“I hope you fucking suffer,” sings Klara Söderberg on First Aid Kit’s single You Are The Problem Here. Released on International Women’s Day in 2017, the song was written in response not only “to the patriarchy” but also to the case of Brock Turner, the campus rapist who was sentenced to just six months in prison and served just three. “I couldn't help myself to just start writing that song – I was so fucking angry, honestly,” she tells me now, almost a year later. “What's so refreshing about the song is that we get to be angry,” continues her band mate and older sister, Johanna. “As a woman, you're not really allowed to be angry. You're supposed to be a people-pleaser.”
It came as no surprise to fans of First Aid Kit that they were willing to put their feelings out there so openly – thanks to their mother, they’ve been feminists since they were children growing up in Sweden. “I remember, in kindergarten I would say, ‘I'm a feminist,’ and everyone would be like, ‘What are you talking about?’” laughs Johanna, as Klara says that everyone thought she was a “weirdo”. That feminism has grown with their career, from uploading their songs to MySpace, at ages 14 and 16, to releasing their critically acclaimed fourth album and selling out tours. It’s rather sad that they attribute their success to having each other around to “protect” each other – “from men”, as quipped by Johanna.
That protection comes in many forms, not least by supporting each other through potentially career-changing meetings and what is known as “artist development” – when a label moulds a particular aesthetic and marketing strategy for an artist. “We've been able to be very in control of our image and that's been very important to us. I remember, when we started, we went to this label and the executives decided they would try to make us look sexy – we were only 14 and 16,” she explains. “To have someone tear that contract apart, that's very inspiring and we've been on the right track from the start.” When I suggest that it’s a lucky position to find yourself in, Johanna agrees – “very lucky". Because it’s that sort of power imbalance that allowed men like Harvey Weinstein to exploit, sexually assault and eventually silence over 100 women. “Men need to understand that women are constantly afraid. They need to know the power they have.”
In November, Johanna and Klara joined Robyn, Zara Larsson and nearly 2,000 other women from the Swedish music industry in signing an open letter calling for a drastic change in the way women are treated. The signatures came alongside stories of sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape allegations against fellow male artists and record-label executives. “There's a hierarchy,” says Klara. “There's a lot of powerful men in high positions at record labels.”
“In the boardrooms, publishers – everywhere. It's just like every industry, but it might even be worse,” Johanna finishes her sentence. The band were on a press tour when news of the rape allegations began to hit the Swedish press, and they realised they had been in the same room with some of these men. “The Swedish music industry is so small. We all know each other,” explains Johanna. “When you read about people you know – not only the victims, but the perpetrators are probably someone you have met – it was just heartbreaking and frustrating.”
Men need to understand that women are constantly afraid. They need to know the power they have
“It was horrifying, but also really enlightening and powerful to hear all these women's stories and then see all the love that we all received and there was this feeling that we have each other's backs, we're here for each other,” adds Klara. The open letter became Swedish music’s own Time’s Up campaign and Johanna has a clear view of what the industry needs to do to: “We want to see more women on the road, behind the scenes, in the studio. That's where women are needed, not just these beautiful front ladies singing and playing the tambourine. It's kind of degrading. We need to hear women's stories and that's only going to happen when women are producers as well.”
As well as taking a stand against sexual assault through their music and signing open letters, First Aid Kit show their feminism through other, more subtle ways, too. Their fourth album, Ruins, is highly autobiographical, retelling the story of Klara’s intense break-up – on the title track, she sings: “I lost you didn’t I, but I also lost myself.” It’s something most young woman will recognise from a past relationship and Johanna sees it as originating in gender expectations. “There’s an idea that a man is supposed to save you and be everything to you and that you're only valuable if you have a man. And that if you're single something is wrong with you.”
Their idols include women like Emmylou Harris and Patti Smith – both of whom cried when the sisters played for them – and they are keen to work with more electronic and pop peers like Lorde. In theory, First Aid Kit make for ideal feminist role models themselves, but they seem uncomfortable with the idea. “I think that's a really difficult position to put ourselves in,” says Johanna. “It's so rare to see a woman pick up an instrument and write her own song these days, so I understand that it must be inspiring to see that.” Klara is a little more confident with her influence, saying, “I think if I can help someone feel more in their skin, that's a great thing.”
First Aid Kit's fourth album Ruins is out now.