No man, they say, is an island. But it certainly helps if you live on a serene, isolated one, especially during a global pandemic, like Johanna Ekmark and her family, who hail from tiny Sollerön in Sweden’s Lake Siljan, do.
The artist — who records and performs under the name Winona Oak — her parents, and two sisters maintain apartments in nearby Stockholm, but they can disappear whenever they desire into their ancestral digs, a scenic landscape dappled with 18th century farmhouses and historic Viking grave fields.
“It’s very cool, and it’s easier for my family to stay safe there,” she says. “And it really does have this DNA from another time. There’s even this special well there that’s supposed to have magic powers — if you put coins in and you make a wish, it’s actually supposed to come true.”
Ekmark tossed a few kroner down that well herself over the years. Maybe that’s how she manifested a music industry career out of frigid thin air, she jokes, on Sollerön (“island of the sun” in Swedish), which has a population of 901.
Her exotic singing voice was discovered by Australian collective What So Not and employed on its 2018 electronica hit “Beautiful” (which won her an Australian Independent Record Award), and then by American dance duo The Chainsmokers, which used her to great ethereal effect on the 2019 smash hit “Hope.”
She was snapped up by hip U.S. imprint Neon Gold, which issued her second Winona Oak EP “She” in October. It features the Lana Del Rey-reminiscent single “Piano in the Sky,” a dream-inspired reverie that she penned on a songwriting trip to California’s Venice Beach, where she and her film-director boyfriend Julian Gillström spent their first few months of pandemic lockdown.
Ekmark is happy to have been on the West Coast of America when the coronavirus hit.
The mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing, social-distancing habits she acquired during those crucial days helped her immensely when she returned to more easygoing Sweden, where chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell calmly reassured the nation in daily broadcasts that lockdown was “using a hammer to kill a fly,” and instituted a more laissez-faire, business reopening response instead.
“I came back here a month ago, and I’ve been working in the studio and making music videos with Julian, and I’ve been very careful,” she says. “But if you’re wearing a mask here, people look at you like you’re crazy, because nobody’s wearing a mask.”
So — despite her homeland’s free health care and medicine — she’s starting to worry. “I think it’s going to be harder for Sweden when it gets colder and darker in the winter, and we won’t be able to be outside as much,” she adds.
The artist was raised communing with nature on Sollerön, where she met more animals than she did people as a kid. The island is still inhabited by wild foxes, wolves and unusually friendly deer, which devoured whatever flowers her mother would plant by the house.
“They are not afraid of humans at all,” she says, still mystified. “And I had all kinds of animals growing up — cats, dogs, birds, guinea pigs, plus five horses, and I competed in horse jumping, vaulting and dressage. I could stand up and do gymnastics on horseback because I started riding almost before I could walk, and I had my first horse competition when I was only 5.”
Music entered her life via Leonard Cohen records that were playing around the house and on family road trips. She became fascinated with his poetry-based lyrics, and started composing her own, while being urged to pursue music by her opera-trilling grandmother.
“She would sing at all of our family events, and I think she passed that love of singing on to me,” says Ekmark, who took up violin, then piano, and then rechristened herself Winona Oak since her last name translates to “oak” in Swedish. “I’ve always loved ‘Winona,’ so I thought this would be more practical for anybody hearing my songs, instead of going, ‘Who’s Johanna Ekmark?’” she says.
Winona Oak was set to make her U.S. debut on a spring tour opening for U.K. pop duo Oh Wonder, which was canceled in the wake of COVID-19.
For the time being, she says she won’t mind missing the big-city lights that would have involved, no matter how murky the long Scandinavian winter nights may get.
“Because when it’s very dark on Sollerön, the stars are so beautiful, and you can see them very clearly,” says the Swede, who always had a telescope handy as a kid. “Now people are getting back into stargazing again. They’re very interested in what’s going on up there in space, and I love that. Because we really need to look outside of ourselves now, you know?”