Alyssa Bonagura is no stranger to transformation – from being the daughter of two 80s country stars to finding her own sound, learning from Paul McCartney, and forming a country rock band; Alyssa is now taking her first steps towards her new solo career. Throughout our interview, we chatted about how she got to where she is today, being inspired by the English rain, vulnerability, hidden and not-so-hidden talents, and so much more – enjoy!
Ciara’s Country (CC): I am thrilled to be joined today by Nashville singer-songwriter Alyssa Bonagura! Alyssa, thank you so much for joining me – your latest single New Wings made the coveted list of my top songs from July, so it’s a real pleasure to be speaking with you.
Alyssa Bonagura (AB): Oh my gosh, thank you so much, what an honour. I’m so excited!
CC: You’ve just released your new single, but it seems like music itself is nothing new for you. You grew up in a musical family, being the daughter of members from 80s band Baillie and the Boys; have been singing since the age of two; recorded a Christmas duet with Kenny Rogers – the list goes on and on! Was a career in music ever not an option for you?
AB: Ever since I was born, I’ve always made music, and so I’ve never really known anything else. I was three weeks old on the tour bus with my parents, and watching my mom and dad sing every night just made me want to do it. I started singing when I was two and then haven’t stopped, so there was no denying it – it’s in my blood! I’m an only child too, so my parents have always been my best friends, so it was kind of the environment I grew up in.
CC: Not a bad start to life! You mentioned there that during your first steps into the music industry, you basically grew up on a tour bus. I have to be honest, experiencing life on a tour bus is a bit of a bucket list item for me, what was that like?
AB: Oh my gosh, growing up on a tour bus is really fun because you wake up and you’re in a different city – you finish the show, you get offstage, you walk on the bus, you get on the bus, you have dinner, you go to sleep and you wake up in a different city. It’s so cool to live that way – it’s really fun to take in all the different cultures. I grew up basically touring around the United States, so the only state I haven’t been to is Alaska – I’ve been everywhere else, which is nuts! I’ve seen all the roads of America, and that was such a fun learning experience for me, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
CC: So you just have Alaska to tick off now?
AB: Absolutely. I got to go to Hawaii a couple years ago, and that was the first time I’d been there. It’s definitely on my bucket list to go to Alaska – I hear you can see the Northern Lights up there, so I think that’d be really fun.
CC: Definitely! You’ve obviously travelled a lot around the US, but you also have really deep roots in the UK too – you studied here, your debut album was called The English Diaries – can you tell me a bit more about your connection with our side of the pond?
AB: When I was a junior in high school, I came to Scotland with my parents – they were playing a country music festival up in Thurso, at the very top of Scotland. I was obsessed with the UK – I remember walking through Edinburgh and being like, ‘wow, I feel like I’ve been here before’. It’s so strange because I’d never been overseas before – it was my first time coming over to the UK. I just had this weird soul connection with England and Scotland. I remember my mom telling me that my great great grandfather’s name is actually on the Edinburgh Castle list, he was in the army, and so I feel like I have a soul tie to the United Kingdom, which is so cool.
I also found out about the Paul McCartney school in Liverpool – it was the only place I applied to go to college, because I looked up everywhere else and none of the schools had what he had to offer there. They had this really amazing sound technology course, one of the best in the world. I told myself if I got in, I would go; and if I didn’t get in, I would do music full time and just start touring. I got in on a full scholarship, so that was like the universe was pointing me in that direction, and it was some of the best three years of my life. I made some of the best friends I’ve ever made – I was in school with Jess from The Staves, she’s one of my best friends; and there were so many amazing musicians there.
I actually wrote The English Diaries when I was living in the old maternity ward where John Lennon was born – they’d turned it into apartments, so that was pretty crazy! I love the UK so much, and I’ve been coming back ever since. The UK music community’s really embraced me with open arms, and I just feel so grateful for that. It’s definitely my second home.
CC: We’re certainly glad you’ve made it so! I also heard a rumour that one of your songs, I Make My Own Sunshine, was inspired by the British weather – is that true?
AB: Yes, that is true. I actually wrote it in Liverpool when it was raining every day. One of my friends had said to me, ‘it’s okay, Alyssa, you have to make your own sunshine,’ and I thought, ‘wow, that’s such a good line!’ It made so much sense to me to put into a song, so I wrote a song about it!
CC: It would be so easy to look out your window, see rainy Liverpool and write a sad song about it, but that one’s actually really upbeat and feel good.
AB: My mom and dad always taught me to be that way – they both always look on the bright side of life. When I was in Liverpool, it was hard – being an 18 year old in a new country, starting over and being an only child. Going on my own to England was scary and exciting all at the same time, and my mom was always in the background like, ‘it’s okay, you can do it, you’re gonna get through it,’ and so that was what inspired that song – realising that there are times in life that are going to be hard, and you’ve got to make your own sunshine always. I think we can always try and find the good in something, even if it’s a tough time. Especially in 2020 – that was a really tough year for everyone, and in a lot of instances, I think we had to create our own sunshine, you know?
CC: I don’t think songs like that have ever really been more relevant than they are right now.
AB: It’s so true, and I love that outlook. I love being more on the optimistic side of things, because I think when you when you do that, even when it’s hard, if you can try and find something good about a situation, it makes the day better. We’re all here for who knows how long, so may as well have fun!
CC: I love that mantra! Speaking of songs that I think really help us to look on the bright side of life, I mentioned at the beginning of this interview that I really do love your latest single song New Wings, a song that talks about how sometimes the hardest times in life are the most strengthening. I think I fell in love with it a bit more after hearing that it was inspired by a Paolo Coelho poem – can you speak a bit more about that?
AB: Yeah, so last year I really went through a transformative time – I was in a band called the Sisterhood Band, and we toured for five years. It was so much fun but at the start of 2020, we parted ways when the pandemic started. That was just a really uprooting thing for me, because when you’ve been doing something for so long, change sometimes can be exciting, but can also be debilitating as well.
It was my first chance to just take a moment – when you’re on the road that much, you really don’t have time to pause – you’re constantly doing shows, talking to people and sometimes, you just have to bury what’s happening inside, like if you’re going through something in your personal life or anything.
2020 really gave me that time of reflection, and throughout that whole healing journey, I found this poem called The Lesson of the Butterfly by Paulo Coelho. This man is walking through a forest and he sees this cocoon hanging from a branch. It’s a butterfly that’s struggling to get out, and after watching it for quite a long time, the man feels bad for the butterfly because it’s struggling so much. He goes and gets a pair of scissors to cut open the cocoon, thinking that it will just fly away and make it easier on the butterfly, but unfortunately, the butterfly falls right to the ground because its wings are shrivelled and underdeveloped.
The whole lesson of the story is that that struggle that that butterfly goes through to get through the cocoon is what makes its wings strong enough to fly – you can’t skip that step because it’s necessary for growth. I was crying reading this poem. I thought, this is my cocoon year – I’m struggling in the cocoon, and I’ve got to make my wings strong. That’s how the song was written and inspired, and I wrote it with my friend Tawgs Salter over Zoom. I told him about that poem, we talked about transformation, and the song was written in an hour!
CC: Wow! As well as personal transformation, I feel like your musical style has also transformed so much over the years – you’ve gone from pop to rock to country, a bit of everything. I like the idea that your music doesn’t necessarily fit one genre, but how easy is that to do in the music industry when there might often be people saying ‘no, you have to fit into this specific niche’?
AB: A lot of people told me that for a long time, even before I was in the Sisterhood Band, back when I was doing my own thing. I have always written whatever was true to me, and I’m inspired by everything – places I go, people I meet, music I listen to. I’ve always loved the radio, so whatever’s on the radio is my biggest inspiration. Sometimes that’s a pop song, sometimes a country song, sometimes a rocky Foo Fighters song, sometimes a Coldplay song. Whatever is connecting with me is what I take in.
I’ve always just written my truth, and I’ve always tried to produce what the song needs rather than trying to make it something. I think that you’re supposed to be your own thing, and the cool thing about country music right now is that it’s always been about the story; but it’s also really broad in the way where there’s pop country, there’s rock country, there’s full country, there’s all these different kinds of country music.
My music has definitely transformed over the years, I made a folk record, I made a pop record, I made a rock record with the Sisterhood, and now I’m leaning towards a little country, a little rock and roll, a little pop, it’s all the things I grew up listening to.
CC: You said country is all about storytelling, and I think we’ve got the first story in this ‘new Alyssa’ of your New Wings transformation moving on from hardship and struggle. What stories are still to come?
AB: I think the story of being more of myself. I was really inspired by Jacob Collier, who’s one of my favourite artists, and he’s a Brit. I heard him say in an interview that the thing that you have to do is be more and more of yourself, and that’s all you should ever be. That really inspired me because I think sometimes it’s very easy to get caught up in the trap of people telling you, ‘you need to do this, you need to do that,’ – to make money, to be played on the radio, to fit in.
The truth is, as we all become more of ourselves, we aren’t meant to fit in, we’re meant to stand out, and I think that that’s what you’ll be hearing from me in the coming months – more of who I am, more of who I’ve grown to be, more of the stuff that’s inspired me, that maybe I’ve been afraid to include in my music before now. I think you’ll hear less fear and more ambition in this music for me.
CC: I look forward to seeing that personal, vulnerable, open side that you sound like you’re going to deliver.
AB: Thank you! I’m excited to share it. I was always afraid to do that, but I’m not afraid anymore because I think the whole point of musicians is to connect with people. I think we all go through that vulnerable feeling and I think that it’s important to be vulnerable, because we can really connect with someone on a real level.
CC: Is it difficult allowing yourself to be that vulnerable when you know that there’s going to be thousands of people who listen to and interpret your songs?
AB: Absolutely, but I don’t really care if it makes sense to people that are on the business side of it, I really only care what the people that are hearing it think, the fans who love music. I want them to connect with it. I think my job on Earth is to just try and be a messenger for the people that need a voice and, and if I can do that with my music, that’s the only reason I’m doing it, so I feel grateful for that gift and I want to share it as much as I can.
CC: I love that. So we know that you’re a messenger, a great singer, songwriter, but I was also really impressed to find out that you are a multi-instrumentalist! Exactly how many instruments can you play?
AB: Oh my gosh, well, if it has strings, I try and pick it up and play it! I started on piano and then moved to guitar, and I also know how to play mandolin, bass and drums. I did try and pick up the cello once, even though I don’t really know what I’m doing on it! I play ukulele as well, but one of my favourite instruments to play is piano – I really, really love playing piano. I actually don’t know how to read music, I play all by ear, so the reason I like piano is there’s so many different ways you can do something.
CC: Wow! Okay then, that’s one of your known talents – do you have any hidden talents?
AB: I’m a really good tap dancer! I grew up dancing – hip hop and tap. I was a really good tap dancer, and I think I still have my tap shoes. I’ve actually been talking about getting back into it very soon.
CC: I am very much hoping that that will be incorporated into some of your live shows in future.
AB: Who knows – maybe during the arena tour I’ll have a 10 minute tap dancing section.
CC: Please do! So one of the things that I really love to do on my show is to highlight underrated or not hugely heard of artists. One of the ways that I do that is by speaking to artists about who they themselves are listening to – Alyssa, are there any up and coming, maybe a little unknown, artists that you think everyone should be listening to?
AB: Well, I don’t know if everyone knows about Jacob Collier but they should. He’s unbelievable. He does jazz, folk, pop and R&B, and all different kinds of music. He was up for Album of the Year this year at the Grammys – he’s phenomenal. I saw a band this weekend at Buckle & Boots that blew me away called Morganway, they were awesome, I love them. Who else? I really love Lennon Stella, Patrick Droney – he’s a really good friend of mine. He is phenomenal, and I got to sing on five songs on his new album.
CC: I am utterly obsessed with Patrick Droney and even more so now! I’m going to have to go back and listen to all of his songs and be like, ‘oh my gosh, that’s Alyssa!’
AB: Yeah, I sang on River, When The Lights Go Out, Call Me On Your Way Home, and all that stuff!
CC: Well, now not only am I going to need a tap dancing performance, but also a duet with Patrick please.
AB: Actually, that might be coming up…
CC: I’m going to hold you to that! Alyssa I have one final question for you – what is one question you’ve never been asked in an interview but we’d love to be?
AB: Gosh, that’s really tough. I feel like the personal questions are really fun. Like what kind of makeup do you use, or what’s your favourite clothing store? Those funny questions that give you a quirky insight of what the person’s like.
CC: Can you share three of your favourite things right now?
AB: This hat! I love a new hat. I got it at Jessie Western, this Western inspired store on Portobello Road. I found it and I was like, ‘oh my god, this is my store!’ I love these silver bangles that I’m wearing. They’re my mom’s from a long time ago and I wear them every day. And then what’s another favourite thing of mine? Probably my new AirPods.
CC: Any particular reason?
AB: Because I get to listen to music without a cable attached to my phone! It’s pretty amazing, Bluetooth.
CC: Who’d have thought? Alyssa, thank you for sharing some of your favourite things and for sharing so much in today’s interview, it’s been a real pleasure. I really look forward to everything that is still to come for you!
AB: Thank you so much!
I’m already looking forward to seeing Alyssa perform live soon! You can check out her current single New Wings wherever you get your music, or tune in to Ciara’s Country 5-8pm every Friday on www.ukcountryradio.com to hear it on air. Stay tuned on Twitter @CiarasCountry and @Think_Country for more interviews coming soon – thanks for reading!