Bully: Self-Preservation

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Bully’s Alicia Bognanno has a lot going on for her. Armed with a powerful voice, sharp riffs, and an engineering background famously honed at Steve Albini’s studio, it’s no surprise that her 2015 album Feels Like was one of the year’s finest debuts. But no one really has it all, and it’s this universal truth that comes through on Bully’s latest album Losing.

Finding a new home on Sub Pop, the grunge-indebted act continues to capture life in a constant state of flux. “I feel like I’ll take forever just to get a little better,” Bognanno sings on “You Could Be Wrong,” a thread that’s woven throughout the album, from opener “Feel The Same” to the self-improvement anthem “Focused.” While she often writes about restlessness, what she puts on record is a concrete declaration of growth.

“Certain ways I had written before were becoming a little boring to me,” Bognanno says. “I just wanted to change it up, and I think that was the result of me wanting to challenge myself a little more and challenge myself in the direction of songwriting. There’s more going on with the guitars and the songs are longer, and there’s more space in the vocals.”

The nonstop touring that followed Bully’s first album gave Bognanno plenty of time to reflect on her work, as well as start crafting the building blocks that became Losing.

“I don’t want to stick in the same place anywhere, as a songwriter or guitar player,” she says. “When you’re on tour, you’re playing the same songs every night, and you just want to grow, because otherwise, what’s the point? I think that’s always been in the back of my mind, and coming off of about a year and a half of touring, I knew I wanted to take a different approach, make my brain work a little bit differently, and see what comes out of it.”

While Bognanno is no stranger to changing things up, already thinking about engineering techniques for her next album, one thing is a constant: recording to tape at Electrical Audio, the Chicago studio owned by Albini.

“I prefer that method because it’s a lot more physical to me, and I don’t really like working at a computer,” she says. “I don’t like it just freezing up and the answer is to shut it down and restart it — that’s frustrating to me. I like being forced to commit a little bit more and not having endless options and honing in and working with the tracks that you have. It’s really easy to get carried away when you’re working with something like ProTools and the possibilities are endless.”

Her hands-on approach comes through in her songwriting, too. While she’s expanded on the punk brevity of Feels Like, on tracks like “Milkman,” that characteristic sense of urgency is back and stronger than ever. Bognanno’s cathartic scream takes center stage in “Seeing It,” a song that addresses sexual assault in the music industry.

“It’s going through that process of the first time you hear that somebody you knew was accused of that and not being able to recognize that person anymore,” she describes.

It’s a dark sentiment that’s sure to be familiar to many listeners, but Bognanno’s cautiously optimistic outlook pushes for a brighter future.

“It feels really good to play live, and it’s definitely one of the heaviest ones of the record,” she says. “I think it needs to be brought up, I think it’s important, and I think it’s something we hear about all the time, being in a band and also just being music lovers.”

Losing is a record that could only be made in the turbulence of 2017, when the quest for personal wellness has risen as a natural antidote to social and political unrest. Album closer “Hate And Control” was penned immediately after the 2016 Presidential election, translating despair into some of Bully’s sludgiest riffs yet.

“It’s a diary of how I was feeling as a woman throughout that moment,” she says. “I felt terrible, really discouraged, and it was unbelievable.”

Clocking in at over four minutes, the result is sprawling and ambitious by Bully’s standards, pairing bulldozer guitars with Bognanno’s vocals at their most vulnerable.

“I think when you write a song, most musicians just end up writing about something that’s bothering them or bums them out or is on their mind constantly, and that election was definitely on my mind,” she says. “How could it not be right now? I think it’s going to creep into any record that comes out recently, because it’s such a huge thing that’s made such a big impact on everybody.”

Though Bognanno asks, “Will I lose my voice completely?” she’s not about to surrender. She’s taking care of herself, even if no one else will.

“I drink a lot of tea, and I like to sleep,” she says of staying healthy on tour. “I’d say in general, less partying, less coffee, which is really a bummer.”

This article appears in the November/December print edition, on newsstands November 14.

Fishman Triple Play Wireless MIDI Guitar Controller and EastWest Sound Libraries review

Hear Two Soulful New Tracks From Country Up-And-Comer Maggie Rose