Throughout her life in music, Alicia Bognanno has come across plenty of haters. Bullies, if you will.
“I had a teacher tell me in my music theory minor at Middle Tennessee State University that I would never pass,” says Bognanno. “He was like, ‘You have no history in music theory, you should drop out and you’re not gonna pass.’ I also remember playing with guys when I first started Bully and I played something in drop D and they were laughing. One of them was like, ‘Oh, you wrote it in drop D, you’ll grow out of that phase, and then I wrote fucking ‘Milkman,’ and it was one of our biggest songs. Every time I tune my guitar to drop D I’m like, ‘Yeah, fuck you.’’’
Having your own music project, and being signed to Sub Pop is one way to tune out the haters, and Bognanno—who fittingly, defiantly, hilariously named her solo project Bully—has done things her way. Her journey into music started in Minnesota, a place that she accurately describes as “really cold.” Despite the Twin Cities’ reputation as a music hub in the Midwest, Bognanno seldom went to shows there, and her family wasn’t musically inclined.
“I was a very angsty child and I struggled in school,” recalls Bognanno. “Music kind of gave me motivation to keep going, and made me feel less alone. It definitely made me feel more connected and have a release. Growing up, there were four seniors in my high school who were in a band and that was the only band I knew.’’
Music not only served as an escape for Bognanno in her childhood, as she moved from state to state, but a literal escape as well. Bognanno viewed music and, more specifically, audio engineering as an escape from Minnesota and a way to break into the music scene.
“I wanted to do audio engineering because that meant I could record myself playing music when I taught myself how to play,” explains Bognanno. “It was all part of this plan where if I could do all of these things myself and don’t have to rely on anyone else to do anything for me I have no excuses. I wanted to have the knowledge to record myself and other musicians.”
Bognanno did it herself, and now has the music to prove the haters wrong. In 2015, she released her first album, Feels Like, for her. The debut record is still close to her heart.
“It’s weird. The other day I was thinking to myself, ‘Why do I keep songs from Feels Like in over newer stuff,’” says Bognanno. “I have never been able to get over that record, and I still feel so close to it. Feels Like is still so fun to play live. I listened back to that album the other day, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I sound like a baby,’ and I was playing things that were much simpler. The songs themselves I still love playing, and can still relate to.”
Bully’s most recent album, SUGAREGG, released in 2020, marked a different direction for Bognanno. It was her first album that was recorded as a solo project, and it was the first Bully album that wasn’t solely produced by her. Bognanno embraced the changes though.
“I thought I would be the biggest pain in the ass,” says Boganno. “I thought I would have to hold myself back from micromanaging and stress. When I got to the studio, I didn’t even think about it. I thought it was amazing, and I could fully focus on music. I wanted John Congleton to produce the album because I believe in him and he’s good at what he does, so it didn’t make sense for me to make my mark on how things should be recorded or what mic should be used. I was cautious because the reason I asked him to do this was because I think he’s fantastic. It was nice to let it happen and focus on the music.”
With clearer focus on music, Bognanno could zero in on what she wanted the album to be, while focusing on topics she keeps coming back to, like mental health. SUGAREGG reflected Bognanno’s mental health journey over the years.
“A lot of what I end up writing ends up being me getting out of my head,” says Bognanno. “It’s so common for me to think about something and spiral or be anxious about something. It’s real time me processing my emotions in a song. A lot of what I write is about mental health no matter how much I try to tiptoe around it.”
Being able to process her emotions in music is something that is special, even therapeutic, for Bognanno.
“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t do what I’m doing now,” says Bognanno. “I feel like it’s all so tied together for me and the way I live my life is me feeling these feelings and writing about them. It’s my release and it’s so cathartic to me, and it’s how I cope. It’s the best thing in the world and the best outlet.”
It’s important for Bognanno to have an outlet to escape because this year hasn’t been easy for her. She lost her dog of 13 years in March, and the decisions by the Supreme Court haven’t made things any easier. Bully played a show in Nashville a couple days after Roe v. Wade was officially overturned. Bognanno projected abortion hotlines and resources on the screen during her performance and the right to choose is something that she’ll always stand up for.
“The news came out on Friday, and we were supposed to play Pride the next day,” recalls Bognanno. “My first thought was, ‘How the fuck am I going to practice and play a show right now?’ I was so heartbroken and angry, putting the numbers on the screen was an easy thing for me to do at the moment. We got some pushback, but eventually got it OK’ed. It was a really hard day for me because it was supposed to be a celebratory event, but we had a basic human right stripped away the day before.
“It’s unbelievable to me and it crushes me,” she continues. “Especially being in Tennessee where we had a trigger law where 30 days after the ban we were in place to shut everything down. It’s not right and it’s horrible. Horrible. It’s inhumane and makes me sick. I had an abortion when I was younger and don’t regret it at all. One in four women have an abortion, and it shouldn’t be a taboo topic. We made it so people are scared to come out about it and talk about it. Women aren’t being considered, and I hate that people who don’t have enough income or don’t have resources to cross state lines to get it have the rest of their lives changed because the government decided they can’t have access to it. I will advocate for it forever because women should have the right to choose and take ownership of their bodies.’’
Bognanno has some hope, though, in the way that people have supported abortion funds in Tennessee and people have an increased interest in voting. Since our conversation, an abortion ban was soundly defeated in red state Kansas, and pro-choice politicians have seen success in purple areas like upstate New York, Florida and Alaska.
Also helping her cope with the world is the time she spends fostering dogs. Bognanno currently has a foster dog named Thomas.
“It keeps me distracted, and that’s great,” says Bognanno about foster dogs. “It’s my way of coping, and it keeps my mind moving. Having another thing to take care of feels really good. I can feel like the world is collapsing, but I have a dog near me and he needs me to support him. Thomas is 90 pounds, he’s four, and we’re trying to get his skin to look good. It’s been a dream.”
Thomas’ foster mom will be playing a show in Asbury Park on Sept. 1, and she’s excited to play in the Garden State again.
“I’ve only played there once and we played a festival that the guy from Bleachers put on,” says Bognanno. “That’s the only time we’ve been there and I’m excited to play there. I’ve been to the shore before, and I love Bruce Springsteen.”
Bognanno is working on Bully’s fourth album, and people can expect some changes.
“It’s gonna sound much different than previous records,” says Bognanno. “It’ll still sound like a Bully album, but taken up a few notches.”
Bully will be playing at the Basement at Bond Street Bar in Asbury Park on Sept. 1 with Hello Mary. Ticket information can be found here.