How can I ever tell you the story of the time I toured with my favourite band across America with all the joy and beautiful madness it contained?
It’s the night before I leave to go on tour with First Aid Kit. It’s just me now and I am curling up cold in my lover’s empty bed, as I have many times before. He’s on a mountain somewhere in Tasmania. I speak to him on the phone beneath the covers and moan about how early I have to wake to catch my flight. He laughs and says, “Well I would love to wake you up.”
So he does. In the freezing cold 4am darkness he drives into town just to call me. Just to say, “Good morning Nirrimi Joy, I love you.” While I mumble some sleepy silly thing that reminds him of what it’s like to wake up beside me.
And with that little token of love the adventure begins.
It will take two days of travel to get to Austin, Texas. Walking through the airport with my backpack makes me feel like me again. My mind is full of what’s to come. It’s like I’ve fallen away from reality and into a story.
I’m walking through the streets of Austin with Antonio, dipping in and out of the sounds of live music playing at the bars we pass. I’ve known his work for years but never met him. He’s in town to watch First Aid Kit play. Funny how paths cross over like that.
I didn’t know a thing about this city before today but I’m quickly falling for it. I get a burrito from a row of food trucks. We find a candlelit bar behind a bookcase with great big red leather couches. Antonio introduces me to whiskey sours. I’m back in a place where strangers actually talk to one another and it feels good.
I get back to the hostel late and notice Bee is online. The little messages after days of travelling feel so big. Tomorrow it all begins and I should sleep but of course I don’t, love is a drug. Then the sun is rising and I’m feeling that sick and panicky feeling I get when I’m overtired.
I get to the venue as Klara and Johanna are doing soundcheck. They are real and I am here. Klara catches my eye and grins. I go backstage and meet their mama and brother but everything is a haze and I can’t keep my eyes open so I nap.
That night I try to photograph them playing but I realise it’s not what I need to capture. I need to capture the things others don’t see. The connection of sisterhood, what happens off stage and life on the road.
A fan of mine called Eleanor has come from hours away and bought a ticket to tonight’s show to meet me. We find a quiet place to talk. Her eyes are wide and she’s nervous. I hug her like she’s my little sister and she thanks me over and over for meeting her but really I want to thank her because she (and everyone like her) makes all the work I put into sharing worth it.
When everything is packed up we head to the tour bus. It’s huge inside. There are three rooms and in the middle room are our beds, all squeezed on top of each other like little capsules. Mine is one on the very bottom. This is home for the next three weeks and it’s perfect.
We make our way through the deep south. We stop in Jackson, Louisiana where the heat burns my feet. The water in the motel pool is like a bath. Everything feels so big and spread out here. So different to back home. Like even the sun shines different.
Klara and I go to the cinema. We come in late and walk through the darkness hoping we don’t stumble into anyone. When the film ends and the lights come on we see with absolute glee that the entire cinema is empty besides us. We run through the aisles like kids.
We go out for meals together; the sisters, their family and I. They speak Swedish a bit and I don’t mind so much but it seems to highlight the way I don’t belong here. Like I’m just an extra in a film, not really a part of the story but there anyway.
The girls are playing at a festival in Birmingham. Wherever we go I wear a band around my wrist that reads ‘artist.’ It’s my ticket to everywhere but I’m not really playing. I’m just a small girl with a camera who no one knows. I feel like the crew don’t understand why I’m here.
I’ve never felt this way. On commercial and fashion shoots my job is to lead and my vision is important. But here I am shooting photojournalism and as a photographer, my place in the heirachy of the music world is much different to the fashion world.
I have to be a ghost here. To step into the shadows or to step on toes to get the images I need. Often people will talk to the girls but never meet my eye. The camera around my neck is a cloak of invisibility.
But when I’m just with the girls things are different. We’re equals. Eventually I begin to find comfort in the invisibility and the lack of pressure. Grateful for the way I can wander around a festival unseen where they would be swarmed by fans.
Apart from the silent battle with my ego, life feels so good here. In the loud moments it’s exciting and fascinating and in the quiet moments I dream of coming home to Alba and Bee. I daydream about everyday life beside them. Going grocery shopping, running baths for Alba, baking, late night conversations, park trips and being home. These mundane things excite me like nothing else.
They play Forecastle Festival. I wander through crowds melting under the sun until I’m near the front. I watch the girls play up on the big stage and Johanna sees me and grins. I grin back. The girl beside me screams over the music to her friend, “Oh my god, oh my god, Johanna just smiled at me, did you see that?!” And while they’re freaking out I’m giggling.
We’re at the hotel lobby drinking cocktails and Christian (from The Tallest Man on Earth) is asking Klara & I how we met. Klara tells him she followed my blog for five years before she invited me to a show. She says when I replied it was a big deal. I might feel small sometimes here, but I know to Klara I’m not.
We go to a dive bar with the band. It’s rough and drinks are cheap, it’s perfect. Klara is singing along to the songs she’s chosen on the jukebox and says we should go to a karaoke bar after this.
When she steps onto stage I look around at everyone. No one is really watching and I’m smiling because I know in a second they will be. Klara belts out Adele and the room gets loud as everyone cheers.
But then I have to follow her up and my cheeks are burning and I’m wondering what kind of insane person does karaoke with the lead singer of their favourite band anyway? But actually it’s just Klara and she’d love me regardless. So I get up there and sing a love song I used to sing as a teenager. When I finish she tells me, “Nirrimi! You need to sing!” and I take it to heart.
We go to another bar and when boys come up to us while we’re dancing we pretend we’re engaged to each other. We get back to our hotel room at 4am and when we’re in bed and the lights are off I tell Klara I love her and I mean it.
It’s midnight in Columbus and we’re hungry. We walk through a big park with old streetlights talking about how we’ve hurt the people we love. We bring home lucky charms and almond milk and eat cereal in our hotel bed watching American talkshows. I write in my journal, “I am so fucking happy. Every single day. I can’t even remember what it’s like to be sad. I want to bottle up this joy to keep forever.”
They play a show in a big theatre in the forest. The air smells so good I want to run out into the trees and soak it all in. I watch from the very front and centre. My hair is messy and I’m wearing the same clothes as yesterday but it doesn’t matter. There are hundreds of people behind me and yet it feels like it’s only us.
I’m growing used to life on the road. I’m home in the feeling of the bus moving at night, accustomed to the rhythm of packing and unpacking my backpack. The back of the bus feels like my writing space and I write with a blanket draped around me until late. I write blog posts, short stories and a script for a -short film- my friend is directing.
I’m a part of the Söderberg family now. I call their parents mama and papa and I kiss their little brother on the head as though he’s my little brother. I’m not an extra any longer, now I’ve found my place in this story.
We’re staying in a tiny motel in Salem, Virginia when Johanna tells us she wants to take photos in a bath full of fruit loops. It’s so silly and slimy that we all end up laughing and in that rainbow mess of a moment I almost never want to go.
In Floyd the girls are doing a radio interview. They’re asked about the times they played for Patti Smith, Paul Simon and Emmylou Harris. They act like it’s not much of anything, they always do. Their feet seem so firmly planted on the earth they are knee deep in the dirt.
One minute we’re telling bad jokes in Southern accents and acting out goofy scenes and the next the girls are playing in front of so many people it’s hard to tell where they end. Like ordinary girls playing the parts of superstars and dreaming of home.
Things aren’t always good. Johanna loses her voice, some equipment breaks, the girls argue, things go wrong. When I’m telling someone about Alba I find myself in tears in the middle of a sentence. But life is moving too fast to get caught up in negativity.
We fall asleep in one city and wake up in another.
I’m in Camden, New Jersey. I can see Philadelphia’s skyline across the river. Nylon magazine are interviewing the girls. “What’s the wildest thing that’s happened so far on this tour?” they ask. Klara looks to me smirking and says, “Nirrimi, what’s the craziest thing that’s happened?”
We both know we have no hedonistic tales of hotel destruction or drug-fuelled rockstar parties. “One night we had lucky charms for dinner!” I laugh.
When I sit at the table in the festival dressing room my arm gets caught in my camera strap and it falls to the ground. The sound it makes as it hits the tiles makes me sick. My lens is smashed just months after getting it fixed and it’s the only lens I have with me. I cry at the table. A child holding a broken toy.
I think this means it’s over. I don’t have the money to fix it or buy another. I put a post on instagram about it. Within half an hour a girl going to tomorrow’s festival in Newport offers me her lens and another photographer offers me lenses to use from NYC to Chicago. I can breathe. My online community caught me again and I love them.
The Newport Folk Festival is all kinds of wonderful. I watch the girls play from high up where I can see the grounds covered in people like a multicoloured ocean, and then beyond I see water with dozens of little white boats. The image is so poignant to me that I’m desperate to not take it for granted.
Later Klara plays a Bob Dylan cover with Hozier. When I watch her on the big screen I feel so proud. I know this girl now. I saw her write the lyrics across her palm so she wouldn’t forget them, I felt her nervous energy before she stepped on stage. This girl is goofy and loving and always thinks of others before she thinks of herself. There she is in front of thousands and she’s killing it.
At dusk I walk alone down to the river and watch the city lights reflect like bokeh in the water. Life stops for me for a moment so I can catch my breath. I begin another letter to Bee in my head. Later in the tour bus I will switch international roaming on, even though I know it will cost me a fortune, and I will sew together all the pieces of my day and my love into a letter. Just like every night.
We’re driving around New York City in a van and I’m recognising the streets I walked at sixteen and feeling so many worlds away from that me. Maybe in a few years time I’ll be back and feeling distant from this me too. I seem to grow and change so fast. The girls play for CBS morning TV and I come along to the studios with them.
Klara tells me she wants to buy a camera so we take the subway to the biggest camera store I’ve ever seen. There are tracks on the roof where packages are being moved to different counters like little trains. My sentences all run into each other in excitement and we decide on a Canon 7D.
It’s the hottest day of the year and they’re playing a show in Central Park. Catering has great big pizzas that remind me of late night New York City adventures as a teenager. At the after party there are people everywhere, even Meryl Streep is here. I’m swept up again in this feeling of not belonging to this world, I know it’s stupid but I can’t help it. I’m worrying too that I’m not getting the images I need.
Klara senses that I’m down and says, “I’m bored. Let’s go back to the hotel.” We drop off our things and walk the city streets in search of a psychic, but since it’s too late we settle for having pretend lesbian feuds in the street instead. We’re yelling and crying until the urge to laugh is too much that we can’t keep our characters up. New York feels like the only place we can get away with this madness.
In Detroit the air is so hot and so thick I feel like I can barely breathe when I’m walking down the streets. The buildings are mostly boarded up but there is a charm here that I wish I could know. One of the harder parts of touring is we hardly get to know the cities we’re in. Sometimes we’re not even sure what city we are in.
This is the second last show. That realisation makes it hard for me to watch them play at all. But I shrug off the sadness and I go down into the thick of the audience. It’s sweaty and loud and absolutely brilliant. First Aid Kit are headlining. It’s different watching from down here, the energy of all the people dancing and singing around me is contagious.
Johanna is so magical up on stage, all her tenderness and wonder translates into her presence. She throws her long blonde hair into the air as she dances. Klara is full of power. I put down my camera and record it all to memory. This show is my favourite of the entire tour.
Hours later we’re sitting backstage and we look out the window and see all the fans waiting on the street, guitars and records waiting to be signed. “Someone has a ‘marry me Klara’ sign and a tee shirt with your face on it, Klara!” I say in mock-horror.
I stand outside our bus with the two other band members, Scott and Mel. Fans get photographs and autographs from the girls and I watch their faces lit by the endless flashes of cameras. They’re always in the shadows and perhaps that doesn’t bother them, but it makes me feel a great tenderness towards them. It’s maybe 3am when we finally leave.
We’re at Lollapalooza in Chicago. We are driven around the festival in buggies through crowds and crazy little lanes going so fast we’re all clinging onto the sides. Chicago is beautiful. I’m walking in the city with Klara and someone mistakes me for Johanna and it seems so absurd and funny we play along.
When the girls play the last show I am here for, I dance with their mama at the side of the stage. Even after so many shows I’m not tired of hearing them play. I don’t think I could ever be.
Lucidity grips me as it does when chapters finish. The sky is deep blue and buzzing with dragonflies. The city skyline is outlined in bright lights. Klara and Johanna keep giving me these looks and I know they’re feeling the finality like I am. Johanna tells me she misses me already and I wish she wouldn’t because it reminds me that I miss her already. Their mama says, “I feel like I have four children now.”
We watch Paul McCartney play and sing along to ‘Hey Jude’ with the tens of thousands of people spilled out over the lawns. I find a bare spot on the grass and sit, writing letters to these people I’ve come to love. Fire shoots up and lights the stage and then fireworks; a navy sky painted in purples and pinks and yellow shooting stars. The first time I watch it through my camera but the second time I’m there. The sight burned into my memory forever.
When I’m back in the bus I realise this is it. It’s all over. I’m caught between Klara and Johanna and they’re not letting go of me. “Touring won’t be the same without you,” they say. Their mama opens the door and when she sees me she begins to cry. Isak asks me to stay. This is one of the hardest goodbyes of my life.
I jump down from the bus. It’s a movement I’ve grown so used to now. As I walk away Klara and Johanna come out and they yell to me. Things like I love you and I miss you. They’re waving and shouting and I keep looking back to these two girls who feel like my sisters amidst a convoy of tour buses. Then they are gone and I’m left with just the silence of myself and the soundscape of Chicago.
The moment I get into my hotel room I drop my backpack to the floor and all my walls fall down too. It is like I’m living the last three weeks all at once. I am laughing hysterically, shouting, crying, jumping on the bed. I can’t believe it, I can’t believe any of it. Their love still hangs onto me like they never let go. I thought I was sad when I left but now I feel so much closer to Alba and Bee and I am happy. So happy.
I look out the plane window and the sky is bright with stars. They are like little holes poked in the black fabric of the world. It reminds me that I am small. I am just a tiny speck and out there down below are two other tiny specks who wait for me and love me. The greatest little specks I’ve ever known. And I’ll land and be wrapped back up in them all over again. I’m coming home.
(These are outtakes from the tour. Full photo series & film coming next.)