In Conversation: Bully

In Conversation: Bully

Alicia Bognanno on mental health, Trump and the giddiness of creativity...

‘Come Down’, a track from Bully’s new record ‘Sugaregg’, begins with a little snapshot of in-studio camaraderie. One voice says, "Like a bullsnake" - that’s Zach Dawes, the record’s bassist - and amid scattered laughter, vocalist/songwriter Alicia Bognanno replies, "Like a bullsnake with a hockey stick".

It’s a reference to a band in-joke, involving a snake-related horror story recounted to them by producer John Congleton - and it suggests the easy, giddy silliness of a band in the studio for the first time, truly gelling and excited by what they’re in the process of creating.

It’s just that for Bully, it took three records to get here.

“I think it was the first time that I had ever been in a room with all guys in a studio and didn’t feel self-conscious, or insecure, or like I was being spoken to in a condescending tone,” Bognanno says. “It was just really great.”

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Bully began as a four-piece in 2013 when Bognanno, formerly an engineering intern at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, relocated to Nashville; in addition to fronting the band, she handled production and engineering for all of their output. Their first record, ‘Feels Like’, garnered them acclaim from major publications and favourable comparisons to 90s touchstones such as Nirvana and Pixies, and a switch to Sub Pop for its 2017 follow-up ‘Losing’ only ramped up their alt rock esteem. Yet the creation of that sophomore effort coincided with a low point in Bognanno’s struggle with Type 2 Bipolar Disorder.

“I was in a place where I was so paranoid and never really had an idea of whether or not my thought process was rational, and it resulted in me looking towards other people to reassure that it was, or state that it wasn’t,” she says. “I never discussed what was going on with anybody at the time, for a long time. But that made my self-confidence plummet, because I was constantly relying on other people’s reactions for decisions that I made.” She adds, with a laugh, “Every time I had to post something on the internet, I felt like I was gonna throw up.”

In the gap between ‘Losing’ and ‘Sugaregg’, Bognnano was commissioned to write the songs performed by fictional punk rocker Becky Something (played by Elisabeth Moss) in the Alex Ross Perry movie ‘Her Smell’, a brand new kind of project that was enriching for Bognanno in itself. But this in-between time was also marked by her decision to seek a proper treatment for her Bipolar Disorder, a decision which she now says changed her life completely.

“I don’t even know if I would still be here right now if I hadn’t taken those steps,” she says. “Being able to regain that confidence just did so much for me. I felt like I was able to go with my gut, I didn’t really care as much about what people thought, and I started to do things for me again, instead of being in the habit of doing things for everybody else.”

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This new-found confidence, for one, allowed for Bognanno to move on with Bully as a project of her own, without the bandmates she had previously worked with (though she adds that Bully’s previous members were always supportive - there’s no hint of bad blood). It also meant that, for the first time, she surrendered the record’s engineering and production to an outside collaborator in John Congleton, known for work with St Vincent and The Polyphonic Spree amongst numerous others.

“Before, I constantly felt like I had something to prove and I had to do everything, and I just let go of that. I was at a place where I was like, okay, I know I’m capable of doing this, I don’t need to show everybody else that I’m capable. Other people’s validation doesn’t speak for my capabilities.” The decision also freed Bognanno’s mind to focus solely on writing the record, without a secondary role to worry about. “With other records, I felt like the music was being sacrificed a little bit so that I could engineer the record, and vice versa. This record wasn’t about me engineering, it was about me writing. That made the process so much more enjoyable.”

To make the record, Bognanno, Congleton, their newly-assembled studio musicians (Dawes and drummer Wesley Mitchell) and Bognanno’s 11-year-old German Shepherd Mezzi spent two weeks of the summer at a residential studio in the Minnesota woods. They’d spend their downtime in the guesthouse, drinking on the large observation deck-style balcony or swimming in the indoor pool, while in the mornings Bognanno would walk Mezzi through the woods and along the creek outside.

The idyllic setting meshed well with Bognanno’s new state of mind, and ‘Sugaregg’ is a product of it. “There’s a light-heartedness to it that was lacking on the last record, and a little bit more character that was able to come through,” she says.

Avoiding the news as fuel for writing cleared her head even further. “I felt a heavy load left over from the last record being written and released during the time of Trump’s election; I just needed something else. I wanted to get more into my creative side, and to write about things that were reflective of what I would wanna sing every night. I’m really glad that this record and the singles are not really heavy songs, because I would definitely not wanna be releasing that into the world right now.”

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Instead, Bognanno mainly found herself looking inwards; most often, she says, she was writing about her relationship with herself more than those with other people. Singling out ‘Stuck In Your Head’ as one example, she explains: “It’s about questioning what you’re doing and how you feel about it, and if there’s a lot more out there that you should be opening your eyes to.” Meanwhile, on ‘Every Tradition’ and ‘Not Ashamed’ she expresses frustration with the gender roles society places on her. “I’m trying to convey that everybody wants different things, and to be seen as a human being instead of just a woman or just being seen as my gender.”

One thing worth noting about how Bully made ‘Sugaregg’ is that it eschews, if not directly challenges, the pervasive idea in culture that an artist is only as good as their most tortured moment. With conversations about mental health more honest than ever, it’s an idea that hopefully before long will be confined to the past; but there’s value in hearing for oneself how taking the steps to a better mental state allowed Bognanno the space to make a record that is so markedly full of life.

“[Poor mental health] is still romanticised,” Bognanno says. “It’s just so far from what it is. You don’t have to be totally suffering to make a good record.” She adds, “There is nothing beautiful about feeling like you can’t get through the day, or being so confused about what’s going on in your head and just feeling so trapped, and so stuck, and so alone. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, whether or not the result would be the best record.

“It was funny, I got asked the other day about whether or not I was hesitant to take medication because I was afraid that if I got better, it would make things boring or I would be less creative. And I remember originally thinking that, but it’s so far from the truth that I hadn’t even thought about that until they brought it back. [Medication] restarted me; it got me going again.” 

It’s obvious to any listener that ‘Sugaregg’ is Bully at their best. But, Bognanno says, what strikes her the most when she listens back to it is something that only she can really hear in its entirety: her own personal growth.

“I’m really proud of being brave enough to accept change and get outside of my comfort zone,” she says. “So many big decisions like that are so scary to make, but I don’t have the words to describe how it feels when you look back and reflect on the rut that you would have been in had you not made those changes. It doesn’t work all the time, but sometimes it’s exactly what you need, and I can hear that in the record. It’s just the best feeling in the world.”

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'SUGAREGG' is out now.

Words: Mia Hughes

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