Photo by Angelina Castillo
Even In Dark Times, Bully's Alicia Bognanno Is Embracing The Light On 'SUGAREGG'
Since Bully's inception, founder and sole full-time member Alicia Bognanno has felt expectations caving in around her. From critics and fans, Bognanno began to second-guess herself for fear of having to talk about a certain topic with the press or moving too far from the gnarled post-punk cliff she hurled herself off of on the band’s first two LPs, Feels Like and Losing. But after a mutual friend introduced Bognanno to director Alex Ross Perry, the Minnesota-born, Nashville-based songwriter earned the opportunity to write songs that Elisabeth Moss would sing in Perry's 2018 feature, Her Smell. At first, the prospect terrified her. She would think of audiences reacting to the film by saying, "the songs were the worst part of the movie," but the experience was ultimately cathartic and a way for Bognanno to relieve some of the pressure she had previously been so used to putting on herself.
The forced removal―a sort of ego death―of writing songs for someone else to sing influenced the way Bognanno approached her third Bully album, the brilliant, inimitable SUGAREGG. Normally the one to handle the recording and mixing of her records, Bognnano ceded control to John Congleton, who has worked with St. Vincent and The War on Drugs, among others. Bognanno also refused to let her vision of Bully's live show interfere with the writing and recording of the album. If she wanted three guitar parts on a song, f**k it, the live arrangement will be addressed when the tour begins. On the chorus of "Hours and Hours," Bognanno layers guitars higher than a Marshall stack.
Bognanno also worked hard to reframe her mindset, approaching typical Bully themes from a new perspective. Where she once would dwell on dysfunctional relationships and existential dread, she's instead infusing these topics with humor and a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach. Bognanno attributes this shift to a better mindstate and a desire to bring positivity to a world so desperately needing it. SUGAREGG is Bognanno's attempt at giving her fans a much-needed respite from the onslaught of tragedies, injustices and miscarraige of responsibility from those meant to protect us. "It's our duty to stay alert and it’s really a privilege to fully ignore the news," she explains, before adding, "but it’s also worth stepping away, because everybody deserves a healthy break."
When did you begin plotting SUGAREGG?
I really started writing it three years ago towards the end of Losing’s touring cycle. The only songs that ended up staying that long or throughout that process were "Prism" and "Come Down," which changed quite a bit in the time that they stuck around. After I ended that tour cycle I started writing for Her Smell, the movie. When I completed that I really dove into pivoting my focus to solely the third record.
Did working on that film inform the way you’d go about making the new Bully album or was that simply just a good dividing point between the end of the tour and working on the new album?
It was a nice way to get back into the writing process and really just get going again. It was a great exercise and opportunity to just focus on writing in general, whether or not it was for Bully. I wouldn’t say that it influenced the record but it definitely helped me pick things up.
What's it like not writing entirely for yourself? That must be a radical shift from music that you make purely for the goal of expressing what you want to be expressing.
Honestly, I enjoyed it so much. I loved the process. I hadn't really done anything like that before and I just really loved it. It was the first opportunity I got to do anything like that for someone else. It was cool to get out of my comfort zone and read the script, trying to figure out what was going on with the scene and the character. It was great to have a more specific scenario outside of Bully that I was catering to while writing. I hope to do more of it.
Obviously giving the control of mixing and mastering to someone else is different, but with this new album, you relinquished that. What went into that decision to be more hands-off in that way with SUGAREGG?
I was in a much better spot mentally and I had a little more responsibility to take on with this record as far as playing goes because I wasn't playing with some of the guys that I had played on the last two records with. I wanted to focus on the music and not be sacrificing anything. On previous records, I was sacrificing a little bit of my engineering skills to focus on the music and a little bit of the music side to focus on engineering.
I was ready to focus 110 percent on the record and try and be open-minded about it and creative throughout the process. I have to map out the sessions to the T. I map out what microphones I’m going to use, what pre-amps I’m going to use, everything, before I go in. Not having to do any of that preparation took so much off my plate.
I wasn't in a place anymore where I felt like I had to prove myself to everybody else. I recorded my first album because I wanted to prove it to myself. With the second one, I was doing it to stay consistent with the story of Bully or whatever you want to call it.
With this one, I said to myself, "You know what? I know I can make a record. I don't need to show anybody else that I can do that, now I'm going to do something for me as a writer and as a musician and let go of the responsibility." I think it was the best decision I've ever made for a record. It was by far my most enjoyable experience.
Was taking a step back and removing some of the pressure from yourself intentional or was that something you had to work towards? How did that come about in terms of loosening your grip on the entire process?
It came from just knowing that I was going to have to do all the guitars and everything. Doing it on tape is a whole different beast. There's just so much running around involved that it’s hard to stay present. It involves all of this direction that can be really frustrating because you can’t really just press record and go, you have to constantly be on point or you’ll erase over something. The thought of having to do all that just seemed like a little bit of a nightmare. Nothing ever comes of me staying in my comfort zone. It has never really worked that way in my life. It was time to change it up.
Lyrically, some of the themes do mirror that approach as well because there’s an optimism, whereas on earlier Bully records similar themes would be presented from a less positive POV. Do you feel more optimistic in general?
I’m in a better place and I was able to have more fun with things and write about what seemed like unhealthy, dramatic relationships in a playful way. It was like I was able to detach a little more into a storytelling side that I hadn’t been in before I think since "Trying" came out. I was put in this box of being so literal and so direct and just so cut and dry. I feel like I can have more fun with things now and I can paint some scenarios in my head of things that would happen or maybe have a piece of it be off of something that did happen and kind of write the rest of that story that wasn't finished. That really comes across for me on songs like "Let You," "Where to Start," and "You" where it’s as if I were to put together the ups and downs in my life through the lens of a relationship.
How do you balance that with the state of the world as this record is coming out? It's easy to fall back into negativity now.
We pushed the release of this record back as far as we could because it just felt insensitive. It got to the point where we just couldn’t push it back anymore for a lot of reasons. There’s so much that goes into releasing a record. I was just so thankful that I wasn’t releasing something dark. I mean there are dark parts to everything I write but in an upbeat way. I was just so happy. "Where to Start" is a really fun song and it’s upbeat and I just remember thinking when I had to release it, "Thank f**king god I’m not releasing 'Trash' or something." I love that song but I’m just digging for outlets to look for a little light right now. Everything I'm consuming is negative. I’m really big on podcasts and there was a month where I couldn’t even listen to podcasts because everything is about f**king COVID. I'm glad that those singles have the potential for somebody to have a little light.
Your music has been coined as extremely personal in the past, so it’s nice to look at it from an angle of how it could benefit other people as well. Is that something that you’ve always prioritized, or is that a development with this record in particular in the way that the audience will receive the music?
There's nothing I love more than the connection that people who listen to Bully have with the songs. That’s the best thing to me, that’s what music is supposed to do for you: It’s supposed to make you feel a little bit less alone or give you the feeling that someone understands you. Going into the second record, though, I was really paranoid about how it would be perceived or being cool.
With this record, I wrote it for myself. I found myself kind of censoring my lyrics for what I did and didn’t want to talk about in the press after the fact. Like, "I’m really not writing what I want to write because I know I’m gonna be asked about that?" That’s awful, that’s the antithesis of how you should be creative. It’s a terrible idea. I sat down with this one and I didn't write it for anybody except myself. But I wrote it with the hope that people connect with it. At the end of the day, though, it’s for me.
What was it like returning to your home state for this record, going back to Minnesota? What was the prevailing feeling going back home to record it?
You’re actually the first person who’s asked me about that, which is surprising. It was so crazy. When Ryan, my manager, brought up the idea, I loved the idea of going back home to write because I don’t have any family anymore in Minnesota. I have no immediate family there. I have a few relatives there, and I have always wanted to go back but I never really had much of a reason to go back.
The idea of tracking a record there was just kind of a trip. The studio was perfect, it was outside, I could bring my dog, it was in the woods. It seemed very appropriate for the record. I thought I was hours away from Rosemount, Minnesota, where I grew up and I got to the studio and the studio manager was like, "You’re 20 minutes way from where you grew up." It was such a trip. It felt good. It was comforting in a way.
Were there any explicit differences you wanted to accomplish in making this album as opposed to any other Bully albums? Was there anything you wanted to do that you’d never done before?
I just really didn’t want to be concerned at all about what people think. When I first started writing, before anything really happened with Bully, I was 100 percent doing what I thought was cool, whether or not people were going to shit on it.
This was definitely the first time I felt like I was back in this place. On songs like "Hours and Hours" where there are so many noises and I have little voicemail clips here and there, it feels like it’s mine. I don’t want to say it was taken away from me but I did let go because I was just insecure because that the Bully stuff was public and people were actually listening.
With this one, I just wanted to make sure that I was really experimenting with what I wanted to for myself. I can definitely hear that in some of the songs. I don’t know if anyone else would be able to tell by listening to it, but when I listen back to it, I can hear a little bit of growth, which is always the goal...I think.