Bully Has Nothing Left To Prove

In realising some truths about herself, Alicia Bognanno found the freedom to make one of the year's best indie rock records. Charlie Gunn meets the newly-solo Nashville artist to talk carving her own 'SUGAREGG'.

A sugaregg is a confectioner’s Fabergé. If you’re lucky enough to hold one, delicately, in your palm, a glance inside its perfect shell will reveal a scene so ornate and timeless, it could be passed down for generations – or gobbled up in a few bites.

Bully’s Alicia Bognanno has never possessed such a fondant treasure but after hearing a story about a man who kept his sugaregg in a box for decades, as proof that he had once made a friend, she adopted the idea for the title of her newest record. 

“It’s so sweet that he preserved such a small, fragile thing for so long; that it meant that much to him to move with him throughout his life.” she explains on the phone from her Nashville home. “I just liked the thought of that feeling being consistent with him for so many years.”

For Bognanno, the thing she’s kept with her the longest has been a love of music and its construction; not just the creativity of writing lyrics and melodies, but the nuts and bolts of a song, too. Trained in legendary producer Steve Albini’s school of audio engineering back home in the mid west, much of Bully lore was in Bognanno’s prowess in the studio – producing and engineering the band’s first two albums (2015’s ‘Feels Like’ and 2017’s ‘Losing’) as well as penning the lyrics and much of the music. But on approaching album number three and after a difficult few years, ‘SUGAREGG’ the record, is more about letting go than holding on to things.

For this album, Bully is now a solo project, with Bognanno’s former bandmates remaining on hand to record some parts but her otherwise taking complete creative control. In doing so, she’s relinquished engineering duties to a producer for the first time, allowing herself to focus entirely on the creation. As a woman in a business that is still so male-dominated, it can’t have been easy to let go. 

“I was very hesitant going into it. I thought I was going to be really devastated and it was going to be this whole dramatic thing, like giving away my baby,” she laughs. 

“Then we got into the studio and I was like, ‘I don’t give a shit what microphones you’re using, you do your thing. I have so much to focus on right now that I’m not going to micromanage it,’ and it was just great. I couldn’t imagine having to do both.”

Bully
Photo: AngelinaCastillo

What led her to this point were some personal struggles and a need for a reset. A diagnosis and acceptance of bipolar 2 disorder put an end to years of Bognanno feeling exhausted by an unknown something, looking to others to help make sense of her thoughts.

“It was at its peak during ‘Losing’”, she says of the disorder.Over that time, I wasn’t aware of whether or not I was thinking rationally, so I would turn to other people to validate my feelings. I didn’t tell anybody about it until now. It was such a huge part of my life, and it consumed so much of my time and energy and affected everything that I did. Being able to regain that confidence and not having to look to other people really made me a lot more open to make changes and take risks in a way that I didn’t think that I would be able to.”

Speaking openly about mental health is still an incredibly brave feat. Bognanno acknowledges the lingering stigma around all kinds of mental illness – but particularly “disorders” and our lack of understanding of them: the media’s recent handling of Kanye West being case in point.

“I had this fear that if I came out with it, then people would interpret decisions that I would make, if they’re abnormal, as like, ‘Oh, she’s just not thinking rationally,’ Bognanno admits, going on to detail some slightly tone-deaf reactions to her “coming out”. 

“One time it was just brushed off, or someone was like, ‘Oh, I would’ve never guessed that.’ It’s just like, ‘How the fuck would you have? You’re not in my brain. You don’t want to die when I want to die.’ You know what I’m saying? Like, ‘You have no idea.’ It’s just such a personal thing. While you’re there, you just feel so unrelatable, so telling it to somebody isn’t the first thing you’re going to do because it’s just going to make you feel even further away.”

HOW THE FUCK WOULD YOU KNOW HOW I WAS FEELING? YOU’RE NOT IN MY BRAIN. YOU DON’T WANT TO DIE WHEN I WANT TO DIE

ALICIA BOGNANNO, BULLY

Relief for the musician finally did come after various medication trials and attendance at a Nashville support group where for the first time, she heard others expressing the same thoughts and feelings she’d experienced.

“It blew my mind, because I had felt so alone in the whole process. I think you just get used to that. You just get used to thinking that there’s no one else you can really relate to, so telling it to somebody is just like, what’s it going to do anyway? Are you going to do the research to understand what that means? Probably not. You’re not going to know how it feels. If anything else, you’re just going to think I’m unstable.”

As a woman in a rock band Alicia Bognanno has faced it all – microaggressions from people doubting her technical know-how, the weight of feeling like she represents her gender, not just herself, in the studio and a general exhaustion at being constantly on the defence. 

“I’m always ready to stand up for myself because I know if something is said to me, then I’m going to blame it on myself for the next however many years, thinking about what I could have said. It’s the perpetual mind-fuck that we go through as women that really isn’t our duty to start with.

“My standard base level was always just a little bit uncomfortable. It was like I had to learn to be uncomfortable [as a woman], and it’s bullshit. I’m sorry, I swear a lot!”

MY STANDARD BASE LEVEL WAS ALWAYS JUST A LITTLE BIT UNCOMFORTABLE. IT WAS LIKE [AS A WOMAN] I HAD TO LEARN TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE – AND IT’S BULLSHIT

ALICIA BOGNANNO, BULLY

But despite all the undeniable bullshit, the person on the other end of the phone is resoundingly smart, chatty, chipper – no hint of bitterness about her experiences, just a weary acceptance at The Way Things Are. 

“I think constantly working around all men and no women, it’s easy to– I don’t really know how to explain it, let’s just say I feel a lot better when there’s at least one more woman in the touring party.”

Bully
Photo: AngelinaCastillo

‘SUGAREGG’ is a near-perfect indie rock album and surprisingly upbeat given the years that preceded it. It’s been called grunge – with Bognanno being likened in to Courtney Love more times than she can count (Blonde hair? Check. Guitar? Check.) – but those labels feel lazy. 90s influences are undoubtedly present – she even namechecked niche British outfit Chumbawamba as the inspiration behind single ‘Where To Start’ – but it has a punk spirit and a unique sound that is distinctly Bully – which these days, means distinctly Bognanno. 

‘I’m like, ‘I don’t get why people compare us to the 90s.’ Then I realise all I listen to is 90s rock, so it’s like, ‘Okay, probably that.’”

I’M LIKE ‘WHY DO PEOPLE COMPARE US TO THE 90S?’ THEN I REALISE ALL I LISTEN TO IS 90S ROCK

ALICIA BOGNANNO, BULLY

Lyrically, Bognanno is bold and uninhibited, tackling the issues we’ve spoken on in her music with a candour that only comes with deciding you no longer give a shit.  

It’s like pressure to have a baby when I don’t want one in my body/ you say my mind is gonna change one day/ but I’ve felt this way forever”, she screams on track, ‘Every Tradition’. Being told what you really think – despite yourself – is a familiar irritation that will resonate with women in all walks of life.

“I’m glad that I wrote about that,” Bognanno says. “Again, it’s like people thinking that they have any idea of how you feel. Why do you care? Why is this even an issue? For some reason, people still just want to police and control women’s bodies. You should be able to do what you want with your body. I am not just a woman, I am a human being and I’m not just my gender and what’s been expected of it stereotypically over the past however many years.”

If there were ever proof needed that women belong in rock music, this record is it. A cohesive, giant of an album that flits between raging guitars and melodic screams that rasp and wallop you in the face with the weight of their emotion: Bognanno’s abilities as a lyricist and musician are laid bare for all to see. From mental health, to broken relationships, it feels like a fierce shedding of the years of crap that had been weighing Bully down, but with the positivity of someone now able to laugh at how they once defined her.

Bully interview Alicia Bognanno
Photo: Angelina Castillo

“I hope that the record just gives people a little spark”, she chuckles. “Just a little bit of light in their day, and brings some sort of connection, but makes them feel whatever kind of cathartic release they can get out of it. Especially now, everything is so heavy, anything that could give you a small break – I would be honoured to give anybody that gift right now.”

However you’re coping in these strange times, there’s no doubt that music has the power to heal. It has for Bognanno and much like that sugaregg, let’s hope it’s a feeling that sticks around forever. 

‘SUGAREGG’ is out now via Sub Pop

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