Daughter of rock legend Rod, Ruby Stewart has teamed up with Alyssa Bonagura, scion of a country music dynasty, to mix music – and wardrobes. Here the sassy singing duo talk.
Before they step out on to the stage each night of their tour, The Sisterhood Band recite a short mantra: ‘We are not afraid, we were born to do this.’ It’s a slightly tweaked version of a Joan of Arc quote, because, explains one half of the duo, Alyssa Bonagura, ‘We are really inspired by Joan of Arc, by the idea of female empowerment and being fearless.’ The quote, however, has added significance for The Sisterhood Band, given their musical heritage. Alyssa’s parents, Michael Bonagura and Kathie Baillie, are country music stars in the long-running band Baillie & the Boys. Her Sisterhood Band-mate Ruby Stewart, meanwhile, is the daughter of rock legend Rod.
Born to it she may have been, but 31-year-old Ruby freely admits that hers was an unconventional childhood. She grew up in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, with her mother, 80s supermodel Kelly Emberg, from whom Rod split when Ruby was three years old (she is his fourth child of eight, from five different women). In school holidays, however, Ruby would tour the world with her famous father, along with her younger sister and brother, Renee and Liam, Rod’s children with model Rachel Hunter.
‘Renee, Liam and I grew up on the road together,’ she recalls. ‘We had pet hamsters that we would take on tour – they would fly on the private plane with us. We would decorate hotel rooms and make them look like somewhere we could come home to. We created consistency in a life full of chaos,’ she says. ‘But I’m so lucky that I got to live that crazy life,’ she enthuses. ‘Being on the road, meeting so many people and seeing different walks of life is the best education that you could ask for.’
And somehow, in Alyssa, she has managed to find a musical partner who understands ‘that crazy life’. Though Alyssa was born in Nashville, her parents decided to take their daughter on the road with them after they scored their first top ten hit when she was a baby. ‘We call ourselves “tour babies”, but I grew up on a bus, while Ruby grew up on a plane,’ laughs Alyssa, 30. And having spent their childhoods watching from backstage as their parents performed at festivals and in stadiums, both girls are uniquely prepared for the life they’re living now – out on the road with their own band.
The day I speak to The Sisterhood Band, via Skype, they’re in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, supporting Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler on his solo tour across the US and Europe. In matching baker-boy caps, the duo fill the rather nondescript-looking hotel room with their upbeat energy. They do appear to have a special connection. The name, The Sisterhood Band, was suggested by a friend, who noticed this synergy when they were writing and recording. ‘When we get in the studio together, it’s like we’re in each other’s minds,’ nods Ruby. ‘Alyssa will start playing the guitar part that I’m thinking we should do, without us even discussing it – it’s weird.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that her father is one of the bestselling music artists of all time, Ruby knew she wanted to sing from an early age. At 13, she was given a deal with Columbia Records – ‘they sent me to different singing teachers to develop my voice’. But she didn’t enjoy it, and confessed so to Rod. ‘Are you feeling like it’s not fun any more, being a musician?’ she recalls him asking, before telling her: ‘You should never do something that you don’t feel is true to you, or isn’t from your heart, so maybe you shouldn’t sign this contract.’
It wasn’t long, however, before she was trying her hand at her mother’s profession, modelling, instead. Unusually for a model, I find Ruby even prettier in person than in photographs, thanks to her energy and warmth. She also seems incredibly well adjusted, given her starry upbringing. ‘The fashion industry is beautiful, but it’s also very dark,’ she says. ‘I remember going to my first Alexander McQueen show and being blown away by his raw talent. But then I remember my first runway show, at about 16 or 17. People treat you like you’re a doll, like you’re dispensable.’
But there were lots of good times, too. ‘Modelling took me to Venice, Paris and Milan, and I lived in London for a few months, in a flat off Abbey Road.’ Some of her most high-profile campaigns were for lingerie brands, including Ultimo. How does she feel now, I ask, about having posed for such titillating images? ‘What bothered me about the Ultimo thing was that they enhanced my breasts,’ she tells me. ‘I was a teenage girl, I didn’t have boobs like that. I still don’t have boobs like that! And it’s annoying, because it’s the first thing that comes up if you google me.’ But she is sanguine about it all. ‘That was a learning curve for me, to understand that in a contract I need creative control. Things like that I can navigate now, because they’ve already happened.’
For her part, Alyssa was performing almost before she could walk. ‘I used to watch my mum get ready for her shows and be like, ‘Is it my turn now? Can I come out and sing?’ she laughs. When she was two years old they let her – at The Big E festival in Minneapolis. Alyssa’s grandfather had taught her ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’, the unofficial anthem of US baseball, which she sang for the 20,000-strong crowd. From then on, she would regularly join her parents on stage. ‘Making music is all I ever wanted to do,’ she says.
Perhaps incongruously, after high school she moved to the UK, to study sound technology and production at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. ‘I had the best three years of my life in Liverpool,’ she beams, and demonstrates a very passable Scouse accent for me. ‘It reminded me a lot of Nashville. Music is everywhere and the people are so friendly – it’s almost like Southern hospitality.’
By 2015, both girls were pursuing solo careers, Alyssa back in Nashville, Ruby in LA, where she’d spent two years singing with the band Revoltaire. One afternoon, at LA’s Sunset Marquis hotel, location of much rock ’n’ roll excess, Ruby met Tyler Bryant, lead singer of Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown, in which Alyssa’s boyfriend of five years, Graham Whitford, plays guitar. When she and Alyssa subsequently met in Nashville, it was an immediate bond. While the boys jammed downstairs, they took a bottle of wine into the bathroom, sat on the floor and wrote a song in just 30 minutes. ‘I had written with people before, but I’d never experienced that thing that I think John Lennon and Paul McCartney had, where you get together and the song just pours out of you,’ says Ruby.
They began writing and playing together ‘just for fun’, but word spread, and they were soon invited to play at Milan Fashion Week. ‘We didn’t even have a name at the time,’ laughs Ruby. ‘We’d show up and they’d be like, “here’s Ruby and Alyssa!”’ In the winter of 2016/17 the duo were the warm-up act for Rod’s tour, and in the summer of 2017, signed a record deal with Sony.
They deliberately eschew categorisation as country musicians, combining Alyssa’s country roots with Ruby’s rock, blues and R&B influences. ‘Alyssa didn’t know a lot about The Rolling Stones, so I’m teaching her about them, and she’s teaching me about Reba [McEntire, a country icon],’ says Ruby. They have other complementary attributes too. ‘She’s the only person I’ve ever met who loves hats as much as I do and we’re the same size in pretty much everything,’ says Alyssa. ‘Her jeans are a little bit tighter than mine – I have a bum and she’s got the Rod Stewart body – but it’s really fun when we’re on tour because we just share clothes. ‘Fashion is important to both of us,’ she continues. ‘I’m a bit more hippy, I love Stevie Nicks’s bohemian vibe, and Ruby brings this edgy, rock ’n’ roll element. And because she has been a model, she’s got great designer stuff – it’s fun to try on her Chanel shirts.’
Long the centre of the country music scene, in recent years Nashville has drawn musicians from across the genres, as well as Hollywood stars – it’s home to actresses Reese Witherspoon, Evan Rachel Wood and Nicole Kidman. Ruby has now decamped to live there full-time too. ‘I even bought a house,’ she cries, excitedly. ‘It’s like I’m a real adult. I never thought I’d own a house.’ Having grown up steeped in the world of live music, it’s hardly surprising that both girls have boyfriends similarly inclined. As mentioned before, Alyssa’s boyfriend Graham is a guitarist, and his father is Brad Whitford, guitarist for Aerosmith.
‘I’ve dated people who didn’t get what I did, and that was hard,’ says Alyssa. ‘You can be on the road, in different time zones, so you don’t get to speak for days, and you might not see each other for weeks. You have to really understand that lifestyle.’ Ruby’s boyfriend, Lee Foster, co-owns Jimi Hendrix’s former studio, the Electric Lady, in New York. ‘As a musician you’re always dating someone long-distance. When he comes to town, we’ll have two weeks together, and every moment matters. I think we respect our love differently than if we lived in the same place.’
And their boyfriends, it seems, need not be concerned about late-night benders with male groupies. ‘You can’t get blasting drunk the night before and then perform,’ says Ruby, firmly. ‘I’ve watched my dad’s tour regime my whole life. He’ll have one Bacardi and Coke before he goes on stage, and then a glass of wine or two with dinner on the plane coming home…unless there’s a football game on [Rod is an avid Celtic fan] or friends are in town.’
‘Watching Steven [Tyler] and my dad performing as they do at their age [Steven is 70, Rod 73] is mind-blowing,’ she adds. ‘I’m still trying to figure out how they do it. They were definitely partying when they were our age, but they seem to have got away with it.’ Beyond this summer’s tour, there’s a full Sisterhood Band album on its way soon, and the duo are excited about writing again. ‘There’s something that happens when Ruby and I write together, something that I can’t accomplish on my own,’ says Alyssa. ‘I felt like we were both trying to find it on our own, but we weren’t able to open a big enough door. We weren’t able to step up on to a bigger stage until we did it together.’
Last book you read
Ruby: Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian L Weiss.
Alyssa: Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Ruby: Crystals, a tarot deck, palo santo incense sticks, my diary and a book.
Alyssa: Amethyst and quartz crystals and a candle.
Before bed you…
Ruby: Think of those I love.
Alyssa: Brush my teeth.
Favourite Rod tune
Ruby: All of them!
Alyssa: ‘Gasoline Alley’.
Describe yourself in three words
Ruby: Empathetic, innovative, rebellious.
Alyssa: Silly, clumsy, honest.
What always makes you laugh?
Ruby: Singing, drinking tea, praying and meditation.
Alyssa: We dance around and sing to get hyped up.
In your rider
Ruby: Tequila, tea, honey.
Alyssa: Tequila, and chips and salsa!
The Sisterhood Band will perform at the O2 Kentish Town Forum, London, on Tuesday; thesisterhoodband.com
Interview by Jane Mulkerrins