Alicia Bognanno of Bully


Alicia Bognanno is ten years into a career writing and producing music and yet sometimes, imposter syndrome still creeps in. Tyler Kelly meets the woman behind Bully as she battles anxiety to embark on her first solo tour.

PHOTOS: Bobbi Rich


When The Forty-Five meets with Alicia Bognanno, she has just finished sound-checking for the final show of Bully’s three-night residency in London.

Following an afternoon strolling around Camden – a place synonymous with musical history – we’re now sat in the dimly lit basement of east London music venue, The Shacklewell Arms. White brick walls are covered in graffiti from up-and-coming bands cementing their place in history. Since 2012, the venue has seen the likes of HAIM, Fontaines D.C., and Amyl and the Sniffers grace its stage. Though she’s been releasing music as Bully for almost a decade, Bognanno still doubts herself – even now, as she wraps up her debut solo tour.

“If I’m playing a Bully show, being up there is the most confident and authentic that I’ve ever felt in my life. Playing solo is the exact opposite,” she admits. “Everything musical that I do has been self-taught. I’ve spent many years being insecure about starting later in life, and even just playing guitar. When you strip it down to just me, it’s really nerve-racking. My inner dialogue is awful to myself, and there’s a sense of imposter syndrome that I’m going to blow my cover.”

On stage, Bognanno is open about her anxieties. Before playing ‘A Wonderful Life’, which features on her fourth studio album ‘Lucky For You’ – released in June – she recalls being nervous at a festival. “I kept fucking [the song] up and didn’t recover. I bent over to touch my pedals, hit my head on the mic, and it was the loudest thing ever.” In a comical twist of fait accompli, after playing ‘Trying’ from her debut album ‘Feels Like’, Bognanno hits her guitar on the microphone and dissonant feedback rings out. She can’t help but laugh: “This is supposed to be my comeback! I need a break from these embarrassing moments”.

Bully’s solo tour was originally scheduled for earlier this year. She made it to Europe, but had to cancel the tour after playing just two shows. Expecting an explanation about her struggles with anxiety, it’s a surprise when Bognanno bursts into laughter and reveals she was so stressed and nervous that she gave herself shingles. “I woke up in Amsterdam and it felt like I got hit by a car because of the nerve pain. It’s funny but not funny – shingles is what 50-year-olds get! If I’m feeling stressed and anxious, my body shuts down – I literally worked myself sick,” she chuckles.

Alongside the physical stress it brings her, Bognanno touches on the issues with touring overseas. Simply put: it’s too expensive. “Even just me coming over here solo, I break even – I don’t even profit. Touring in America is currently a struggle to due to inflation.” Bognanno says that it hasn’t been the same since the pandemic. Despite a few hiccups, including her guitarist bailing on the tour just 40 hours before they were meant to fly, this has been her favourite trip to London, so far.

Between shows at The Old Blue Last and Folklore, Bognanno has had time to explore the city and revel in the pinnacles of British culture such as staying in a Travelodge and eating Greggs with her touring bassist, Nick. “I feel like I needed to try [a solo tour] before saying that it’s something I can’t or don’t want to do. After doing this for ten years, the whole thing is an experiment to see which situations I can put myself in, and how I come out of it. The most growth I’ve ever had has been from situations where I’m throwing myself into something totally new. If I never did that, I would still be in Rosemount, Minnesota.”

Bully’s latest album, ‘Lucky For You’, is rooted in loss – both familial and Bognanno’s relationship with herself. ‘Hard To Love’ finds self-acceptance after never feeling as though she identified with any gender or sexuality. ‘Lose You’ – the collaboration with Soccer Mommy – deliberates the passage of time, and ‘All I Do’ is a love letter to her best friend, her dog Mezzi who passed away two years ago. Album closer ‘All This Noise’ is an expulsion of rage at the patriarchy, and the lack of empathy in the world. It echoes previous tracks, ‘Where To Start’ and ‘Every Tradition’, but Bognanno consciously chose not to lead the album with it because she knew it would’ve been a talking point, similar to bandmate-gate on ‘SUGAREGG’.

“So many things happened: the leak of the document overturning Roe v. Wade; another fucking mass shooting, because there are mass shootings almost every day in America; and a lot of personal stuff too,” she says, explaining the situations which bled into the song. “I know if I have songs that are political, it’s really easy for people to pick them and make the whole record about it. I love talking about it, but losing Mezzi was so life-changing and altering for me, and I wanted to pay my respects,” she says of the grief that is clearly present throughout ‘Lucky For You’.

“I always connected with animals because I was never very good at school. I had very bad ADHD, and when you’re little, you don’t have the resources or dialogue to understand what’s going on. Animals have unconditional acceptance,” Bognanno says of her bond with Mezzi. “I was a creepy kid with dog pictures all over my room. As soon as I moved out of the dorms, I got Mezzi and she toured with me, made records with me, and went through the most pivotal points in my life – she was with me from when I was 19 to 32!”

I always connected with animals because I was never very good at school. I had very bad ADHD, and when you’re little, you don’t have the resources or dialogue to understand what’s going on. Animals have unconditional acceptance.

Alicia Bognanno, Bully

Since Mezzi’s passing, Bognanno spends her days with her sidekick pooch Papa, and has also been fostering other dogs. Bognanno describes Papa as “the king of the house” who bullies those that she adopts, even though they’re often German Shepherds and Great Pyrenees’ who are double the size of him. “Papa and Mezzi had an insane bond. He was like her baby kangaroo, physically touching her all the time. When Mezzi passed, I figured that Papa wanted a friend, but I’ve realised he doesn’t,” she laughs. Animated as she shares more on Papa’s personality, she adds: “The craziest thing is he came from such a bad situation, but you give him an inch and he takes a mile. He literally went from rags to riches – he has a bed in every single room but he will also sleep on my bed with his head on a pillow, sideways like a human.”

‘How dare a woman do this by herself? Who else is behind it?’ – You hear stuff like that it’s no wonder you have to work on your confidence.

Alicia Bognanno, Bully

On her third album, 2020’s ‘SUGAREGG’, Bognanno was open about receiving treatment for her Bipolar II disorder. The album touched on mental health, having autonomy over your body as an AFAB person, and finding the confidence to live by your own rules. She’d always written and produced Bully’s music prior to ‘SUGAREGG’, but decided to take step back, enlisting John Congleton (St. Vincent, Sleater-Kinney) and Graham Walsh (Alvvays, Metz) to help with mixing and engineering. Alongside this act of surrender, the main talking point back then, became about Bully ditching her bandmates. But Bully has always been a solo project. “It’s like it makes them sick to their stomach. ‘How dare a woman do this by herself? It can’t be that way. Who else is behind it?’ – You hear stuff like that, and it’s no wonder you have to work on your confidence.”

Bognanno is aware that as a woman in music, she has to push harder than her peers to be acknowledged. “My existence in the music industry is drastically different than any dude’s existence. I can guarantee that because I have friends who are in it,” she says, recalling a recent conversation she had with LA rock band, Militarie Gun. “We were talking about how everyone’s like, ‘I guess Bully switched from a band to a solo project’ and how the other half of people just don’t even acknowledge that it is a solo project. I’ve been working for ten years to be given credit as a solo artist – nothing has ever changed, but people refuse to accept that,” she says, visibly frustrated. Referencing an Instagram post where she revealed that thinking about playing solo triggers how she feels about walking into music shops, she continues: “Coming up in engineering, and musically, I’ve always felt I had to prove myself just to be accepted or treated as an equal. I feel like I can’t exist in a setting that is particularly male-dominated – I have to prove myself”.

My existence in the music industry is drastically different than any dude’s existence – I can guarantee it

Alicia Bognanno, Bully

There was a period of time when Bognanno was afraid to sing at soundcheck because she was the only woman in the room, and felt uncomfortable. Now, she has no tolerance for people judging her. “I hate that I’m going to admit this, but the sound person for the second show acted as though he didn’t really want to be there,” she confesses. “I’m a 33-year-old grown ass woman who has made four records – engineered, mixed and produced two of them – and immediately I felt my body caving in and feeling insecure. It was like, ‘What are you doing? Stop! Who gives a fuck about that person? You cannot let that have so much power over you’, but it’s so ingrained in my past and I also used to get it from bandmates.”

The past two years haven’t been without their struggles, but with the unconditional acceptance from both her four-legged friends, and the supporters of her music, Bognanno feels fulfilled. Herself and producer JT Daly still talk daily and are “hungry” to step it up for the next project. “In America, there’s not a lot of space for rock bands. IDLES and Fontaines D.C. come over and are massive. Shame does well, but I don’t know, maybe I’m not doing that well,” she shrugs, jokingly. “I’m trying to read the room in the music world to see what’s taking off and what’s not. It’s an interesting challenge to see how far I can take this.”

Bully refuses to create anything she doesn’t like, in order to sell herself. “It feels like a lot has been acknowledged with this record – I’m getting respect in a way that I haven’t had before.” Between albums, Bognanno keeps busy with other projects, from engineering the 2019 Her Smell movie soundtrack and the 2022 album ‘Bleed Out’ by Mountain Goats, to featuring on the soundtrack of TV show, The Buccaneers. In the future, she’d like to write music for movies. The most important thing – more than any kind of accolade – is that she has the ability to create.

“Nothing is set up for you to win. You’re constantly taking blows and getting back up again, but it’s just part of the game. I love nothing more than making music – I can’t even imagine existing without it – so I’ll just see how far I can go until I break,” she deadpans. “I was saying to JT the other day, it’s unfortunate that you’d have to cut off my arms and legs for me not to play music. Even then I would still do it. Maybe I wouldn’t release it publicly, but it’s my outlet and all I’ve ever cared about.”

Bully will next play in London in November 2024. Get tickets now.