The full-length debut from Swedish singer/songwriter Winona Oak, Island of the Sun takes its title from her storybook-like homeland: a sparsely populated and lushly forested island at the center of a Nordic lake, where she spent many summer days swimming with her older sister and their beloved horses. While the album inhabits much more precarious emotional terrain—self-salvation in the face of heartbreak, the occasionally soul-crushing chaos of the modern world—Winona’s hypnotic form of altpop proves every bit as enchanting as those wildly charmed surroundings.
“Life is so simple and peaceful where I come from—there’s only about 900 people who live there, and I always felt very connected to nature and the animals that were all around us,” says Winona, who now lives in Stockholm. “A lot of the songs on my album are about growing up and becoming a woman and some of the more painful experiences that come along with that, and so I wanted to name it after this place where everything always feels safe and magical.”
Recorded in Sweden and L.A, and made with boundary-pushing producers like Andrew Wells (Halsey, Bebe Rexha, Donna Missal), Island of the Sun spotlights the spellbinding vocal presence Winona has previously brought to hits like The Chainsmokers’ “Hope” and What So Not’s “Beautiful” (a 2018 release that won Best Independent Dance, Electronica Or Club Single at the Australian Independent Record Awards). In creating the follow-up to her acclaimed 2020 EP SHE, Winona embraced a new level of freedom in her songwriting and sound, offering up everything from effervescent dance-pop to gorgeously stripped-back folk. “It was important to me to remove any limitations for this album,” she notes, listing such eclectic artists as Leonard Cohen and Röyksopp among her inspirations. “I love all the pop queens, but I think you need to have those moments where you let everything breathe—I wanted there to be songs you can dance to, and also songs you can cry to.”
Revealing her supreme gift for dreaming up otherworldly melodies, Island of the Sun matches its mercurial soundscape with Winona’s singular lyrical aesthetic, encompassing both raw outpouring and exquisitely detailed poetry. On the album’s sleek and shimmering title track, Winona expresses a bittersweet longing for her birthplace of Sollerön and all the innocence it embodies (a quality she describes as “that time in your childhood when the world is only as big and beautiful as you make it”). “I was in L.A. and going through a rough time and feeling more homesick than ever, and I wanted to write about that yearning to go back to the island and make everything beautiful again,” says Winona.
One of several songs exploring the darker side of love, “Baby Blue” merges its swooning rhythms with her ultravivid storytelling (e.g., “You smelled like palm trees and cigarettes/You were the tangerine sky after a wildfire”). “‘Baby Blue’ is about wanting to try to save someone you’ve fallen for, and then realizing that there’s no way to fix them without destroying yourself,” she says. A thrillingly intense piece of synth-pop, “Nothing to Lose” continues that same narrative thread, delivering an unapologetic send-off to the one who’s hurt her. And on “Radio,” Winona presents one of the album’s most radiant tracks, a gloriously fun burst of self-celebration. “I’ve been pretty shy my entire life and always felt like an outsider, and like many women I’ve sometimes found it hard to feel self-confident,” says Winona. “‘Radio’ is sort of a love letter to myself, and also a way of reminding everyone that they deserve to be loved and feel beautiful.”
As a child on Sollerön, Winona grew up immersed in music thanks to her family (including an older sister who played guitar and introduced Winona to pop iconoclasts like Björk, and a grandmother who was once an aspiring opera singer). After taking up piano and violin as a young girl, Winona expanded on the poetry she’d written for years and began crafting her own songs (her first attempt: a composition called “Horses Are My Best Friends”). “I always loved performing and had that dream of going into music, but I grew up in such a small town that it didn’t seem like a possibility,” she says. But upon moving to Stockholm soon after high school, Winona fully devoted herself to her craft and soon developed her sophisticated yet restlessly inventive sound, eventually landing a deal with Atlantic/Neon Gold Records in 2018 and releasing her debut EP Closure in 2020. In recent years she’s also made her name as a mesmerizing live performer, and is set to tour with British alt-pop duo Oh Wonder in Spring of 2022.
In the making of Island of the Sun and its endlessly enthralling constellation of songs, Winona took a deliberately unhurried approach to the writing process. “A lot of the time I’ll have something in my head that I want to write about, and then I bring it into the room and we’ll just talk it out for hours before creating anything,” she says. “When you work that way, there’s usually an energy shift and the songs come together very naturally.” And by channeling so much pure feeling into her music, Winona hopes to provide listeners with their own moment of emotional transformation. “Music is such an important part of our experience—imagine going through a difficult time without having songs to cry to or to lift you up,” she says. “For me music has always been so healing, and I love the idea of something I’ve created becoming part of the soundtrack to someone else’s life.”