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“I’m so stupid happy that you left,” Winona Oak sings, a cutthroat lyric on the kind of sparkling pop song that would make her fellow Swedish star, Robyn, incredibly proud. “If you see me having fun it’s all ‘cause you’re my ex,” concludes the chorus, rounding out an incredibly addictive bit of pop that’s a celebration of life after leaving a toxic relationship. “Happy You’re My Ex” is one of the last tracks on Oak’s fascinating debut album, Island Of The Sun, which is slated for release later this summer, and it’s one of the best debuts of 2022.
The album doubles as the coming-of-age story of a woman and an artist who has already been to hell and back, and managed to translate all of the pain, chaos, and loss into a collection of near-perfect pop songs. The record’s soaring title track, “Island Of The Sun,” kicked off the news of Winona’s full-length album earlier this year, a follow-up to two EPs released in 2020 — though most emerging artists already know the story of how it felt to release music in a year marked by pandemic and isolation.
Closure, released in January of 2020, and She, released in October of the same year, mostly flew under the radar, even if an earlier collaboration with The Chainsmokers back in 2018, “Hope,” put Oak on the map in some circles. Those early EPs began to tell Winona’s story, but in order to really do that, it’s necessary to go back to Sollerön — the remote Swedish island where she grew up. Or at least, have Winona take us there.
Since traveling to Sweden is a daunting task even without a virus raging, meeting up with Winona in LA right before the start of her North American tour dates made the most sense. And even sitting outside Soho House all alone, Winona Oak is impossible to miss. Wearing an oversized, linen khaki suit, Oak was initially trying to get the concierge at Soho House to let her in, before giving up and waiting it out on a nearby bench. Both of us were a bit too early for a lunch meeting at the Soho Warehouse in downtown LA, just a few blocks away from the Atlantic Records headquarters.
But as soon as a publicist walked up with the proper credentials, we were quickly ensconced in the cushy booths on the building’s sunny rooftop, facing down a table full of appetizers, coffees, and drinks. Unassuming and down to earth, there’s still a sense of mysticism around the Swedish singer-songwriter, especially in her linen suit, with her dark brunette hair tipped blue at the end, and striking, intense eyes.
Winona had only recently arrived in Los Angeles from her native Sweden, and was still a little jet-lagged. Between rehearsals, label meetings, and press for her upcoming album, she decided to treat herself to a mimosa before our lunchtime interview, giving way to the sunny California day and the chance to settle in and talk for an hour. Oak will be in America for the next month and a half, so it’s understandable that the first thing she wanted to do is show off photos of her dog, who she’s already missing like crazy.
Like plenty of other young, beautiful women before her, some of Oak’s earliest memories of the industry are about the powerful men who wanted to control her image, and shadows of these figures still show up in some of her songs. But, also like plenty of her predecessors — including Sweden’s most brilliant pop export, the aforementioned Robyn — Oak wasn’t the type to be under anyone’s thumb. If anything is obvious upon meeting Winona, it’s that her stubborn streak is a mile wide, and that resilience would serve her well in a tricky industry.
Between the prevalence of misogyny in the music industry and that escape from a toxic ex, some might’ve worried that an initial gig collaborating with The Chainsmokers would be similarly scarring. But, in fact, it was quite the opposite. “That was one of the first songs I ever released,” Winona remembered. “They heard the song and really loved it, it wasn’t even a finished song, just a little piece. I met up with them, and I just loved them. They were super fun and supportive. I didn’t have anything out back then, and they just decided to take a chance on me, and really believed in me. They’ve been really good mentors to me, from the start.”
Officially though, Winona’s first-ever song came even before that one, a collaboration with another supportive producer. Attending a writing trip for the boutique synth-pop label, Neon Gold Records, was when Oak met Australian producer What So Not, and their collaboration “Beautiful“ became the first time she ever officially shared her music with the world. Oak decided to attend the trip, which was held in Nicaragua in 2017, last minute, with only about two weeks notice. And that decision was one that changed her perspective on music forever. “I got a taste of a different life,” she remembered. “I was like ‘I need to change things. I need to actually put all my energy into this.’ It was such a life-changing experience.”
Before she decided to go full tilt into the industry, music was always in the background of Winona’s life. Born Johanna Ewana Ekmark, the third child to parents who’d already had two children fifteen years before, she was more than just the youngest child. Winona described it as more like having “two more moms,” with her older sisters stepping in to help guide her as a child. That childhood, spent on the isolated, heavily forested island of Sollerön — also known as the “island of the sun” — included growing up with animals, particularly the family’s five horses, and forced lessons in violin starting at the age of five.
“I would write stories that were really dark,” she remembered of her writing habits as a kid. “I’ve always had a really dark side to me. But it wasn’t until I was 18 or 19, when I moved to Stockholm and met people who were actually making music for a living, that I realized I could try that as well. When I was a kid I was writing stories and poems, now I write songs.” As she’s grown in stature as an artist, releasing two EPs of her own, and now on the cusp of putting out a debut, Winona isn’t the kind of pop star who will gloss over the heavy, complicated emotions.
Instead, these subjects constantly make their way into the heart of her songs, like the searing kiss-off, “NDA,” or the love letter to herself she penned in the sad, brutally honest third single off her album, “Jojo,” which comes out today. “My name is Johanna, but I’ve always been called JoJo,” she explained. “I wanted to write a song to myself. It’s one of those songs reflecting on the time that we live in, and feeling confused and lost, and not knowing where to put these big emotions.”
Across the complicated themes found on Winona’s reflective title track, her nostalgic ode to a former lover on “Baby Blue,” and today’s latest release, “Jojo,” this young artist isn’t afraid to mix the fear, anger, and sadness that she’s experienced as a woman in music with an equally unshakeable sense of self-confidence. “We are so powerful,” she said. “We can create an entire life. Women’s bodies are so powerful. We are divine.” If there is a thesis for Island Of The Sun, it is undoubtedly that. Check out the video for “Jojo” above and keep an ear out for more new music coming from Winona as the days get longer.
Island Of The Sun is out 6/10 on Atlantic Records.
Winona Oak is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.