If you distilled Bully’s discography into one single message it would probably be: I am just trying to be sane right now. Fronted by Alicia Bognanno, an engineer and former intern for veteran rock audio engineer Steve Albini (PJ Harvey, Nirvana, The Pixies), the Nashville band always cuts right to the chase, exploring pent-up rage and frustration on rock songs that typically clock in at just around two minutes.
With Bognanno writing lyrics about praying for her period and tearing through songs with the kind of scream that would surely make a less resilient performer voiceless, Bully emerged as a perfectly scrappy, confrontational band to put on when you feel like you’re in a tornado of self-doubt. And their new album, optimistically titled Losing, is cut from the same cloth as their first, wrestling with anxiety, lack of productivity, sobriety and more. “Do you feel nothing?” Bognanno screams, in the middle of the song “Kills To Be Resistant.”
If the music sounds too gloomy, Bognanno certainly is not in person. Jezebel spoke to her about how writing Losing helped her work through anxiety, her career as an engineer, and why maybe the next Bully record will actually be happy.
JEZEBEL: What kind of place were you in when you first started writing this record?
ALICIA BOGNANNO: The band just went right to work because we got to the point where we knew we needed to start writing the record. We didn’t feel like it was going to happen if we were still juggling shows. I’m definitely impatient in that way. We pulled the plug on tour, everyone went back to Nashville, and then I wrote out of my small house where I have a music room. I live alone so the whole situation was honestly just incredibly isolating [laughs.] Then while we were in the studio the whole election happened. So all the songs are a bit sad.
A lot of your music, especially on this record, wrestles with anxiety and stress. Where does the anxiety on this album come from?
That’s just something that I feel like I have tried to figure out forever now. That’s honestly where a lot of the songwriting comes from, is that anxiousness and self-doubt. I stay at home a lot when we are in town and I don’t like going out because often times if I go out I’ll over think things. I’ll have a drink and think about it for a month. I think this is maybe the first time in my life where I’ve realized a lot of the stuff that goes in my mind probably isn’t normal and is something I can overcome? I think coming out of this record I realized, I should just probably talk to somebody [laughs.] I would consider myself to be a competent person, I don’t think I’m a failure, but I think I’m a lot harder on myself than the average human being. That can be a little bit of a mindfuck.
On this record, you sing about constantly trying to stay focused, trying to stay off booze, trying to feel something that isn’t nothing. How much is exploring your own failure of interest to you in songwriting?
It does feel like if I were to reflect on the record it’s coming from this place where I’m kind of stuck and trying to figure out to overcome it. I’m definitely a pessimist. Even throughout the record cycle people think it’s so exciting, this is so awesome I can’t wait to get this song out, but I freak out. It’s like my worst nightmare. I’m like, what if everybody hates it? Which is stupid because it doesn’t matter since I worked really hard on it. I don’t read Youtube comments because I know if I did I would be crying for a month! [Laughs]
You started writing material for Bully back when you were 22. Now you’re 27. That’s not a huge amount of time, but the ages feel worlds apart to me, and I wonder how it’s changed your songwriting.
I think the goal when I was 22 was, and not to dismiss the music at all, but just being able to tour or be able to make a record was unbelievable. But things that worked for the first [record] as far as songwriting goes just bored me in a way this time. Starting with two chords and going from there... it was a lot simpler and a lot of times it was really quick. This record I wanted to give [myself] just a little bit more space. Something you pick up on playing live is that if you’re a front person, and you write all these songs where you’re constantly singing, you have no space to move around or enjoy the show a little bit, so that was in the back of my head. That duty of being strapped to a mic, you want to move!
On “Guess There” you sing, “the truth is, that unproductivity haunts me, because I hate feeling useless.”
Which is so true. Also, something that’s funny, which I probably shouldn’t be saying, but nobody knew if that was a word or not. I was like I swear it’s a word and googled it, but during practice everyone was like Alicia what are you saying, I don’t think that’s a word? I was like it’s fine.
Is that line about writing songs?
I always want to be working, always. If I’m not working i’m not going to get anywhere. I like staying busy. I think I work a lot better and can appreciate my free time if I keep staying busy. It takes me a very long time to write a song, which is weird because I think if you listen to [my music] it’s the most basic lyrics and you’re like, how the hell did that take you a long time. But I don’t want to write something stupid. Also, we record to tape and studio time is expensive so we don’t really have the luxury of recording fifty songs. I’m a slow writer. I like to be able to sit with it too. I think I’ll write a song and be super into it and then a month later I’ll be like, oh this song is garbage.
Regarding tape, you’re a very pro-analog person, you went to intern for Steve Albini because everything’s done on tape, and I know you’re not inclined to use programs like Ableton. Is the rarity of that set-up in most studios, or the fact that most artists don’t record that way, something that ever bums you out?
No, because I think my wanting to use tape is particularly from an engineer standpoint. That’s what I prefer. I’m not completely married to the sound of tape, to me it’s like sometimes you can hear it, sometimes you can’t. I think it’s not as night and day as people saying oh I love that sound of tape. I doesn’t bum me out because I understand a new reel of ATR two inch tape is like $350 so it’s expensive stuff and some people just don’t have the budget. Also working with tape machines in general, they’re old machines. They require a certain parts and pieces to them and you can’t always find that, so I totally get it.
What does frustrate me is people going into making records digitally and it’s not even something they played. [When] the engineer is like manipulating something into something that was never played live to make them sound like better musicians…
It can be weird.
Yeah and I don’t want to say that’s bullshit but it’s kind of like, don’t you want this to be an active representation of you guys as a band?
You got into music through this more behind-the-scenes work and now you’re more of a public person. Has that transition been difficult?
When I make a record, I can’t gauge what people like. I have no idea. All of my favorite songs will be everyone else’s least favorite songs. So I feel like anytime I come up with something or I want the first song on the record to be “Focus,” everyone’s like what the fuck are you talking about, that’s a four minute song with no structure. So that adds to it, but I’ve always been worried. It can be self sabotaging. You create this thing that’s so personal but then you have to put it out because you want it to do well. People can say, who gives a fuck! Who gives a fuck what people think! But it’s so much easier said than done.
Do you feel like your engineering background has made you more of a perfectionist or more meticulous in terms of what you put into a song?
I definitely feel like I’m more prepared when I go in. I have my mics and my preamps and everything so I can map out what I know exactly what I’m supposed to do when I’m in there. But I would almost say [my background] does the opposite because I like to think I don’t sweat the small things as much. I really like natural mishaps that happen on records. Every once in awhile, if you’re listening to an old recording and a note isn’t hit correctly, I appreciate that because it’s showing that they didn’t alter it to make it something that didn’t really happen. I don’t hit notes and I can 100% look back and think I tried as hard as I could and that was the best I could do! And that’s it.
There’s definitely been an ongoing conversation about production and engineering and how few women there are in it. I think there are like five percent of people working in audio are women.
That’s so crazy.
Is that something you’re thinking about often?
Oh totally. It makes sense to me because I went to fucking college with one other woman in my class, it’s totally discouraging. It sucks. I think for me, walking into a class and there’s one other woman, whether I’m being paranoid or not, there’s this overwhelming consensus that we’re going to do the worst in the class. I think when people think of an engineer, they think of a white dude with a ponytail and a hat and that’s it. I don’t think about it as much because I work with so many really bad ass women who do their own production.
You get into your circle.
From my perspective when I hear people talk about women in music it’s like, what do you mean? The only people I know doing rock music are women. So I think it’s the same as far as engineering goes. There needs to be more women in that environment period so that it’s not as uncomfortable for everyone. I don’t like working with anyone else in the room that doesn’t need to be there because I get self-conscious. That’s a big reason why I want to do our own records, is because I don’t want a stranger in the room controlling the sound while I’m trying to be creative. I already have my guard up. I dare [men] to test me. I feel the same when we play shows. The sound guy goes to the engineers and introduces himself first and I’ll barge in like, I’m Alicia and I will tell you everything.
You live and work in Nashville, but it’s not necessarily a place the general public maybe associates with great rock music as opposed to country. Do you ever feel like there are certain aspects of Nashville’s music industry that get overlooked?
I think, and my opinion is totally mine since I’ve only been in Nashville for five years, my whole existence there has been awesome. As long as I’ve been in Nashville there’s been a really solid rock scene. And just the process of country music versus rock music is so different.
I think since we record in Chicago and we practice outside of my house, it’s like living in a little bubble. I’m not into country music, I never have been. That whole idea of having, and I know I’m going to make some enemies saying this but it’s how I feel, a bunch of other people writing together for someone else to sing is exactly the opposite of how I feel [about music.] I also hate it when you meet someone and they’re like, oh what do you do and you’re like I’m in a band and you hate yourself. You’re like I hate myself for this. Everyone’s moving there for music.
You’ve said before that you’re pessimist. Do you ever feel pressure to write happier music?
I do for myself, I definitely do. I don’t want to be a pessimist. It really is clear that I’m overthinking things, nobody is going to attack me the way I think people think they are, and I don’t mean to sound dramatic. I think the third record, and anyone on Bully’s team would probably say why are you talking about the third record Alicia the second record isn’t out yet, but I’m already thinking like I just want to get lighter with it. Sometimes I’m like okay you just need to take a breather and write about something more positive. I don’t need to scream over everything.