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Even In Dark Times, Bully's Alicia Bognanno Is Embracing The Light On 'SUGAREGG'

Bully

Photo by Angelina Castillo

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Even In Dark Times, Bully's Alicia Bognanno Is Embracing The Light On 'SUGAREGG'

The gravel-voiced singer, songwriter and guitarist opens up about heading home to Minnesota, leaning into a more positive mindset on her third album, writing music for Elisabeth Moss and more

GRAMMYs/Aug 22, 2020 - 03:00 pm

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.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Ice-T In 1993

Photo by David Corio/Redferns

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2020 - 10:06 pm

In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.

It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause. 

While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "F**k the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.

Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.

Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.

Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.  

That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter [2014] was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust [2017] was our Ride The Lightningand Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."

He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.

Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too f**king late."

His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."