Artists that spend a lot of time over here lean towards earning the badge of being an honorary Brit but I think Alyssa Bonagura really can claim and warrant it. She is the daughter of Kathie Baillie and Michael Bonagura who fronted Baillie & the Boys, has had songs cut by so many big names including Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and has spent more time in the UK than any other Nashville based artist that I can think of due to her studying in Liverpool.
For many country fans over here, the first introduction to her as an artist would have been in 2018 during Nashville Meets London in Canary Wharf as part of The Sisterhood Band alongside Ruby Stewart. A year later during my last trip to Nashville I caught the duo outside the Bridgestone Arena during CMA Fest and then 2020 came around! This year and the future is looking really bright, returning to her roots and focusing on her pure craft as she is back as a solo artist with plenty of new music on the horizon.
During her time at Buckle & Boots Festival in Manchester, Jamie caught up with Alyssa to hear all about her experiences in the UK and what else the future holds.
The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts is renowned as a school for excellence in the creative and performance industries not just in the UK but across the world. Meanwhile back across the pond, the United States has a whole number of musical colleges with equal global prestige, so I began exploring what it was that initially drew her to the UK and chose LIPA as her place of study opposed to college in the US:
“I grew up on the road with my parents and I always knew from a young age that I wanted to do this. I just wanted to make music 24/7 and I didn’t really want to go to college. I looked into Berklee and those sorts of places but to me, making music is being on the road and touring. Then I was at a Christmas party with my parents and one of the girls that was at this party was from Liverpool. She had said “So, where are you going to college?” and I had said I didn’t know and maybe I just wanted to be a musician and tour. She mentioned the Paul McCartney school, to which I was like he has a school? What? I looked it up the next day and I grew up on The Beatles, my dad was a huge Beatles fan and McCartney was my favourite out of all of them, so I thought this is the only place that I was applying. I applied and I told myself that if I got in, I would go full time then I got in on a scholarship.”
With a written piece, you can’t really do any justice for how great her scouse accent is (we did the classic “chicken and chips and a can of coke” just to emphasise how nailed on she has it) from the time that she has spent over here. In addition to the time she spent studying here, the UK has also been a regular destination professionally due to the strong links that her band had over here.
“It’s been really cool actually to come over and do things on my own because The Sisterhood Band was so much fun, we did a five-year run together where we were all over the world. We spent a lot of time here because Rod Stewart gave us the stage. Last night I played the writers round with Gary (Quinn) and Tebey where I had people come up to me after and say I saw you at Soup Kitchen in Manchester, which is so cool that people remember that show.”
Obviously now, she is back to making music strictly for herself for the first time in around five years and also recording on her own as opposed to in a duo, we talked about what is different and what has progressed from her previous material both on her own and with The Sisterhood Band.
“With the new music that I am making, 2020 really brought me back to who I was and like we say in America, a kind of Jesus moment. I needed to just remember who I was and what are the things that make me happy when I wake up in the morning. I lost so much, my band broke up, we lost our record deal and all these things. Music was the one thing that made me remember who I am, so I started writing but also started listening to old songs of mine that I wrote before Sisterhood Band that we had never cut. Some of those songs are on the new project and I’ve just kind of resurrected them but I’m also influenced by everything around me. I’m a sponge and that is what I write about which you will hear in my music where if I’m in England you will hear a bit of British music, if I’m in Nashville you will hear a little bit of country and I’ve kind of owned that recently with a little bit of everything.”
With regard to this influence, what you hear in the music and the amount of time she has spent in the UK, I asked whether her mindset and process differs between a booked write in Nashville compared to working with people over here?
“Totally! It’s just a vibe, it’s energy! In Nashville when you go and write a song on Music Row, it’s a different energy compared to in a log cabin in Scotland writing a song with a folk or country artist here.”
We had talked about how nice it feels to be back in a room and speaking to people in person. From my own perspective chatting to Alyssa at the festival was the first time I had done a face to face interview since March 2020. Virtual communication, particularly Zoom has been a revelation in all of our lives as a way to stay in touch and be able work around the challenges that the pandemic presented. For artists and songwriters, it brings convenience in collaboration but removes the energy in a room which has seemed to be a complete marmite perspective where people have absolutely loved working in this way or are now completely done with it.
“As human beings, I think we are meant to be in a room with other human beings. That is our purpose in life, on earth is to be around others. Being apart from that and living in this virtual world, I learned a lot actually. I learnt that sometimes I get really afraid in person but on Zoom you weren’t as nervous because you are not in person and I could just walk up to my computer, open it up, I might be wearing sweatpants and it makes things more comfortable now going back to real in person which is nice.”
This all portrays that she has written a lot of new music and by the fact that when she spent time over here last year she recorded a twelve song live set in Liverpool which was filmed and produced by leading event company Adlib which are gradually being shared, more new music must be on the way very soon.
“There is a lot more coming. Basically, March 2020 to August 2020, I wrote so much. I resurrected songs, I rerecorded songs and then looked back and was like err… I think I made an album which has been great. I put out “New Wings” and I wanted that to be the first song because for me 2020 was all about transformation in so many ways. That is kind of the theme of the album and I didn’t realise it was but I think my subconscious knew.”
“New Wings” is the first taste of this new music (which is out now and you can find it to download or stream HERE) so I asked about how indicative this is as a starting point both musically and in terms of themes for what else is on the way:
“I think it is the most down the middle sounding country song that is on it because all of the other ones are a bit, well maybe I’m just saying that? Sometimes I get insecure about what’s country and what is not but they are all me. They all have elements of country music and there are some elements of a Coldplay sound. I actually got to meet Chris Martin last year before the pandemic and he kind of changed my life. One conversation with him about music, he had heard I was in a band, he knew our music and asked how it was going, then I said we were writing and writing for radio. He turned around and said Alyssa you can’t write for radio; you have to write for yourself and write your truth always. That was like my mantra for the whole year. Write my truth, share my truth and never be afraid to share that truth because it is somebody else’s truth too!”
Country music on this side of the pond is a very different to how the beast is Stateside and radio is the key element in this. Because the access is more limited and also how the largest dedicated radio platform has a no repeat policy during the daytime, you do not just hear the same songs over and over again compared to where you are almost told what to listen to in America. This opens up the door a lot more for female artists and I shared that I feel people here appreciate what the girls do a lot more because lyrically things are more relatable and therefore more transferable.
“I do really agree with you when it comes to females her in country music. It is not as competitive because not everyone is fighting for one slice, whilst in America all the girls are fighting for one slot on the radio in an hour of men. I love all country music but when I’m making it, I don’t want to feel like I have to compete with other women, I want to celebrate those other women. You just have to write your truth and over here I have really noticed that when you are creating something and you want to just speak your truth, just do it! It doesn’t matter what you are saying or how you are saying it but if it’s a relatable song people are going to relate to it. It just needs to be you! Back home I think everyone is chasing something, it’s chasing a country radio song and I don’t think any of us nearly know what a hit is until it relates and takes off. I have just tried to be more of myself than I ever have been and if that’s real to someone that is all I can hope for.”
This gives more freedom for artists in terms of live sets because deep cuts off an old record, for some fans that could be the big hit in their eyes, then you also hear a lot of people say that due to the more attentive nature of European fans it is a great place to try out new material.
“I was thinking about my set tonight and how I can put my older songs in this set because I feel like people will appreciate those deeper cuts because they are out, whilst I wouldn’t always put all those songs in a set normally. The freedom is so exciting but also a lot of pressure, I’m trying out a lot of new songs because I want to see what the reaction is. I’m excited to play the new music, there is obviously a bit of the last five years influencing the new stuff but I think it’s more before that. I think the pandemic brought me back to before Sisterhood Band and who I was at LIPA when I was becoming a woman, living on my own, learning how to live in a different country and walk up a street in the rain with my groceries which was a new thing for me because we use cars for everything. I learned a lot in England and I think it really made me who I am today so I love coming back here all the time.”
Although Alyssa had played other events in the UK, this was her first time performing and also experiencing Buckle & Boots as a festival. Throughout the piece you will come across the recurring themes of her being true to herself in addition the sense of community she has seen in country music over here and she truly embraced every aspect of this event. She opened up the festival as part of the writers round on the Friday night, played an absolutely killer set on the Saturday and then rounded of the event as she jumped on stage with SJ Mortimer from Morganway during Backwoods Creek’s Sunday night jam session. She wasn’t even on the bill of this event until a couple of weeks ago, then she spent the weekend camping where she was really present with checking out other acts and firmly integrated herself into this community which we are so delighted to have her be a part of. She talked about how much she loved discovering Stevie O’Connor, wanting to see Eddy Smith play and she just went out of her way to support other artists.
“I was just talking about how much I love this festival because it’s such a good vibe. I think that has to do with how in the UK country music scene, you guys just love songs and you love all kinds of country where it is not just one down the middle country radio thing which you are hearing in America. You hear a little bit more folk country, a little bit more rock country and to me it’s really exciting to be here because my music is a little bit of all those things, so I feel like I fit and like I belong here.”
We rounded off talking about what she appreciates about being in the UK which was heavily focused on Hobnobs, Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut chocolate and how tea tastes better here – she thinks it is to do with the water but the fact we have it hot, without an excessive amount of sugar and not filled with ice may have something to do with it too! Alyssa also felt that when she first came here she learnt to a lot more present (in addition to learning she has to ask for a lot more ice than us Brits are typically used to having served with our vodka and experiencing the joys of carrying your shopping home in the rain) and in the moment from our pub culture where we apparently don’t spend as much time on our phones. We caught up again down in London this week after the festival and she is looking forward to playing more shows whilst she is here and I really think we are going to be seeing her more and more on these shores in future.
The single “New Wings” from Alyssa Bonagura is out now and you can find it to download or stream HERE. Alyssa will remain in the UK through August where you can catch her playing the following dates:
25th August – Birmingham – Nashville Sounds In The Round with Tim De Graaw, Gasoline & Matches and Jake Morrell (TICKETS)
31st August – London (Holborn) – Nashville Meets London Presents at Pizza Express Live with Julia Cole (TICKETS)
There are likely to be some more dates during her trip, so to keep up to date with any announcements and upcoming news on further new releases from Alyssa you can check out her WEBSITE and follow along socially on INSTAGRAM TWITTER or FACEBOOK.