Four years ago, Klara and Johanna Söderberg made a trip from their native Stockholm to the California desert in order to visit a dead man.
But not just any dead man. The two sisters, who record together under the name First Aid Kit, were visiting the Joshua Tree location where Gram Parsons' stolen body was immolated by friends back in 1973. They even went so far as to build a shrine to him there, while filming a video for their twangy "Emmylou," an ode to Parsons collaborator Emmylou Harris.
The Söderberg sisters have since scored two No. 1 albums back home in Sweden, including their latest, Stay Gold, which was released by Columbia Records in June. First Aid Kit originals like "My Silver Lining" tap into a breezy alt-country vibe but still sound decidedly modern, and slightly Swedish in their meticulous construction.
The duo's ongoing obsession with all things American also comes through on chiming folk-rockers like "Waitress Song." "We just have this romantic notion about American diners and waitresses," says the 21-year old Klara, whose résumé doesn't include any waitress jobs. "I think I'd be very clumsy — I'd probably be dropping orders all over the floor."
In fact, the girls' recording career is their first and only gainful employment whatsoever. Johanna, 24, says she's never even put in a job application. "Which kind of made it hard to relate to our friends in Stockholm," she says, "because this group is the only thing we've ever done."
The Söderbergs simply lived with their parents until last year, when they finally got their own apartment together. They attended school, and quietly made bedroom recordings that their father produced.
Classmates found the siblings curious, not least because they revered classic American country and folk, not pop or dance. That all started when they discovered Conor Oberst's music online, and down the retro rabbit hole they went.
"In interviews, [Oberst] was talking about Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt, so since we loved his stuff we thought we should listen to what he recommended, and that's just how it happened," explains Klara, who started out solo before inviting Johanna to join her. First Aid Kits' first official posted track was a cover of Fleet Foxes' "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song." "Then we got a Gram Parsons record from our uncle, and we just listened to it constantly, and became kind of obsessed with Gram and read books about him."
Soon, their feathery familial harmonies were winning Swedish Grammys and earning them performance slots at the Polaris Music Prize. They brought winner Patti Smith to tears with a warm rendition of her "Dancing Barefoot," and they honored 2012 winner Paul Simon with a version of his "America."
Now, the sisters have toured and recorded with Oberst, and they regularly work with the Nebraskan's right-hand man, Mike Mogis, who produced Stay Gold.
They also met Emmylou Harris in Stockholm last year. "She played with Rodney Crowell, and they opened with 'Return of the Grievous Angel,' and we just looked at each other and started crying — we couldn't help it," recalls Klara. "And when we met her, she said 'Oh— you're the girls who made me famous!'"