a teenaged duo in Sweden when their 2008 cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” started turning heads around the world, racking up millions of views on YouTube and earning them big-name fans in far off lands. In 2010, they released their debut LP, ‘The Big Black & The Blue,’ which prompted critical raves and dates with everyone from Patti Smith and Jack White to Lykke Li and Bright Eyes.
“We were big fans of Conor Oberst [of Bright Eyes] for a really long time,” says Johanna. ”’Lua’ was one of the first songs Klara ever learned on guitar. So when he played with Monsters of Folk in Sweden, we got to go backstage and give Conor our first record. A year later we played in Austin and he came to our show and said he loved it, and we met [Bright Eyes/Monsters of Folk member/producer] Mike Mogis, and we asked if he wanted to produce our next record.”
Mogis readily agreed, and in 2011 the sisters headed to his Omaha studio to record their breakthrough LP, ‘The Lion’s Roar,’ which debuted at #1 in Sweden and earned a swarm of critical praise around the world. Mojo called it “astonishing,” Paste hailed it as “spectacular,” and the BBC described it as “brilliant.” Rolling Stone named “Emmylou,” the sisters’ love song dressed in classic country references, one of the Ten Best Singles of 2012, and raved that “you may not hear a more beautifully sung record this year.” They performed at the iconic Newport Folk Festival, as well as Lollapalooza and Glastonbury, and opened for Rodriguez at Radio City Music Hall. “Emmylou” also earned them bookings on Conan and Letterman.
But not all change is good. Heartbreak, loneliness, and homesickness can ride the coattails of happiness and success. Sometimes we wish for change, for an escape, but it never comes. It’s with an aching beauty and a wisdom well beyond their years (Johanna is 23, Klara 21) that First Aid Kit crystallizes those feelings on ‘Stay Gold,’ the most mature and ambitious record of their career.
The album opens with a dusty, spaghetti-western string line from local Omaha string players, who appear throughout the record with cinematic arrangements from Nate Walcott (Broken Bells, Rilo Kiley). That first song, “My Silver Lining,” gallops through an existential crisis and sets the stage for an album that finds the moments of hope and light in darkness and anxiety. “Master Pretender” is a lush meditation on growing up and learning from mistakes, while “Stay Gold” laments loss and the uncertainty of the future. “What if our hard work ends in despair, what if the road won’t take me there?” they sing in beautifully intertwined harmonies. “What if to love and be loved’s not enough, what if I fall and can’t bear to get up? / Oh I wish for once we could stay gold.”
The lyrics are far more intimate than previous First Aid Kit releases. “On our other records, we wrote a lot about nature and fairytale-ish stuff,” Johanna says, referencing their early music, which blended aspects of American folk music and Swedish folklore and storytelling. “But if you listen to the lyrics on this one, you can tell it’s much more about us, more personal.”
“Cedar Lane” waltzes through heartbreak, repeating the line “Something good will come out of this” as a mantra, while “Shattered & Hollow” asserts in no uncertain terms an unshakeable need to escape. On “Waitress Song,” Klara fantasizes about dropping everything and assuming a new life. “I could move to a small town and become a waitress,” she sings. “Say my name was Stacy / and I was figuring things out.”
“It’s about dreaming of other lives you could lead,” she says of the song, which was written during soundcheck while on tour with Jack White and inspired by listening to Neko Case. “I think everyone has this sort of a secret wish that they could just run away and start a new life somewhere. Not really wanting to actually do it, but having a little fantasy about that.”
For two sisters from the suburbs of Stockholm who now share a label with idols like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and regularly tour and record with some of the biggest names in modern folk and indie, real life may seem like a bit of a fantasy at the moment, but it’s been a long, steady climb that’s brought them here. The future may always hold uncertainty, but for now, things are gold for First Aid Kit, and as they prepare to release the finest album of their career, tomorrow’s only looking brighter.