First Aid Kit

Photo by Olof Ringmar

First Aid Kit pay tribute to Leonard Cohen on their new album Who by Fire

Klara Söderberg told us about the inspiration for paying homage to a legend and releasing a live album during COVID.

Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit had a busy decade, releasing four albums between 2010 and 2018, touring, collecting awards and making connections with some of their childhood heroes like Conor Oberst. It was through Oberst’s Bright Eyes project that sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg discovered the kind of folk and Americana that would influence their music. 

“Connor Oberst was talking about this guy Leonard Cohen and I was like, ‘Who is that?’ and our parents brought out this record, “ Klara said, showing me a greatest hits vinyl on Zoom. “‘Suzanne’ is the first song off of that. I remember very clearly hearing ‘Suzanne’ for the first time and just being absolutely blown away by it. I was just totally taken by his words and songs. That’s how it started. He’s a real staple. I was maybe 12 or 13, so Johanna would’ve been 14 or 15 at the time. I heard that music that you hear around that time stays with you forever and becomes part of your identity, and that’s how I feel about his music. It’s just part of me.”

In the last week of March, First Aid Kit released a live album called Who by Fire, a collection of 20 Leonard Cohen covers performed at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre in March of 2017, a few months after Cohen’s passing. The series of tribute concerts was a theatrical staging of songs, poems and letters by the late Montreal legend, featuring fellow Swedish guest artists, an eight-piece band with strings, a choir of 20 (on two songs) and two actors. It was, surprisingly, the first time the Söderbergs had performed any Cohen material publicly.

“There is a recording of me playing ‘Hallelujah’ when I was 14 at school assembly but I don’t know if that counts,” Klara says. “But if you put a guitar in my hands, I always play Suzanne because it’s just nice to play.”

“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen, performed by First Aid Kit

With Who by Fire, First Aid Kit hope to remind music lovers not just of the legacy of Leonard Cohen but of “the nervous energy that you can only get from seeing a live show.”

“I imagine someone sitting in the dark listening to this record — that’s probably the best way to listen to it, just imagining that they’re there in the room. That feeling when you’re at a live show or when you’re playing a live show — I miss that so much, so I hope this reminds people of that feeling.”

“We didn’t know if it would hold up without the visual aspect because it was obviously a dramatic piece that we put together on stage, but we decided that we wanted to put it out because it does hold up.”

During COVID, the sisters took some much needed time off before starting to work on a new album, but they’re in no hurry to get back into a standard album cycle and world tour.

“We both gained some perspective on our lives and all that we’ve been through for the past 13 years,” Klara says. “Johanna just had a baby, so it’s a different kind of life, and I was burnt out two years ago so I’m kind of still dealing with that. We’re trying to write really great music but not rushing it along too much. We’re hoping to have something out by next year.”

A mini-tour in support of Who by Fire is certainly not out of the question, however, when live music returns for real — and Montreal would be an obvious stop. 

“We were talking about New York and London, doing a little tour of it. We had so much fun making the show, and it was an incredible treat for us just to get to be in Leonard Cohen’s world. We would love to bring it to other places, especially Montreal — that would be really special.” ■

For more about First Aid Kit and Who by Fire, please visit the band’s website.

For more music coverage, please visit the Music section.