When meeting Winona Oak, it doesn’t take long to gather that she is an artist in the truest sense of the word. You’re likely to know her voice from her collab with The Chainsmokers on their 2018 anthemic hit single Hope, but her own striking compositions are where her creative spirit and open-hearted personality shine. On her Closure ep, the melodies and production have a grandeur that when juxtaposed with her sensitive vocals and vulnerable lyrics make for truly moving and unforgettable tracks. It’s pop star quality with grounded authenticity.
We caught up with Winona Oak to talk growing up in Sweden, collaboration, the book you absolutely have to read, and more!
Melodic Magazine: I heard you were a very creative child and from a musical family- what kind of creative outlets do you remember pursuing as a child?
Winona Oak: I started writing when I was super young. I started writing stories, like super dramatic stories about all kinds of stuff that a child shouldn’t write about. I wrote these manuscripts and forced my friends to play in my little movies and I would have my dad record the movies.
And then I started singing very early, but I didn’t write any songs until I played piano and stuff. I started playing when I was nine so let’s say I started writing songs when I was like twelve or something like that, when I went through my first heartbreak. I wrote poetry from a very young age. Yeah, I use all kinds of creative outlets.
MM: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Winona: The very first song was probably about horses because I was obsessed with horses.
MM: I heard you were a horse acrobat!
Winona: Yeah I did vaulting.
MM: Can you explain what that is?
Winona: Vaulting is when you do gymnastics on horseback, so you stand up and do tricks and stuff like that.
MM: How long did you pursue that for?
Winona: Like ten years probably. I did horse jumping and dressage and a lot of different stuff.
MM: You grew up in Sweden in the forest- what kind of an influence do you think that growing up in nature has had on your life and your music?
Winona: I think it keeps me grounded, and I have a lot of respect for nature. And I love just going out and connecting with nature and…. I grew up in a pretty unspoiled environment.
I never had anyone who told me you’re supposed to do it like this or this way, I just did whatever I wanted to and I didn’t have anything to compare myself to. I just compared myself with me, and I think I do that still.
MM: You live in LA now- in terms of writing does LA influence you differently than Sweden?
Winona: I think LA has, because I met so many great creators and songwriters and producers in LA. I think they’ve helped me to develop my sound and my writing. So probably in a good way. But of course I still love going back to Sweden and I write with a lot of swedish people as well.
MM: As a solo artist how does it work when you’re collaborating with other people, how do you connect?
Winona: I love connecting and collaborating with other artists and people in general, I think it’s really developing- you can come in with this idea, and then you have someone that says ‘oh but you should try it this way’ and it’s just making it bloom a bit more. I love collaborating.
MM: I want to know more about the conception of Winona Oak- what does the name mean to you? Does everyone call you Winona Oak or is that a stage name?
Winona: It’s a stage name, but I connect with the name- my last name in swedish is oak but it’s a translation. And I grew up with a big oak tree in my yard when I was a kid. And I love the spiritual meaning of oaks- they’re healing and they have roots that are different from other trees so they’re more capable of being hit by lightning.
And Winona- I always loved that name and I just wanted to create something like Marilyn Monroe did, something like a persona. But the songs are so personal so it’s still like me, you know?
MM: Has music always been a tool for self discovery?
Winona: Yeah, always. I think that I always used music as a way to express big emotions and art in general. Just writing has always been a way for me to figure out my twisted mind, you know.
MM: How did you feel first releasing these songs, knowing other people are hearing your deepest secrets?
Winona: It’s always scary, but I think it’s beautiful to share something that’s personal. And I know that especially when you know you have people that might be able to connect with it and find some comfort in it, and to know that they’re a little less alone, then it makes it all worth it.
I would never do anything that didn’t feel authentic. I would rather write something that’s scarier but it’s real, you know?
MM: For your image as well you have very distinct, strong visuals- are there any specific visuals that influenced this album or you in general?
Winona: I don’t think there was a specific photographer or creator I was inspired by, but I always feel like when I write something I can already see music videos or something, like photos or making scenes in my head. But I love all kinds of art, and I love reading books and just finding inspiration in everything.
MM: Do you have a favourite book? Anything to recommend to me?
Winona: Yeah, have you read Just Kids by Patti Smith?… You have to read it! Just Kids is one of my favourites. And ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’ is another one. How incredible is that title?! It’s a super romantic, beautiful story. And I love the Donna Tart one, The Goldfinch.
MM: I know there’s a movie of The Goldfinch that just came out, have you seen it?
Winona: No, I have a hard time watching movies when I’ve read the book. But I love movies also. I guess I’m a big art fan in general.
MM: The visuals for Control– they’re so hilarious in the most twisted way. Was that something that you visualized when you were writing the song?
Winona: That is something we came up with later I think. I just felt like I wanted to show a new layer of me, something more fun, and that’s like such a dark and twisted sense of humour. I was a little inspired by the movie Lars and the Real Girl, with the doll. And then I don’t know, I just feel like guys are always sexualizing women and everything so I just wanted to turn it around a little bit. And I didn’t want to use, like, a young model. I wanted to use something that’s weird and it’s fun.
Interview by Zoe Orion. Photos by Kahala Orion.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.