Talking Art & Anxiety with Bully’s Alicia Bognanno


Talking Art & Anxiety with Bully’s Alicia Bognanno


Photography: Christopher Schoonover

Styling: Hua Hua L

Hair: Andrita Renee

Makeup: Christyna Kay

I heard about Bully for months before I actually listened to them. Everywhere I went IRL, someone said, “Oh my god, you have to hear them!” and their debut album, Feels Like, was on every year-end list online. Maybe it’s because I’m a perpetual pessimist, or maybe it’s because I work at BULLETT (or maybe those are the same thing?), but more often than not, when people tell me I’ll love something, I end up hating it, almost by default. So, when I ended up in front of the band at last year’s Gov Ball, I was pretty positive I wouldn’t be into them. And then I heard Alicia Bognanno’s guttural howl.

Mixing crass shoegaze guitar riffs with Bognanno’s slightly bratty but overwhelming vocals, Bully delivers radical scuzz-pop that’s both sweet and sounds like a panic attack. Since releasing their debut album in 2015, the band has been constantly compared to ’90s grunge gods (and goddesses), Nirvana and Hole. I should probably be transparent and tell you that I’m a lifelong (and diehard) Courtney Love fan. But, to me, Alicia sounds nothing like her—and that’s a compliment. The 27-year-old singer and guitarist has a voice that’s completely her own. And with their latest record, Losing, Bognanno solidifies that voice as one of punk’s most powerful.

BULLETT caught up with the singer to talk podcasts, ProTools and writing about her period. Read our interview, below.

The way the industry is now, so many artists put out records every year. Everything I’ve been reading about Bully has called Losing your long-awaited follow-up record, even though you just put out your first album in 2015—it’s crazy. Why’d you decide to do it now?

I don’t know how people put out records every year because usually, you’re touring records for at least a year. So, unless you’ve got a really good routine for writing on the road, it’s really difficult. For the first record, we toured for a year and a half straight. We finally just had to pull the plug so we could come back to Nashville and write. Then, we pretty much sat in the small music room in my house, writing every day from 9-to-5, for two or three months.

Was there a lot of pressure going into the making of the record, especially since Feels Like did so well?

There wasn’t a lot of pressure, and I wouldn’t say there’s pressure now. There are nerves, because we’ve just been sitting on it and anticipating the release. But we hit a point where we were ready, and we wanted to move on and write new stuff. I mean, you can only play the first record for so long. At a certain point you start to feel like, ‘Okay, let’s move on. Let’s get new stuff going and spice things up.’

What were you listening to when you started writing?

A lot of podcasts—usually 2 Dope Queens, Throwing Shade, Criminal or Revisionist History. Throughout the writing process, I had an ongoing list of podcasts, books, documentaries and movies that I thought would be inspiring or that could keep my creative juices flowing—I was just always learning or re-watching something. I definitely don’t listen to as much music as one would assume—if I’m playing all day, I need a break to keep myself from getting too exhausted. And when I’m in the writing process, I listen to music critically instead of just enjoying it.

You’ve gotten a lot of ‘90s comparisons since the last album—almost every review I’ve read likens you to Nirvana. That’s obviously a huge compliment, but can it also feel limiting?

I feel that way. Of course, there are a lot of amazing bands that I admire that came out of that time. I’m happy—if I’m going to be stuck anywhere—to be put there. But it’s always funny to me, because I was born in 1990. I didn’t grow up a huge Nirvana fan—they were already starting to get huge when I was born. That’s not to say that it’s not great music, but I’d be lying if I said I was entirely influenced by them—it’s just never been something that’s been in the back of my head when I’m writing. I was actually just listening to our album in Austin with our manager and asked, ‘What is the ‘90s about ‘Running?”—I get it with some of the other songs, but that does not seem ‘90s to me, at all.

On the last record, you wrote from multiple perspectives, and there wasn’t one over-arching narrative. What about this one?

This record’s similar in that each song is its own thing. I think that has something to do with the way that I write—I don’t sit down and think of the record as a cohesive piece. Usually, if I’m writing something down, it’s because something bothered me or a lyric is stuck in the back of my mind. I’ve never been very good at writing just to write, and imagining a storyline. Concept records are great and they blow my mind—it’s such an undertaking, and it’s just not how I write at all. But I think it’s really admirable.

You’ve also used your lyrics as a space to talk about your experience as a woman, from dealing with your period to feeling anxiety. Would you consider Bully to be explicitly feminist?

I’m a feminist, so I wouldn’t say that’s far off. But I didn’t start the band and then sit down with Reece and Clay and have a talk with them about being in a feminist rock band—I just write about how I feel.

What’s your process like?

It depends. With this record, we just wanted to get it done. So, I gave myself certain hours everyday to sit down and play. Usually, I get a bug in my system, and I have to get it out. But the writing process for this record was really different. For the first record, I always sat down with my guitar, and I’d just come up with chords and a vocal melody, and write my lyrics last. Then I’d send it to everyone and we’d work it out together as a band. With this record, I found myself bored a lot of the time. I don’t know if it was because I already knew the chords or what, but I just didn’t want to mess around with leads anymore. So I’d start with a bassline and work out the rest from there. I’m interested to see what the third record will be like because I found myself so bored with all the work I’d done before—it’s so interesting what you pick up and move around just to work out a song.

The theme of anxiety definitely continues on Losing, but I’ve also seen a lot of people call it a ‘break-up record.’ Is it?

I feel like the initial push, at least with all of the press, was that this was a breakup album and it’s not. There’s less than half of a song about a breakup, but it seems like there’s a main character in every track, so it’s easily perceived that way, which I get. And I hate to say that a record is about anxiety, because it’s something that everyone deals with and is just part of life. So, it’s just about being stuck mentally and not being able to work your way out of it. Sometimes, you get stuck in a particular type of mood or feeling, and no matter how you change yourself physically, or your routine, you’re trapped in that mind frame. It’s also about shamelessly avoiding any situations you should be sorting out or processing, and putting them on the back-burner. It’s not all meant to be a bad thing—the message is that sometimes, it’s okay to move on and not deal with shit until later because everybody responds differently.

As a rock band, your live performance is an essential part of what you do. How do you think Bully translates from the stage to your albums?

The live show is significant—when you’re a small indie rock band, that’s how you make money. It’s our main source of income, so we have to be on the road, doing a good job. I always get so bummed when I fall in love with a record and then I see the show, and the band only plays five songs from it. You get bored on the road, and it’s nice to change your songs up. But on the first record, I was really focused on making sure our record was an accurate representation of the live show. This time, I didn’t hold that idea so closely just because I wanted to be more creative with my vocals and I didn’t want it to limit what we were doing in the studio.

Is screaming cathartic for you?

I get asked about that a lot, and I never go into a song planning to scream. I feel like a lot of that only came about because of having to practice in a lot of small spaces with only one vocal monitor—in a space where you can’t hear yourself, you have to project your voice loudly just to know that you’re singing. Then I started doing it just as a way to hit my notes. And after that, it took over—it popped out of nowhere, it was fun, and I ran with it. It just feels good.

What was the hardest part of making this record?

Just all of is the mania that comes with it, and having to stick to a final mix. That’s probably the hardest part for me because I actually mix it—I always want to keep changing things and I can’t. It’s hard to say, ‘This is what we did in the moment, this is the decision we made and we have to stick with it.’ In the time it takes to get mastered afterwards, you’re just thinking about all of the things you could have done differently.

Coming from the engineer-side of things, do you think you’re more nitpicky?

For me, it’s the little mouth noises. I switched microphones during the tracking process because one was perfect for the soft talking stuff, but it didn’t work for the screams. I hear when the mic kicks in for different vocals and stuff like that. But a listener who doesn’t know the tracking process would never pick up on it, so I’ve had to learn to let those things go and figure out how not to obsessive over everything. And everything’s so over-produced now, that I’ve learned to appreciate the little flaws, like a lip smack. I know I’d rather listen to what actually happened than hear something that’s been totally manufactured in ProTools.

On top of writing, playing and singing on the record, you also engineered it. Is it important for you to remain in control of the mixing process?

It’s stressful for me, especially because I’m not engineering everyday anymore. But every time i consider not doing, I start to feel like me engineering is just part of Bully. I’m not completely shutting down the idea of having someone else work on our records—I can see the benefit if we eventually choose to do that in the future—but I’d a little bummed. Not because my engineering is so great or anything, but just because it’s what we’ve always done. And I think I’d just be so mad at myself—I’d always be like, ‘You know that one record you didn’t engineer? You should have more confidence in yourself and faith that you can do it, even if it takes you more time because you don’t do it everyday.’

I think maintaining that DIY aspect, no matter how big you get, gives Bully something special.

Thank you—that’s what I hope, because it’s special to us, too. I like to listen to the record and see what I did differently—see what I changed and remember why. Making a record is a beautiful, memorable experience—it’s sweet and super rewarding.

What do you want people to take away from your music?

I write music because it’s a way of processing my emotions—it’s a positive, creative outlet, and it just feels so good to take all of that negative energy off of your shoulders. There are very few things in my life that give me that feeling—playing live and writing music are what do it for me. But I obviously want people to like our records. We don’t do it and say, ‘If you don’t like it, fuck you.’—I’m like, ‘Please, please, I hope you like it.’ But the driving force isn’t, ‘What can I write about for other people?’ It’s, ‘What can I write about that will get me through this moment?’

Look 1: Sweatshirt: Heron Preston, Shorts: Landlord, Belt: Y-3, Socks: ADER error, Shoes: Converse

Look 2: Shirt: Discount Universe, Pants: Landlord, Belt: MM6 Maison Margiela, Socks: ADER error, Shoes: Converse