For Bully, Indie Success Feels Like Raw Lyrics and Raging Riffs
Alicia Bognanno of Bully
Photo by Daniel Topete
Much like the achy condition for which it was named, it's hard to get "Brainfreeze" out of your head. The track appeared on a self-titled EP from Nashville grunge-pop outfit Bully over a year ago, and the band's tireless touring, as well as the release of follow-up single "Milkman," have kept them on indie rock radars with a certain breathless anticipation for a debut full-length. That LP, Feels Like, finally drops in June, and it's not just the infectious Nineties-alt-inflected gems that will have people talking. Bully are about to be a big deal in large part because their lead singer, Alicia Bognanno, defies expectations.
For instance, you'd think that with a connection to prolific producer Steve Albini — whose credits include albums from the Pixies, Superchunk, Nirvana, Joanna Newsom, and many, many more — Bully would jump at the chance to work with him on their debut record. But Bognanno, who interned at his famed recording studio, Electrical Audio, before forming the band, opted to engineer it herself. We spoke to her over the phone ahead of Bully's return to Baby's All Right on April 29, and she says it never really crossed her mind to ask for Albini's input because she already knew how she wanted things to sound.
"When I went back there [to record Feels Like], he had a session in the other studio," she recalls nonchalantly. "I talked to him during breaks, but it was just like, 'Hey, how've you been?' When I was [interning] there it was [from] an engineering point of view, so I didn't even say, 'I'm trying to write music, too!' It was just picking up where we left off, saying hi to everybody."
Unlike most musicians who start out strumming and move on to engineering later in their careers, Bognanno's began behind a console. "When I was in high school, music was something I was always really interested in, but...I didn't really have a lot of access to instruments or anything," she explains. "There was a class offered my senior year and it was a really basic studio class....I took to that because [I thought] if I figured out how to do that, I would get closer to being able to make music."
In college, she became interested specifically in analog recording, an art that's increasingly scarce as more producers opt for digital methods. "It just made a lot more sense," she says. "It was a lot more intuitive to me than working on ProTools and doing everything digitally. It's more of a physical thing, doing everything on the machines and mixing on a console instead of staring at a screen for twelve hours at a time."
Likewise, Bognanno had a straightforward approach to putting Feels Like together. "I just wanted to have a record that we can also replicate live, so it's a pretty standard two-guitars-bass-drums [arrangement], not any crazy keyboards that kick in or anything that you wouldn't see in a live performance," she says. "I just kind of had that in mind while tracking and mixing it." And it's live where Bully really shine. Though their sound is decidedly distorted and bristling with wild energy, Bully's onstage delivery is airtight and hits that much harder for it. "If we're gonna go out there for months at a time and play shows, you might as well play it the best you can, you know? You might as well be prepared," Bognanno reasons. "So we do practice a lot. A lot a lot."
Bully's sound is associated with a musical moment that recalls flannel and slacking and hyper-casual attitudes. But that's another way that Bognanno skirts convention, preferring to deal with her own awkward thoughts and emotions directly instead of bathing them in lyrical metaphors.
"I'm such a sensitive person," she reveals. "I don't like that about myself, because I feel way too many feelings all the time and it kind of drives me crazy. But it's also what a lot of these songs are about — feelings that are going on inside of me."
She also notes that the emotional lyrics help her connect with audiences night after night. "If I wasn't doing that, then I couldn't [perform] every night in a real way. I would just be phoning it in. If you write something that's personal that's going on, then you don't have to try and pull from somewhere else to make it a good show. It's really happening; it's something that you really care about, and you connect with it naturally."
That's acutely represented on the newest songs from Feels Like: "I Remember" wistfully vignettes minute details from a soured relationship, while "Trying" sees Bognanno attempting to cauterize her own self-doubt. She doesn't shy away from broaching topics that don't often make their way into dude-dominated alternative rock, singing the line "I've been praying for my period all week" as matter-of-factly as if she were singing about waiting for a bus instead. It's not because her anxieties about everything, from her sexuality to her "stupid degree," aren't huge — their crushing nature is front and center in Bognanno's wailing chorus. But these doubts and fears are also commonplace, particularly for young women. "It was [awkward] the first couple times. I just kind of mumbled through it," Bognanno says. "And then I was like, I'm just gonna own it, because who cares? It's just one of those things. Maybe it's not talked about all the time, but it happens. It doesn't bother me anymore, and now it's fun for me, especially if people are feeling a little uncomfortable."
There are probably some showgoers who don't even catch what she's saying; her voice is powerful, but it has to contend with layers of shredded riffs and relentless drumbeats. So there's a dual catharsis there: Bognanno is free to dig deep and exorcise her darkest thoughts, but can also let loose and party with a roomful of fans. "For any of the stuff that gets frustrating during the day, it's nice to be able to just kind of play it out at night. It feels so good," she says, refusing to let Bully's hectic touring schedule overwhelm her. "When people are losing their minds [at a show], it's really fun. Having people mosh is like the best compliment you can get."
Bully play Baby's All Right April 29 with Slothrust. The show is sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.
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