Bully may be Tennessee’s darling four-piece indie rock band, but make no mistake – Bully is Alicia Bognanno. Bognanno is the lead vocalist, guitarist and overall visionary of the band which she formed in 2013 when she recruited Stewart Copeland (drums), Clayton Parker (guitar) and Reece Lazarus (bass). She writes all of Bully’s lyrics and is also the band’s producer and engineer. Alicia Bognanno is the definition of the ultimate frontwoman.
On their debut album, Feels Like, Bognanno exposes herself with uninhibited lyrics that chronicle her self criticisms with the type of disarming honesty reminiscent of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 breakthrough album Jagged Little Pill. Lyrics such as those in “Trying” reveal the relatable coming-of-age struggles that fill the album:
“Been praying for my period all week / And relief that I just can’t see
I question everything / My focus, my figure, my sexuality
And how much it matters or why it would mean anything
I can’t keep it together / I’ve been better / I’ve been thinking about it every night”
Bognanno’s personal lyrics are amplified by her cathartic screams that make you want to purge along with her at the top of your lungs. With her earnest and often primal vocals at the forefront, furies of distorted guitar, feedback, thrashing drums and deep bass only intensifies the themes of restlessness, anger, confusion and reflection that dominate the album. Feels Like bleeds authentic vulnerability from the emotional bullying Bognanno has pummelled herself with.
In the middle of Bully’s North American tour, Alicia called in from the road to chat with Stories Behind The Songs about the making of Feels Like and the evolution of her craft.
Alicia: Yeah, I would say so, or just to front something. Growing up it seemed so out of reach because I didn’t grow up around people who were in bands or in a musical family so I never thought that I would ever be in a band, but it’s something that I’ve wanted to do since… as long as I can remember.
A: I’m really comfortable in that role, surprisingly. I mean, I’ve never had any desire to be in the spotlight side of it, but I have had the desire to have a lot of creative control over it. I feel like I’ve never gotten to a place where I could really do that until Bully happened and I think a lot of it was just not having a lot of confidence in myself.
A: I think I am confident while I’m on stage. It’s more about writing music than being on stage.
A: Yeah, I think writing lyrics is my most difficult… it’s just so easy for me to want to put it off and it’s so hard for me to be happy with what I write. I feel like a lot of times, recently, when I’m writing lyrics I’ll usually know when I have something that I want to keep and then I try to fill in the rest. Sometimes, if I can’t think of something I like I’ll just force myself to write something so that it’s there and then I’ll go back and try and tweak it as a way to kind of move on instead of being stuck and feeling like I’m not going to play this song because I don’t like that one line. Lyrics are definitely one of the hardest parts for me and just something that I want to just get way better at. I would just like to be a much better writer in general. Writing bridges, for some reason… Like, I can write verses and choruses easily – it usually just flows – but when I have to write a bridge, that’s usually always the last thing I write before lyrics because for some reason it just doesn’t click for me.
It’s funny that you say you struggle with it and that you want to be a better lyrical writer because people are really connecting to your lyrics. The lyrics are one of the biggest pieces of praise that keeps getting mentioned in the press.
A: That is really good! That makes me super happy because I think lyrics are really important. I just feel like there’s room for improvement – but really I feel like there’s room for improvement everywhere. I want to be a much better guitar player. I’m definitely not like, “Bully is where it’s at right now! I’m super happy with it and it’s fine.” I’m like, “No. Bully needs to be better.”
A: Well, it changes a lot, but definitely somewhere where I can be alone. It stresses me out so much if I’m like renting a room out of someone’s house and I know there’s someone in the room next to me. I don’t like feeling like anyone can hear the process. That really stresses me out. Like even in the van when I want to play my guitar with my headphones pulled into a little baby amp I’m just like, “Uh, am I being annoying? Can they hear the strings?” I don’t know. Just really being alone is key for me. Wherever I can just be alone and like, not freezing. (laughs) Usually if my dog is there, it’s much better. And if I could have a cup of coffee. Just a place where I’m free of distractions and can just focus.
A: Well, all of the songs were written about very different things. I was in Nashville between two different houses working two jobs most of the time that I wrote the album. I wrote most of it when I was 24, maybe some of it when I was 23. It spreads between a whole different range of feelings. Some of the songs I was obviously really confused and frustrated and bummed out, but for other songs I was in a better place – like the song “Reason” on the record which is really upbeat and really poppy that I wrote when I was home visiting my dad in Minnesota. Then there’s a song like “Trying” which I obviously wrote when I was going through a little bit of a darker period… so yeah, the range is kind of all other the place. But most of them were written over the past like, year and a half, maybe two years when I was living in Nashville, except for “Brainfreeze” which I wrote when I was living in Chicago.
A: Yeah, it’s much more like just a collection of work. I didn’t have any desire to carry through with a concept or some sort of message that you get through every song. They’re each their own piece of work. I think they came together pretty well. I don’t think that there are super drastic changes in the songs throughout the record, but I didn’t have an overall sound that I wanted to go for.
A: No, I didn’t. Most of the indie ’90s bands I didn’t even know until after Bully started because we got compared to them all of the time. Definitely in college I listened to The Breeders and The Pixies and your basic college bands that you go through, but no, I didn’t listen to anything cool growing up. I listened to, like, Ace of Base and whatever was on the radio.
A: Not really. I mean, I kind of do, maybe, but like, I listen to “I Remember” and I don’t think it sounds like a ’90s song. But people have compared us in the way that it was written and recorded – like, sonically it’s not like a garage rock lo-fi recording and that’s why maybe we’re getting compared to the ’90s because a lot of the rock bands didn’t have like, garage rock recordings, and if that’s the sense that we’re being compared then that’s awesome and it’s a huge compliment. I mean, like, whatever, bands that came out of the ’90s were fucking awesome and I’d rather be called that than like anything else but, when I write something I don’t think like, “That’s so ’90s!” I can see if they mean that it sounds like something that could come out of that era more than it seems like something that sounds like that.
A: No, like I was born in 1990, so my expertise in the ’90s is obviously weak.
A: Well, I’m hoping that people show up for this headlining tour. I would like for us to be able to tour on our own and to be able to make another record like we did with this one where I can have the freedom to do it where I want, to do it myself and to also be financially okay. Just enough so I can at least have like a couple of months to focus on writing and I’m not trying to work three jobs and do a bunch of shows and then try to squeeze in writing because that’s like, a really difficult place to try to write from. My ideal place would be where we could tour and be okay and I could come home and take the time that I need to focus on music and focus on getting better and just being more creative in general and work on engineering and then make another record. I would love it if that was the case.
Bully is performing live in Toronto on September 21st at The Garrison.
Instagram: @bullythemusic Twitter: @Bully
Watch Alicia Bognanno’s gut-wrenching vocal performance of “I Remember” in the studio: