Bully on weathering a rough patch to make killer new album ‘SUGAREGG’: “Things really plummeted for a while”

The singer-songwriter underwent a period of intense personal change, which she channelled in her stellar new bubblegum grunge record

“It was this process of me being like, ‘Can I do this? Am I capable?’” Alicia Bognanno is talking about a period of change and self-reflection that has seen her push through her own boundaries and write her best album yet. “Then I realised,” she says, “‘Yes – I’m totally capable. Where is this self-doubt coming from?’”

With her band Bully, the singer and guitarist has released two excellent records: 2015’s grunge-indebted ‘Feels Like’, and 2017’s ‘Losing’, a frayed and frazzled modern take on 90’s alt. rock. But she needed to get into a new headspace when making Bully’s third record, the bubblegum grunge banger ‘SUGAREGG’.

During the writing and recording process, she split with her long-term bandmates, guitarist Clayton Parker and bassist Reece Lazarus, quit social media and worked with a producer for the first time in the studio. “It was time for a fresh start,” she says. “I wanted to get back in the place I was when I first started, excited and optimistic, and I needed to change things up for that to happen.”

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We called Alicia at her Nashville home where she’s been holed up during lockdown, covering Nirvana songs in her bedroom and preparing for the release of ‘SUGAREGG’, for a chat about taking back control, being diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder and writing songs for actor Elizabeth Moss.

You self-produced and recorded Bully’s first two albums. What was it like handing over the controls to producer John Congleton [who’s worked with St. Vincent and Sleater Kinney] this time?

“I decided to ask for help recording the record and to give up that responsibility, because I didn’t feel like it was the best decision for the music [to self-produce]. Both the music and the engineering aspect were being compromised when I forced myself to do both on the last two records. If you stay in your comfort zone, you can only learn so much. I thought I’d be a little bit more uncomfortable having someone else in the studio, and I also thought I’d be micro-managing a lot, but I got into the studio and I didn’t even think twice about it. I could fully focus on the music.”

It sounds like you worked through a period of personal change while making this album. What happened?

“I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Syndrome about four or five years ago, so while I was touring ‘Losing’, I was still going through different medications to try. I felt so cloudy, confused, really paranoid and anxious. It was hard for me to do anything. There were certain shows I wouldn’t want to take because I had this fear that I was going to get booed offstage, which is crazy because that’s never happened. Or having to post about anything on social media for Bully made me sick to my stomach. I was looking at other people for their validation because I had no idea whether or not I was making a rational decision or was in a rational mindset.

“Being able to feel like I could rely on myself and the state of mind I was in gave me a lot of confidence back and boosted my self-esteem. I felt like both of those things had really plummeted for a while.”

Why did you feel you needed a ‘fresh start’?

“During the last record, I was constantly listening to the news and podcasts; there wasn’t much music I was listening to. During the process of ‘SUGAREGG’, I tried to steer away from [that]. I had a routine: everyday I would wake up, put on NPR and just have that on any time I took a break throughout the day. I’m trying to be more cautious of it now. At 5pm, when I’m done working for the day, that’s when I’ll catch up with the news instead of starting my day with it.”

Do you feel waking up to the news soured the day before you got started?

“Everything is such a bummer. I don’t know how else to put it. You can’t escape it and it really makes you forget about the beautiful things in the world. Spending my weekends trying to go on a hike or getting out [showed me] there are things that are still enjoyable and pure in the world. I just had no idea because I was consumed with all the negativity. I think taking a break from the news is a privilege and it’s important to be aware and fight for what you believe in, but it’s also important to look out for your mental health.”

Is that why you came off social media?

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“Yeah, I really struggle with it. Now I have my management running it. I did a panel on it at Belmont College in Nashville where they were asking me about it and I looked at the room and was like, ‘Does social media make any one in here feel good?’ and everyone was like ‘No, it does not make me feel good’. It makes me sad for kids and teenagers who don’t know better yet and, instead of comparing themselves to their classmates, are now comparing themselves to the entire world. It’s not healthy.”

Bully share new single and music video 'Every Tradition'
Alicia Bognanno of Bully. Credit: Scott Legato/Getty Images

What are the themes of this record? Personal empowerment? Taking back control?

“Yeah, for sure. Usually I have so much paranoia and anxiety before releasing [an album], but for this one, I know the self-growth and the leaps that I took. I feel like when I listen back, I can hear those changes.”

You wrote three songs for the 2018 film Her Smell, with Elizabeth Moss performing the tunes. Did you write and record the songs for her to mime in the film, or did she perform the songs herself?

“A bit of both. The movie is about a band, so I wrote the songs for the band. I would send videos of my hands playing guitar and she took the videos to her guitar instructor. For two of the songs, it’s just her playing and singing and it’s her interpretation of the songs, so it’s a little different to the demo. Then the third one they mimicked playing with a full band.”

What was working on the film like?

“Writing for something other than Bully was so refreshing. It was a good restart button, because I was in the process of that while ‘Losing’ was finishing up its touring cycle. It was nice to have that to get my gears going again.”

– ‘SUGAREGG’ is released on Friday August 21 via Sub Pop Records

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