Bully’s Alicia Bognanno on Their ‘Uncomfortable’ Album Cover
Alicia Bognanno’s throat houses many voices on Bully’s second record, Losing. It lilts pretty, and it growls. It doubles on itself like a Greek chorus, one that sings of that most common of tragedies: the breakup, the fallout, the doubt. She wields it like a guitar, a pair of drumsticks, a conductor’s wand.
Bully emerged in 2015 with their debut album, Feels Like, a record that had ’90s fans and Nirvana fiends salivating. It didn’t hurt that Bognanno had interned with Steve Albini (who worked with the Seattle grunge rockers, among many others) at his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago.
A talented producer in her own right, Bognanno has honed her skills since Feels Like, crafting a record that she says is more experimental that the band’s first release, less reliant on Bully’s raucous live sound.
TIDAL spoke with Bognanno before the album’s release this Friday to find out more about how she used her voice on this album, what she learned from Albini and much more.
You were a little younger when you wrote the last record. Has the way that you write changed since then?
There are certain things about the way that I wrote the first record that seemed a little bit boring to me this time around. I started writing with a lot more lead parts on this record than the first record, where I primarily just wrote with the chords and then would add the melodies after. So that was a big difference to me.
I also tried to give songs a little bit more space and length. Not intentionally because I think a longer song is better, but I just think the first record had a lot of … two-minute-30-second little firecrackers and I wanted space it out a little bit.
I always like to ask people what the first song they ever wrote was. Also, what advice would give yourself when you were writing that first song — looking back?
Well, the first song I wrote was probably when I was really young, because when I was about nine I would write melodies, and then give them away to a friend who I thought had a really good voice.
I think, when I was younger, I just wrote really bad songs. I guess I would have told myself to just start writing with electric guitar, because I didn’t really start writing with electric guitar until I was in college and had been around a roommate that had one. And I didn’t have that when I was younger — that access to it. So that would have been the first thing I would have told myself: mess around with the electric guitar and some pedals.
You did so many interesting things with your voice on this record, specifically on ‘Not the Way.’ And I’m curious — because I know you produced the album — how did you set out to use your voice as an instrument?
Recording vocals is definitely my favorite part of recording a record. I think it’s where I feel the most comfortable and the most creative and I can have the most fun.
I think I get better and better at vocals at every record. With the first one, I was really strict about trying to keep it an exact representation of how we sound live. [With this one], I wanted to give myself a little bit more freedom and room to experiment.
Yeah, it seemed almost like there are different characters as opposed to just one character all the way through.
Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. That’s pretty much it.
So who are some of your favorite voices — in music or otherwise?
This is going to be a weird start, but the podcast Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve been listening to it recently. I really like listening to him talk about education and the system. It’s really interesting to me. I really like the podcast Throwing Shade. Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi are comedians who speak out about women and LGBT rights. I love Kim Deal. I think Ellen from Palehound is amazing, and I really like her songwriting.
Your music tends to be pretty personal, so I’m wondering: how do you use production and your voice to either amplify the personal moments or kind of muddy them? How does your music work in terms of getting this personal message out?
I think a lot of that has to do with songs that are personal and direct. That dry, upfront direct vocal is a little bit of a reflection of those lyrics. A lot of of times, [the words are] not covered in reverb or recovery slap back; [they’re] pretty much there and upfront. I remember, on the last [record], it feels like it’s particularly coming from kind of a speedy, hazy mindset.
So, it’s song to song. But I would say the use of how the vocals are mixed, where they’re mixed and drum mics — they’re all things that I use as tools to kind of get across the emotions that should be portrayed in the songs.
You’ve been getting really political recently. Is this mostly in response to this administration, or is this something you’ve always kind of been a part of?
I think it’s funny, actually. I feel like everyone has been speaking out about politics recently because it’s just been so out of control. So I don’t even see it as an extremely political band.
But I think there’s things that we’re passionate about and that we care about — and there’s a lot of organizations that are jeopardized because of the Trump presidency — and it’s important to help shed light on the organizations in any way we can. Kind of help benefit them in any way.
To switch gears a little bit, I’m interested in the role that the location of ‘bed’ plays in this record. It gets mentioned a lot in the lyrics and the album cover seems to show you under blankets. How does the place and state of mind of that location apply to the way that you make music?
The photographer who did the album artwork, that was actually Stewart Copeland, who was our original drummer — he does a bunch of our pictures. We went to Austin and shot a bunch of stuff, and when we were narrowing it down to ones that we felt like would best fit the record, we knew we wanted to do a picture. So that’s why we landed on that, because we usually just commission artists to do stuff.
Everybody just felt like that photo was pretty personal and up close and almost made the viewer a little bit uncomfortable — like they were seeing something they shouldn’t or a place that they shouldn’t be. And we all kind of liked that and thought it tied into the record in that way.
[Our bassist] Reece… it was not one of his favorites. And then he went home and thought about it and he came back and he was like, ‘Actually, I think it should be that photo. Because when I first saw it, I felt like it was something I shouldn’t be looking at or I was taken to a place that I shouldn’t be. And then taking space from it, I realized that I like that it made me think that way.’
Who are some producers that you’ve been into recently?
I really want to know who produced the latest Protomartyr record, [Relatives in Descent]. I just heard both the singles, and I think it sounds amazing. So I need to figure out who did that, because I think that sounds fantastic. [Editor’s note: the producer is Sonny DiPerri (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors).]
Mastering engineers-wise, I know it’s a little different than producers, but Emily Lazar. She’s based out of New York, and she mastered our record and it was incredible. She showed us the before and after and all that she added to it— so definitely put her name out there as far as engineer work goes.
Obviously, Steve Albini, because I think he’s just my drum-tracking idol.
Anything you learned from Steve Albini that you applied to this record?
I actually still have all of my notebooks and photos from when I was interning [with him]. But mainly microphone usage — like which microphones [he] usually used for which instrument. Mic placement was a huge thing.
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