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May 2021

Bully: "I was able to find my confidence"

Alicia Bognanno and co. are flexing their musical muscles with new album 'SUGAREGG'. "It was time for a fresh start," she says.
Published: 12:47 pm, September 02, 2020Words: Tyler Damara Kelly.
Bully: "I was able to find my confidence"

"I'm not ashamed, and I don't regret it," bellows Alicia Bognanno towards the end of 'SUGAREGG'. It's been a tumultuous five years in the world of Bully and the album as a whole is an unabashed declaration of self-awareness and self-reckoning.

Where their debut album 'Feels Like' saw Alicia outwardly walking through the self-deprecation, guilt and anxieties of dealing with her own existence – ("I'm trying to hide from my mind" – 'Trying'), its follow up, 'Losing', was more outwardly observant and discordant, almost revelling in the mundanities of life ("Cut my hair; I feel the same. Masturbate; I feel the same" – 'Feel the Same'). The fact that Alicia thinks the lyric: "dissociation with every tradition" is the best summation of 'SUGAREGG' seems completely fitting for its anarchist assault on the senses.

While the album is as true to form as any Bully album has ever been, its circumstances couldn't be more different to the ways that Alicia has created music previously – normally taking the reins of all elements of production, and with Clayton Parker and Reece Lazarus by her side. "I figured it was kind of time for a fresh start and things just got a little bit stale," she says. "When you tour together for five years, you kind of hit a point where everybody's a little bit older, and it's either what you want to do, or it's not what you want to do, and it's kind of a vicious cycle to try and get out of."

With Reece deciding to go off to grad school, and Alicia naturally parting ways with Clayton, it made complete sense to continue Bully on her own, solely relying on other musicians for touring purposes. Adding that she had written everything on her own anyway, it was an easy, "fucking awesome" decision to make. "[The fewer people] you have over your shoulder who you're paranoid are gonna think something you're doing is stupid, is just gonna enable you to be more creative and feel less insecure about what you're doing. You're like, cool – I'm gonna do whatever the fuck I want."

By allowing John Congleton and Graham Walsh to step in and aid in the elements of mixing and production, it meant that Alicia was able to focus more on fully developing the songs. "I honestly feel like I was sacrificing a little bit of my engineering [skills] and a little bit of the music/creative side because I was trying to balance both," she begins. "I just didn't want to do it anymore. I wanted help, and I didn't want to have to deal with everybody feeling like since I mixed it, not only do they have to pick apart the music, but they also feel like they can critique the mix."

As such, 'SUGAREGG' is seamless from start to finish with Alicia's acerbic wit and tongue-in-cheek lyricism at play, as well as more of a polished musicality that resides within a soundscape that is as relentless and chaotic as you'd ever expect from a Bully album. As a methodical player who self-confessedly has no experience in theory or any classical knowledge on her chosen instruments, Alicia thrives on studying different chords, "making shit up" and going off of what she thinks sounds cool. She notes that it's funny when Bully fans – who she thinks of as her friends who she's had conversations "more meaningful than any other conversations I've ever had in my life" – ask for chords, because "half the chords on the Bully's records, I don't even think are real chords."

"When I'm tired of writing on guitar, and I feel like I've exhausted things and I need a break, then I pick up a bass, and I try writing with that because it's really different to me," Alicia says on writing in a way that gives you a sense of discovering something more interesting, as opposed to being really analytical and picking things apart. It's more of creating a happy accident that might potentially turns into one of the greatest songs you've ever written.

With vocals that feel incredibly raw, almost shaky and strained as she denudes her anxieties and struggles with mental health; 'Let You' is one of the aforementioned songs that Alicia wrote on bass, as well as 'Hours and Hours' and 'Where to Start' – each one a darker insight into her exploration of treatment for Bipolar II disorder. Conflicts of the mind is something that has been addressed throughout Bully's songs and 'Let You' specifically looks at how it can be difficult to connect to someone when you're in the darkest caverns of yourself.

"I was able to find my confidence, be okay with myself, and create the art that I wanted to create"
Alicia Bognanno

While she's open about her struggles in her lyrics, there's a slight hesitance in getting too detailed about the specifics of a song, because she believes that the art of being a musician is allowing people the space to connect to the music in their own specific way, and to attach their own meaning to what they're listening to. "I feel like giving away too much could potentially diminish that connection," she says.

'Prism' and 'Come Down' were written in a period of time where Alicia was still trying to find the right medication for her disorder and those are the kind of songs that she goes back to when trying to see the progress that she's made over the past five years, despite still struggling with her mind. "I know the heaviness that went into those songs, but [then] I listen to 'Where to Start' and 'Let You', and I can see how much I've grown," she begins. "I can even take some of those dark points and almost make it into humour. For me, personally, I'm not saying there's anything funny about it, but to look back and be able to make light of it sometimes within myself is cool. It helps – it's therapeutic, in a way."

At the height of coming to terms with her bipolarity, Alicia often found it debilitating. She describes it as though her body "was in a knot" and she was starting to say no to things because she was concerned that she was going to be attacked. Opening up about it all, she says: "I just remember being so confused. I didn't feel like I ever knew whether or not I was in a rational state of mind, if my brain was a little bit heightened at the time, or if it was really low. And because of that, my self-confidence plummeted because I felt like I had to kind of go off of what other people thought was rational and wasn't irrational and I always felt like I had to run every situation by everybody to kind of gauge where I was at."

With 'Come Down' being as close to a ballad as Bully have ever touched upon, it's all the more revealing knowing the context of it being written at the height of her laborious efforts to unravel the layers of herself. "I'm changing into a person I don't know," she laments amongst a backdrop of languid guitar and honeyed, melodious drums. 'Prism' is also a peek behind the curtain, with its instrumentation falling into the realms of sludge and shoegaze; reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine and Swervedriver.

The most significant thing that came out of finding the right treatment for herself was regaining the freedom to create without boundaries. "I was able to find my confidence, be okay with myself, and create the art that I wanted to create and not have all those voices in my head kind of shutting it down before I even give it a chance."

While the crux of her bipolarity is a big focus of the album, Alicia also touches on the policing of her body amidst the archaic notion that a woman's sole purpose is to be the giver of life. 'Every Tradition' is a defiant non-conformist retort to those who shame and give snarky remarks to those who do not agree with this notion. Speaking to the origins of the song, Alicia says: "To be totally honest, I'm scared shitless of giving birth. I don't think people give enough credit to women who carry babies. They kind of think that because they can, it's their responsibility, and they don't really read into how dangerous it is and how like much of their bodies they're giving away." In an ideal world, she wishes that there were more conversations and the shifting of a mindset to one that sees "women as human beings instead of just a gender or their body – as individuals."

The arrival of 'SUGAREGG' coincides with Alicia being more open about a multitude of aspects of her personal life, more than ever. This is the first time she's ever mentioned her experiences in dealing with bipolarity, simply because she's finally okay with discussing it. "I think being okay with talking about it shows the growth that I've had internally, but it's not like it's not as heavy; now I have such a better grasp on it, that I can talk about it," she says. 'SUGAREGG' serves as the encapsulation of an artist coming out into the world as a brand new, self-assured version of themselves and being completely unapologetic and safe in the knowledge that they're staying true to themselves and those who are interested in their journey. 

Taken from the September issue of Upset. Bully's album 'SUGAREGG' is out now.

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