Bully’s Alicia Bognanno leads the Nashville band’s charge from both sides of the studio glass 

click to enlarge BULLY - ALYSSE GAFKJEN
  • ALYSSE GAFKJEN
  • BULLY

The sophomore album from Nashville-based grunge quartet Bully was released in October to no shortage of press and reviews. Losing is also the band’s debut on the famous Sub Pop record label after its first LP Feels Like was released summer 2015 on Columbia Records.

Much of that initial press was positive, and rightfully so. Publications praised Bully vocalist, guitarist, producer and founder Alicia Bognanno for her work on both sides of the studio glass. Losing was tracked over just a few months at legendary producer Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studios in Chicago. Bully’s music is particularly known for the Minnesota native’s trademark shouting vocals layered with plenty of gritty rasp.

However, Bognanno gives her best effort not to get caught up in what others have written. To her, the music is a reflection of her individual creative spirit, a piece of herself that she is kind enough to share with the world.

“I try not to read reviews ever,” Bognanno said in an Oklahoma Gazette phone interview. “I’ll read big ones when they come out to get a general sense of how it was received. After that, I don’t really look too much into it because I want to keep making music that I like.”

Bully performs with special guest Melkbelly 10 p.m. Friday at Opolis, 113 N. Crawford Ave., in Norman. Admission to the all-ages show is $12-$14.

Bognanno said Losing is exactly the record the band set out to make. To her, that is success enough. The thoughts and words of someone else — positive or negative — shouldn’t change that.

In fact, Bognanno said they could even hamper her creativity.

“I feel like once I start reading too much into things, I’ll cater things to make someone else happy,” she said. “I’m not really playing music for that purpose.”

The purpose that Bognanno does play for is a deep-seeded passion for music at all its levels.

Production passion

Bognanno wanted to work in the music industry for as long as she could remember; not just as a singer or musician, but in any way she could contribute to the creative or technical side of things.

Before she was recording albums at Albini’s Electrical Audio studio, Bognanno was a production intern there. She wanted to learn analog tape production, and there is no better place to learn than under masterful Albini, known for his work with Nirvana, Pixies, Superchunk and more.

“Recording analog just makes a lot more sense to me,” she said. “It’s more of a physical process than staring at a computer screen.”

Bognanno said she was persistent in her pursuit of the internship. She emailed and called as much as she could until she finally secured an interview with the studio’s intern coordinator.

“I kept bugging them,” she said. “I just kept touching base and following up in the months leading up to it and making sure it was still happening.”

Though women make up much of music’s talent in front of the microphone, there is a large gender disparity in production and songwriting at the industry’s highest levels. Female producers like Bognanno are a rarity. No woman has ever won a Grammy for Producer of the Year.

A lack of representation has never been a deterrent for Bognanno. Her current production work is limited to Bully releases, but she is still passionate about pursuing the technical side of her craft. In the future, she would like to produce records outside her own band’s work.

“Most of the time, I’m pretty swamped with Bully stuff,” she said, “but if the right opportunity came along, I’d totally be open to doing it.”

Diverse tone

A lot of Bully’s music is distinctive in that it can feel upbeat and aggressive while also pleasantly soothing at nearly simultaneous moments. Songs that eventually turn heavy will also feature pretty, dueling guitars. It is a sound that especially feels appropriate on Losing, an album with lyrical themes about change and coming of age.

“In the songs, there’s a lot of emotional pull and back and forth,” Bognanno said. “The music sometimes just replicates that subconsciously.”

The vocalist’s goal is not necessarily to write personal, introspective lyrics, though they often are. Instead, Bognanno focuses on making sure each song makes sense as a whole.

Bognanno tries to write under a single theme on each song to avoid jumbled ideas and give each piece special meaning. The best way to keep on top of that is to write what feels familiar, and that usually means going into her own life in some way.

“It just ends up being more personal because I’m trying to make sure I understand what I’m saying and what I mean when I’m writing lyrics,” she said.

Most of Bully’s songs are written in the music room of Bognanno’s Nashville home. The room is nothing special, just a small space where the band practices and keeps its gear.

Still, songwriting could occur at any time or place. Bognanno will sometimes write on the road or at a moment when she just happens to have her guitar with her. It can be very spontaneous.

“A lot of times, songs will come about in random cities if I’m feeling inspired,” she said. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s true.”

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Self-maintenance

Bognanno said Bully’s 2018 plans are mostly dedicated to touring. The travel life is something the vocalist has accustomed herself to in recent years.

“Being on the road is really weird, and there is no real routine,” she said. “It’s changing all the time.”

She makes a conscious effort to take care of herself as she travels. It is the only way she knows how to make a month or more of shows feasible for her body.

Doing so is a practice in restraint and discipline. Bognanno said road life includes a lot of waiting time — time where food, alcohol and partying are readily available. Sometimes there aren’t many options from which to choose.

“It’s easy to just eat garbage because you’re just in the van all the time,” she said.

Bognanno is primarily concerned about taking care of her body because her screaming vocals demand special preservation. She tries to remember to drink tea before she goes to bed each night. She controls her sleep schedule to the best of her ability.

“I try not to stay up late,” she said. “A lot of times, it’s out of my control because we’ll have to drive a couple of hours that night. But I try to get as much sleep as I can because that seems to affect it the most. I can’t stay out to 5 a.m., drinking, and then wake up and scream for the next 30 days.”

So far, Bognanno never had a night where she was just unable to speak. She is not sure how much people in the audience notice it, but she said there are some nights when her voice feels more capable than others, and it feels strongest about one week into touring. Despite numerous obstacles, her voice and body always find a way to adjust.

“Once the muscle memory starts happening,” she said, “it kind of figures out how to fend for itself and is good to go.”

Visit bullythemusic.com.

Print headline: No pushover, Bully’s Alicia Bognanno leads the Nashville band’s charge from both sides of the studio glass. 

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