Fighting Your Own Battles:
Bully’s Alica Bognanno is a Reluctant Victor, but a Champion Nonetheless

You could almost hear the collective duh when news of that Australian study about the effects of extreme music circulated late last month. A pair of University of Queensland researchers found that music with aggressive tendencies – punk, hardcore, metal and so forth – actually assuages, not exacerbates, feelings of hostility, irritability and stress. The experiment was a bit limited, so the results aren’t wholly infallible. But does it even matter? We knew that all along, didn’t we?

There’s a more exciting investigation to be found in the effects of Bully, anyway. At first, the Nashville band might seem like merely another drop in the ocean of new acts recalling alt-rock’s ’90s heyday. But Feels Like, the group’s just-released debut LP, offers something few bands in that figurative language-loving genre ever have: Straightforward, unabashedly personal lyrics. And no, they are not trite or sentimental.

The kinds of uneasy contemplations founding singer-guitarist Alicia Bognanno shares can ignite intense anxiety, and she regularly delivers them in husky, guttural screams. The album is half a search for understanding, for meaning in existence; the rest is rife with self-doubt, regrets about her past and disappointment in her present. I don’t know about everyone else, but that’s definitely the stuff of my own panic attacks.

Instead of sparking an uncomfortably dissociative state or tense hyper-awareness, though, Bully is surprisingly reaffirming. Motivational, even. When trying to figure out exactly how Bognanno swings that, the logic behind the band name is revealing. It’s a nod to the album’s eponymous final cut, which she says she wrote before starting the project.

“That was kind of about overcoming obstacles that you’ve had growing up, and difficulty standing up for yourself,” she explains. “And at times, kind of being your own bully.”

Bognanno hails from Minnesota; it wasn’t until college that she moved to Tennessee. While several other songs mention her childhood, “Bully” is particularly personal, and exemplary of the inner strength she’s reaching for throughout the whole album.

“I look back [to] when I was 14 and had a manager or boss talk down to me or really poorly to me, and I didn’t know any better because I was younger, and they were older. I didn’t know what was appropriate or what wasn’t,” she says. “It’s kind of dealing with that stuff, and after that happens, you’re always like, ‘God dammit, I should have said this or that,’ or that wasn’t OK. But you don’t realize it until after the fact. I feel like I’ve been in a lot of those situations, so it’s kind of about trying to muster up the nerve or think quickly on my feet to stand up for myself.”

The cut is deceptively calm, with softly wavy guitar and midtempo drums. Bognanno’s rasps are few and far between; the bulk of the time, she’s nearly cooing. By the last 30 seconds, though, she’s fed up – then instructs herself to calm down. At 25, Bognanno naturally has some hindsight. She’s not bitterly revisiting her past; instead, it seems she’s simply untangling it in hopes of clarity. And the stuff that can’t be straightened out – the mistakes that will always be messes – she attempts to come to terms with.

“Trying,” nestled midway through, is undoubtedly one of the album’s greatest highs. Oscillating between a softer vocals over a casual saunter and swaths of hefty riffs and subtly grating screeches, Bognanno rattles off an overwhelmingly broad list of concerns. She’s been praying for her period “all week,” she’s been questioning everything, from her focus to her figure to her sexuality. She “can’t keep it together” and thinks “all these loaded questions” will “eat her alive.” If there were any straw to break an already devastating song’s back, you’d think the final lines would do it: “Who am I? Why am I?”

It’s a lot of distressing material for one song – yet Bognanno actually finds relief every time she rehashes it all.

“It helps me. It still feels good to say. I can still totally relate to it, even if I’m not exactly in the same place as [when] I wrote it,” she says. “So I still love singing it. The songs [on Feels Like] are still recent enough that I still feel the same for the most part.”

In that same track, she nonchalantly throws out a line that initially confused me: “There’s no flawless education, just a stupid degree.” Bognanno studied audio engineering at Middle Tennessee University, and went on to intern at Electrical Audio, the Chicago studio revered for its owner Steve Albini, who worked with Nirvana, The Breeders, The Pixies, PJ Harvey, Jarvis Cocker and a slew of other lesser known bands and artists. She later settled in Nashville to work at Battle Tapes, where a ton of stellar underground rock ‘n’ roll acts have recorded, and then ran sound at the Stone Fox, one of the city’s most beloved venues. And when it came time to record Feels Like, guess what studio Bognanno and her three Bully comrades used? Electrical Audio, of course. So exactly what was stupid about that degree again?

“I mean, I definitely love it. I love what I studied and I wouldn’t take any of it back,” she assures. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to school if I hadn’t had found that program because it’s the only thing that I really care about. But it’s still such an odd thing because you can get your major, but finding a job in engineering is really difficult.”

She compares it to trying to make a living in other fields, like photography, adding that there wasn’t much encouragement for her ambitions.

“Going through that program and having so many people constantly be like, ‘What are you doing? There’s no jobs in this field.’ Even teachers…it’s just a really risky field to choose to pursue. A lot of the people I graduated with ended up not doing anything,” she says.

There is certainly a special brand of apprehension associated with graduating college now. Bognanno isn’t alone, of course, in feeling a smidge let down by the lack of available opportunities. It mostly worked out for her, though. And she made sure to stress her adoration for Electrical Audio.

“I loved everybody. It was awesome,” she gushes. “It’s like the best studio in the world; it’s really great.”

Despite her apparent successes in her field, Bognanno doesn’t seem like the self-satisfied type. Even her accomplishments with Bully, through which she’s deservedly been collecting accolades and heaps of fans since last fall’s EP debut, likely won’t convince her she’s a walking triumph.

“Milkman” is proof of that. Several times she chastises herself: “I used to be a shark!” she screams.

“I mean in the aggressive, go-getter type way, when it comes to work and stuff. Well, not work, but just excited to do something you’re really passionate about,” Bongannon says.

And she isn’t a shark anymore?

“It was about when I was coming out of a job that I really liked and trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and there were times when I felt I wasn’t working as hard as I could be, and that’s always really stressful for me,” she says.

Rarely does a rock ‘n’ roll musician, especially one knee-deep in an underground scene that’s too cool to admit they’ve got goals, mention work ethic, let alone question their own. There are exceptions, of course – and Bognanno is one of them.

“I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to get there or get back to a place where I was doing as much and keeping up with everything,” she says. “That was the same time that I had a semester left of college and it was an oddly emotional kind of time for me.  Really when you graduate anything you have that moment where you’re like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ or ‘What am I going to do next?’ or ‘Am I doing the right thing?’”

Save for finishing touches with the band, Bognanno wrote all of Feels Like, and also produced, mixed and engineered it. The album is as poignant as it is a kick in the ass, a totally candid alt-rock (yeah, yeah) masterpiece. And it’s Bully’s debut. Whether she believes it or not, Bognanno is still very much the shark she was a few years ago.

Photo by Pooneh Ghana.