Bully: Honesty Is Their Best Policy
SPIN spends an afternoon with yowling Nashville frontwoman Alicia Bognanno
For its brand-new bi-weekly column All Eyes On, SPIN rounds up the young and the restless (or just very talented) musicians you might not have heard before, but whom you definitely should be watching. So stop scrolling through SoundCloud or pressing play on New Music Tuesday, sit back, and let us do the work for you.
Alicia Bognanno smells fantastic. It’s funny that this would be the No. 1 takeaway from our afternoon together, especially because the slightly hunched 25-year-old is so stylish in a pleasantly scrappy, hole-riddled T-shirt, and is quickly gaining national attention for her guttural, Courtney Love-meets-Nancy Spungen howl and unapologetically forthright lyrics.
And yet, as she casually lolls on the grass next to Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Boganno — who fronts the righteous Nashville rock quartet Bully, along with drummer Stewart Copeland, guitarist Clayton Parker, and bassist Reece Lazarus — emits an appealing scent that could either be due to a well-chosen tea tree oil shampoo or entirely natural. The latter would make the most sense: naturalism is Bognanno’s M.O.
The Minnesota-born Tennessee transplant, a trained sound engineer who also excels at singing and writing punk-leaning power-pop confessionals, is stridently pro-analog. She outright rejects standard digital recording software, finding an ally in veteran producer Steve Albini, whose famed Chicago studio, Electrical Audio, became the site for recording her impassioned debut LP, Feels Like (out on June 23 via StarTime International), which showcases 11 rough’n’tumble punk-goes-pop anthems that are every bit as vulnerable as they are willing to clock you in the jaw.
Built by Albini in 1997, the famously all-analog studio is where Bognanno interned in 2012, and has also housed recent indie successes like Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory and Screaming Females’ Ugly. “I am very indecisive and I think [analog] forces you to make a commitment,” says Bognanno, who also holds a Bachelor of Science in audio engineering from Middle Tennessee State University. “I don’t like mixing in ProTools. I just fucking hate it. It just doesn’t click for me like it does on a console.”
Though she’s been living in Nashville for three years, Bognanno doesn’t sound all that invested in its reputation as The Music City. She’s grateful to the city for allowing her the space and the freedom to explore her interests, meet friends, form bands, and be expressive, but she doesn’t feel any raging Nashville pride, per se.
“I’m never really there, and I haven’t grown up and seen the scene change or evolve, unlike people who have lived there forever,” she says. “People in Nashville are like, ‘Nashville!’ I am not. It’s a great city, but all I know is the scene that I’ve been in, and that’s just a really positive, awesome rock scene.”
Tugging a red shawl closer over her slight frame, Bognanno recalls how a four-year audio engineering degree was initially meant to placate her parents, who balked at the idea of her pursuing a career in music. “They were just like, ‘What the fuck? What are you going to do with music?'” she recalls. Fortunately, they have since grown more supportive of the frontwoman’s choice. “I think they just like that I’m doing something that makes me happy and that I didn’t fail… yet,” she says.
She certainly doesn’t seem primed to. Her searingly earnest words (“I question everything / My focus, my figure, my sexuality”) are now showcased within Feels Like, which matter-of-factly mentions anxiety about missed periods (“Trying”) and revisiting long-past relationships (“I Remember”). Even the band’s name is about “overcoming self-obstacles,” she says. “The song ‘Bully,’ it’s about when you’re younger and you take a lot of garbage that you don’t know better to not take, and then you grow up and realize what you would’ve really done in those situations if you were prepared,” she says. “I wrote that song when I was in a very dark place, [so] I ended up writing to myself.”
Combined with her high-pitched onstage screech — not unlike Renée Zellweger’s turn as Gina, scratchily belting “Sugar High” from the roof in Empire Records — Bognanno’s straight-up lyrical honesty has already struck a positive note with audiences, even if they can’t always understand what she’s saying. “A lot of people were like, ‘I can relate to this,’ which is really good,” she says before admitting that the first and only person she writes for is herself as an act of catharsis. “Those are my personal lyrics. [I don’t write them] because I feel like that’s what people want to hear – it’s because that’s what I want to say, and that is what I want to hear myself say and admit to myself. [Then] it feels much better.”
But unlike a lot of other diaristic, obviously ’90s alternative-indebted contemporaries (Waxahatchee, Speedy Ortiz), Bully’s lo-fi, fuzzy compositions are less obviously rooted in post-grunge radio. For inspiration, Bognanno name-drops a handful of pre-Nirvana punk and indie acts. “When I was 18 I went through a huge Pixies phase,” she says. “I also love Silkworm and the Replacements.” The singer / songwriter does make a point to shout out one notable Clinton-era act as an influence: “Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville fucking won in divorce songs.”
When the conversation turns to Phair, the leading innovator in candid indie-rock singers, Bognanno reflects on how things have changed for truth-telling female musicians since the unblinkingly sexual Exile in Guyville dropped in 1993. “[Exile] got torn apart, didn’t it?” she asks. “That was just fucking extreme, especially for ’93. But I feel like I lucked out, because it is 2015. I think people now are just a lot more ready.”