Alyssa Bonagura has found her wings. After a tumultuous year that included a pandemic uprooting, being dropped from a label deal and the disbandment of her duo The Sisterhood Band, Bonagura has embraced a season of change and found her voice as a songwriter, producer and solo artist. Fittingly, ‘New Wings’, Bonagura’s first single from her upcoming fourth studio album expected next year, embraces this new chapter.
“I know none of us have ever gone through the same story, but I hope that mine can help somebody realize that change is OK and that it's really just about making your wings stronger,” Bonagura tells Holler.
Since she was a mere three weeks old, Bonagura was on the road touring with her parents, who were members of the country band Baillie & the Boys. She knew from a young age she wanted to be just like them – on the road and singing for an audience – and recalls telling her mother this when she was just two. Soon enough, her mom would invite her on stage each night to sing a song with the band.
An early champion of young Bonagura was Kenny Rogers. While working on a Christmas play, Rogers needed a young girl to sing the part of the angel. He called Bonagura’s mom and asked if she would do it. A then 10-year-old Bonagura visited the studio with Rogers to record ‘If Only I Had Your Heart’, a duet featured on his 1998 album Christmas from the Heart.
“He really gave me my first shot,” she says. “I grew up this traveling country music gypsy who was around Vince Gill, Kenny Rogers and Reba McEntire. There was never a doubt in my mind what I should be doing with my life”.
Bonagura began writing songs at 11 at the urging of her father, who taught her how to record on an 8-track minidisc recorder. He showed his daughter how to layer her harmony parts and the experience led her to start producing and writing her own music. She garnered a scholarship to attend Sir Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, receiving her diploma from Sir Paul himself.
Catching up with Holler, Bonagura shares her journey to her fourth solo project, the message she hopes to leave listeners with ‘New Wings’ and how Chris Martin of Coldplay helped inspire her new music.
Tell me about the first song you wrote as a child.
My dad was teaching me how to write songs because I wanted to create my own story. He told me, “You should always write something that's real to you”. At that time, I was really obsessed with ballerinas and dancing, so we wrote a song about that, and I’ve never done anything else. I actually grew up dancing and doing a lot of ballet, tap and hip-hop. I’m a really good tap dancer. Tap dancing helped me find my rhythm with my guitar playing – it really helped me with beats.
You began producing your own songs at a young age too.
I did - it's been so fun to be able to produce my own music and have my ideas heard. When my dad found me the 8-track minidisc recorder, he showed me how to use it. The first song I recorded was actually about the World Trade Center [attacks]. I was in 8th grade when that happened, and it was an awful day. I came home and I wrote this song called “Worlds Collide” and I recorded it on this 8-track. I played acoustic guitar and then put the vocals down and it helped me heal my heart. That’s what led me to start producing and writing in a way where I thought “If I can learn how to produce or record a song, that means I can get my ideas out of my head”.
How has the pandemic changed you as an artist?
I actually think that the pandemic brought back my pureness in a way that nothing else could’ve ever have done - it was such a transformative year for me in that respect. 2020 was really uprooting, because for so long you aim for all these dreams. It's always been my dream to be signed to a major label, to be played on the radio, to tour the world and it still is - but the way that happens isn’t always the way you think it will.
Being signed to a major label was amazing - it was a dream come true. I learned so much being in a band because I had never been in one before. When all that was taken away from me, I learned that the things that I used to love – like tap dancing or pop music like Coldplay – were things I wasn't [doing] as much because I was chasing this radio game thing. I think as a sensitive songwriter and artist, you take all that in and it can be really debilitating to your creative process. [In] 2020, everything got chipped away and the only thing left was me, my mom, and my dad. I moved back in with my parents, and it was so much fun to reconnect in that way - I felt like I was back on the road again.
It was a God moment for me because it was my hero telling me something that I really needed to hear; it set the tone for me going forward with the music I was making.
How did Coldplay’s Chris Martin help inspire the new music?
I actually got to meet Chris Martin at the beginning of 2020, before everything shut down. We had a conversation after the show and it really inspired me - he asked how everything was going with the label and I said, “We keep writing and writing.”He told me, “If you keep writing for the label, you're going to write for them until you’re dead. You have to write for you, always. You have to share your story because that’s what connects you to everybody else”. It was a God moment for me, because it was my hero telling me something that I really needed to hear; it set the tone for me going forward with the music I was making.
Why is ‘New Wings’ the right song to reintroduce yourself as a solo artist?
I wanted people to know that, whatever I'm putting out next, it will be the most Alyssa Bonagura song that I've created so far. I think I'm less fearful about being myself now – I’m back in that little kid state of when I wasn't afraid. In the pandemic, I created music that I wanted to make, [and] produced whatever felt right for the song.
I think the whole theme of this record to me is all about transforming into your next version, the best version of yourself. When you destroyed me, you made me better than I've ever been. I really feel my purpose on earth while I'm here is to try and connect people with music.
Alyssa Bonagura's latest single 'New Wings', is out now via ABON MUSIC. Watch the video for the track below.
Alyssa is the featured cover star of Holler's Introducing Country Playlist. You can subscribe and listen through your favourite streaming service below.
Photography by Kacie Q.