Bully: Q&A

Bully's Alicia Bognanno (photo courtesy of the artist, PR)
by Kara Manning | 08/30/2023 | 6:46am

Bully's Alicia Bognanno (photo courtesy of the artist, PR)

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and WFUV has asked Pom Pom Squad's Mia Berrin, Ruston Kelly, and Bully's Alicia Bognanno to share their stories of perseverance over personal struggles. If you or someone you love is struggling, you can reach out to SAMHSA's hotline, NYC Well, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hotline, or the Sound Mind organization, focused on ending the stigma that surrounds mental health through the power of music.

The pugilistic moniker that Nashville-based Alicia Bognanno has adopted for herself, Bully, is sometimes a misnomer; more often than not, her fury and fists are directed more inward than out. The ferociously frank songwriter's life's exploration continues with the release of a gritty and gorgeous fourth album, Lucky For You, due out June 2 on a new label home for Bully, Sub Pop.

This year marks a decade since Bully formed in 2013; since that time, over EPs, singles and albums, Bognanno has shed band members, recalibrated, and stepped back from her desire to self-produce. Since 2020's Sugaregg, she has come to trust a couple of producers with whom she could stretch her boundaries as a rock musician and writer. On Lucky For You, Bognanno connected with Grammy-nominated JT Daly (K.Flay, Paper Route) and the pair recorded over a seven-month period, an unusually long stretch for her.

Bully has served as a pulpit of sorts for Bognanno, who always speaks with candor about her own mental health hike of hills and valleys. That passion for self-understanding and empathy is what makes her songwriting compelling—and very relatable in a late pandemic-era world rife with anxiety.

We asked Alicia if she'd answer a few questions about her journey, as an artist and human being, during this Mental Health Awareness Month, and ahead of her show at Racket on June 6,  and we're grateful that she agreed:

Your forthcoming album, Lucky For You, documents a time of intense change for you and grief, with the loss of your beloved dog Mezzi, who inspired "Days Move Slow." Along with Mezzi's passing, what else was essential for you to say as you began writing the songs that became part of Lucky For You?

This is more so an act of doing rather than saying, but it’s essential for me with each record I make to experiment and get out of my comfort zone and push myself in new ways that I haven’t before. With each record I try to be more accepting of what it is I genuinely want to do and like the sound of and and less concerned with how it may be perceived or what others consider to be “good.”

You produced 2015's Feels Like and 2017's Losing, but on 2020's Sugaregg, you worked with John Congelton. You're again working with a producer, JT Daly, on Lucky For You. What was it about JT that seemed the right fit, especially over the arc of seven months of the album's creation?

I’m always hesitant to work with anybody since I’m used to doing things myself and always get a little nervous and insecure putting myself out there and trying to be creative in front of other people.

I had never met JT when I went over there to test out working with him and pretty shortly after we worked together for a day or so I knew he would be a good fit. I could tell he was a genuine fan of the music I made and his goal wasn’t to change or reinvent what I did but to elevate the parts of it that he admired. I feel it physically when something doesn’t feel authentic to me or if the song doesn’t convey the emotions that I felt while writing it and JT was very much in agreement of that. He protected the authenticity the same way that I would and to me that is invaluable.

Your single "Lose You" swirls with heavy, fuzzed-out guitar, spoken word, and a great opening salvo: "Time's just a useless/Measurement of pain."As a lyricist, do you tend to write on the waves of a crappy day — or when you've got more clarity, more removed from a rough passage?

I write all the time regardless of the situation that is going on in my life. It is more useful to me when writing is helping me work through some sort of struggle but I don’t need it to be able to write.

For me, writing has always been an outlet and a way to communicate something that I can’t always find the right words for when I sit down and talk to someone face to face. It provides me with a sense of peace being able to express what’s on my mind and what I’m feeling without having the additional obstacle of making sure I am understood accurately.

Your Nashville friend Sophie Allison of Soccer Mommy is also on "Lose You." What is it about this first-time collaboration—and your friendship—that's special?

I’ve really only been around Sophie in musical settings so I was very honored that she would take the time to do a feature on the record. I’ve always been a fan of her writing and her voice and when the idea came about to bring another voice onto the record she was one of the first people I thought of.

It’s inspiring to see a Nashville artist blow up and take over the indie world so I would say it’s special to me because A) I am a fan and B) I’m grateful that she even considered it with how much she has going on.

What are a couple of songs you are most eager for the world to hear on Lucky for You upon its release on June 2—and why are those songs most resonant for you, musically or otherwise?

We cut the record down to 10 songs intentionally in hopes that there would be no filler songs so I am proud of every song on the record. There’s not a song on there that I didn’t step outside of the box for.

"A Love Profound" is very special to me, I love the shoegaze aspect and I feel like I was able to be creative in a way that I had always wanted to but never was able to achieve before.

I can’t pinpoint one song in particular because they are all uniquely individual. I don’t mean that in a pretentious way, just because they are all uniquely individual doesn’t mean they are all excellent songs I just mean I can confidently say I didn’t let anything hold me back while writing them and experimenting with them and there’s not a song on there that felt like I was just settling on to make sure I had enough tracks.

You've never been reticent about discussing anxiety or your Bipolar II diagnosis. What is a common misconception about living with Bipolar II that you would like to be understood?

I’m still struggling with mental health stuff on a regular basis, some times are easier than others but for the most part it’s a continual learning process. I suppose it might be useful for people to keep in mind that people act out for a reason and that there’s some things that certain people don't have the capability of controlling all the time.

The parts of me that may stress other people out stress me out just as much, if not more. I can’t speak for other people but in my experience I never want to be difficult by choice or for entertainment and often feel very frustrated when I struggle with emotional regulation or the physical reaction my body has to things that I can’t seem to shake.

It’s exhausting to feel the loss of control over things that many other people are able to compartmentalize or process in a more neurotypical manner.

Was it a relief to finally receive that diagnosis, in terms of understanding yourself and moving forward?

I suppose there was some sort of relief in having a better understanding of it, but it didn’t make the process of explaining it to others any easier.

If people have your best interest in mind hopefully they will have compassion and attempt to understand the ins and outs of it, but it's not something that I expect other people to do so all I can do is try and communicate the way that my brain works the best I can. It’s been an isolating experience for me.

Are you encouraged that more musicians than ever are discussing their own awareness of their mental health, especially as we emerge from the pandemic?

Yes, but I think most people's experiences are uniquely their own and that there isn’t one particular conversation that will sum up the experience of dealing with mental health for everybody as a whole.

How do you take care of yourself, especially on the road?

I don’t really take care of myself on the road. I try to and I do what I can, but I don’t have any answers or tricks that solve the problem. I’m used to being alone and I don’t socialize all that much so being thrown into a situation where I’m having to try and be “on” most of the time or having to explain myself can be very overwhelming for me.

Having a dry green room and getting better at saying no to certain situations or expressing that I am not somebody who has the easiest time in social settings helps. Mainly trying to surround yourself with good supportive people, who have your best interest in mind, is key. Sometimes it feels embarrassing or “dramatic” to have to explain yourself but I think that it’s important for people to try and understand how you operate best.

To me, touring with people who I feel are accepting and supportive is at the top of my list in terms of priorities when it comes to trying to stay in a healthy mindset on the road.

Congratulations too on three years of sobriety — which you have also mentioned as a layer to this new album. How does that clarity affect your creative process?

It benefits my creative process because I no longer have the crutch that helped me escape thoughts or feelings that I didn’t want to process. If writing is truly a form of existing for you then it’s not dependent on whether or not you are drinking.

Are there any mental health organizations, either local to Nashville or national, that have particularly inspired you and why?

Yes Wildheart Mediation Center in Nashville is one of the most welcoming, accepting and supportive places I have ever been to.

What brings you joy, no matter how small? And what is a perfect day for you?

Dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs.

- Bully's Alicia Bognanno
May 2023

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