Being Bonnie Ryan - the singer returns with a new single and raunchy image
Having toured with Westlife when she was just 13, Bonnie Ryan is no stranger to the music business. Now, 10 years later, she's back on her own with a racy new image and a debut single. Here, the aspiring popstar talks about her solid work ethic, her close family, and how she takes after her late father Gerry
Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30
Singer-songwriter Bonnie Ryan recalls the moment her mum Morah walked in as she was posing for the photoshoot featured on these pages, wearing high-legged black lycra pants, fishnet tights and a bomber jacket left open to the waist, with flashes of her breasts on display. While Bonnie loved the look, the 23-year-old was anxious that mum might not approve.
"Mum said, 'Rock on Bonnie, it looks great,' and I was like, 'Seriously?"' she says today, the relief still clear on her face. "She said it was fab, so I knew that if she thought it looked cool, then it was fine."
This new risqué look is a far cry from the days of Bonnie performing as a teenager with her band, Lady Nada. At their Childline performance in 2007, the three-girl band wore cute black sparkly outfits with giant bows pinned to their bottoms. Is this new raunchy look an attempt to draw a line under that particular cutesie chapter?
"No, it wasn't deliberate," says Bonnie. "I just love fashion and style and everything that goes with it, and I'm not really into frilly dresses. There was no intention to shock people - I just wanted to go with something a little more cool and funky. I was having fun with my styling, and at the end of the day, it's branding."
There is no mistaking that Bonnie is all grown up now, or indeed that she's one of the Ryans. Extremely pretty with full, rosebud lips and gleaming white teeth, she comes in the middle of Morah and the late RTÉ DJ Gerry Ryan's five children. Her elder sister Lottie (29) is a 2fm DJ and brother Rex (26) is an actor, while Elliot (19) is studying commerce and Babette (16) is still at school. Far from suffering from 'middle child syndrome', Bonnie feels that her position in the family gives her a good balance.
"I have my older brother and sister looking out for me, and I can look out for my younger brother and sister and boss them around," she laughs. "We're an extremely close family and most of us still live together at home. As a child, I was a bit mad and over the top, and there was always singing and dancing in our house. I was very theatrical growing up and went to acting classes at the National Performing Arts School, so every night my parents would have to watch me putting on a whole show for them."
Bonnie was only nine when she formed Lady Nada with her friends, Pippa Doyle and Jessie McGuire. They got their name from an aromatherapy oil owned by Pippa's mum; Lady Gaga only came on the scene after the band ended and Bonnie is grateful for that. They performed on The Late Late Show aged 12, which attracted the attention of Louis Walsh. "He got on to my dad and said we seemed fun and enthusiastic and he would love to have us as a support act on tour with Westlife," Bonnie recalls. "It was crazy at times because we would be finishing our homework in the green room of the Point theatre before going on stage.
"At the start, everyone was wondering who these little teeny boppers were, and they thought we were a weird novelty act until they saw us perform. Our first night was in front of 16,000 people in the Odyssey Arena, and it couldn't have gone any better, which kind of proved Louis right. It gave me a great insight at a young age into what the industry was like, and Westlife were so nice to us and were really generous with their time and advice."
Lady Nada toured twice with Westlife and once with Shayne Ward. While they managed themselves, which is astonishing for such a young band, they were chaperoned by Linda Martin, who Bonnie says was great fun, amazingly kind and gave solid advice. One imagines that their classmates must have been green with envy, but Bonnie insists that they didn't encounter jealousy at school. What did her family think of it all?
"It was a bit mad, and I don't know if I would be cool with my 13-year-old going on a tour around Ireland, but my parents trusted Louis and Linda so they weren't too worried about it. They saw our rehearsals, so they knew exactly what the production was and that it was age-appropriate."
Lady Nada finished up when Bonnie was just 17 and in fifth year, as the young band members had to concentrate on their Leaving Certificate exams. A few months later, in April 2010, her beloved dad Gerry died suddenly aged just 53. It was a hugely public and much-talked-about death, with much of the coverage focused on the two women in Gerrry's life, girlfriend Melanie Verwoerd and estranged-wife Morah, and later on the inquest which revealed that cocaine was a contributory factor in Gerry's death. Bonnie's megawatt smile dims for the first time in the interview when asked if the coverage was hurtful, and she explains politely that she is unwilling to talk about that aspect of her dad's death.
"To be honest, I don't have anything to say, because people have written enough about it," she says, hesitantly. "I just don't read anything about it really. I'm always going to be very protective of my dad when people ask questions about it, just as he would have been about me. Memories are what I have left and some I have to keep for me, so certain things have to remain private. I'm really lucky that I had such a close relationship with my dad and I will always have that. My family are very close and we got through it together, and I can talk about anything with them."
What Bonnie will say is that she feels she is very similar to Gerry in personality. "He told some interesting stories about me [on air] including ones I would have preferred him not to tell," Bonnie smiles. "My dad was very grateful to his fans and knew he wouldn't be where he was without them, so he would stop and talk to them any time.
"Dad was quieter at home than he was on the radio - he would shine in the studio and it took him a while to tone down when he came home. He was a total nerd though, and loved war films and would read three books per night. We were like two peas in a pod because I'm very similar to him, and I'm chatty when I need to be but can also be shy sometimes. We all have different things of his, but my brother Rex is a clone of him and it's so strange. We were all very close to him and he was a very cool dad."
In a way, the Lady Nada period was a blessing as it meant that Gerry got to see Bonnie perform, she muses. She hopes that he would like her new direction in music. What he'd think of the new look is anyone's guess, but nobody understood the need to make a strong and memorable impression in the entertainment business better than Gerry. "Mum and Dad were so supportive of everything I did growing up. Mum is delighted with everything that is going on now, so I can only imagine he would be the same."
Bonnie says that her free-spirited mum is very strong and has always been very supportive of all of her children. "There was never a moment when she questioned the roads we took and she never pushed us against it. She's artistic too and she sculpts so she gets it, and she's so happy for us all that we're getting to do what we love. My dad was very bubbly but my mum is too, so I guess I got that from both of them. They were very different, but in some ways they were similar, like they are both loud and when they'd walk into a room, you'd know they were there."
Once Bonnie left school, there was nothing else she wanted to do but sing, so she studied music performance at BCFE Rock School in Ballyfermot, where her major was in vocals. She wanted to develop a better understanding of song-writing and she learned to play piano and drums. She says the course helped her to mature and come out of her shell.
After finishing there in 2013, Bonnie took a year out and says that she spent it writing songs. "I was writing all the time and doing dance classes like a maniac. Lottie is my dance teacher, and has been since I was nine, and we have a lot of fun. I studied ballet, tap, jazz and contemporary growing up, but hip hop is my love so that's what I'm doing now."
The next step for Bonnie was making a demo video so she could show people what her music was all about. Music manager Shane O'Driscoll was impressed by it, so they teamed up and he now looks after the business and financial side of things.
Bonnie has just released her debut single I'm Out, which she co-wrote a year ago with Don Mescall, whose songs have been recorded by everyone from Backstreet Boys to Aslan. A break-up anthem, it was recorded along with a lot of her forthcoming EP in Sweden last October. One of the people who worked on the single there with her was Anders Bagge, who has previously worked with Madonna and Jennifer Lopez.
"I couldn't believe it when I heard Anders wanted to work with me," she smiles. "I released the single on an independent label with my management company, which I'm really happy about because I had full creative control over the music. It meant I could have it sound exactly how I wanted.
"I think it's important for your audience to hear exactly what your music sounds like, for the first song anyway, and not to tailor it to a record company or a specific market. I loved being involved in the whole process, as I came up with the venue, dancing and styling ideas for the music video so it really was all my vision."
Bonnie is in a long-term relationship and, like her sister Lottie, whose engagement to Fabio Aprile was revealed last week, she prefers not to talk about it. Being happily coupled-up means that she can't draw on heartbreak as inspiration for her songs, so was that tricky when writing I'm Out? "I haven't gone through a break-up recently but some of my best friends have. It sounds bad that I'm pulling from their heartbreak, but this song is how I want them to feel and it's an empowering one for anyone going through the end of a relationship. Of course I take personal experiences into my songwriting, and I don't cringe writing about love as it's part of the job. I can be quite a private person in other aspects of my life, so sometimes it's therapeutic just to get it off my chest."
Bonnie says that while her music falls under the umbrella of pop, she isn't going in a girlie pop direction. There's an edge to it and a bit of hip hop and RnB thrown in and the single is a dance track that's all about going out and having fun with your girls following a break-up. "I'm not that girlie and love to dance and put on big performances, so I want those hip hop heavy beats in my songs," she explains.
While she acknowledges that she's in a very competitive market and it can be hard to get your music out of Ireland without an international label behind you, Bonnie thinks it's a really exciting time for Irish music and she is happy to be in the mix. "It is competitive," she agrees, "but you just have to keep the head down and work hard because nothing comes easy. Of course I would like to be picked up by a label, but I'm just happy that everything has happened the way it has so far."
There is a wonderful, creative side to music, of course, but at the end of the day, it's a business and a particularly hard one at that. Bonnie feels that you have to come up with innovative ideas - and, it would appear, a raunchy image - to make your product stand out. While she acknowledges that there will be a certain interest in her initially because she comes from a well-known family, she is keen to stress that nothing has been handed to her on a plate.
"I think some people may think doors are open because of my dad, but that's not the case," she insists. "I have always worked very hard for everything I have, as I was brought up in a house where nothing was just handed to you. Nobody knocked on my door and offered this music career to me, I went out and found the people I wanted to work with. In this industry, no one is going to give you a free pass, and you have to deliver the goods at the end of the day. I know it's going to be hard and there will be setbacks, so you have to want it really badly. It's too hard to do if you're not incredibly passionate and ready to drop everything else to let it be your entire world. I absolutely love music, and the way I look at it is if I didn't give this my everything, I would look back and regret not trying harder."
She may be a young woman at 23, but Bonnie has had a lot of life experience already. Does she feel young and excited or is she mature and wise now?
"I have definitely had different things happen in my life that made me grow up quickly," she says. "Lots of people go through things, but with me, everyone just happens to know about it. I have matured more than a lot of 23-year-olds would, but I'm also a complete dork and very goofy so I have a very young side to me too. I'm quite mature, but I know how to have fun as well.
At this point, Bonnie doesn't know what the future will hold, but she hasn't ruled out the idea of living abroad for a while as she tries to make it, and her ideal scenario would be that "hopefully my music grows wings and I will go with it".
So what's an average day like for a fledgling pop star? According to Bonnie, it's spent taking dancing classes, going to the gym, writing songs and seeing her friends, plus she has a part-time job in the music industry to help pay the bills.
"I'm just an average girl working a part-time job and then I have this other abnormal side to my life," she says.
"Hard work makes you successful, so you can't be out partying all the time. I'm not Mick Jagger and you won't find me hanging out of hotel windows. The industry is saturated with musicians now, so you have to fight that bit harder to get your stuff out there.
"Everything happens so fast that I'm just trying to enjoy it as it's happening really, and trying to really live in the moment."
'I'm Out' is available to download now, see bonnieofficialmusic.com