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How Bully’s Alicia Bognanno Went From Studio Geek to Alt-Rock Screamer

Former Steve Albini intern talks analog catharsis, meeting Kim Deal

Bully

Alicia Bognanno and her Bully bandmates recorded their debut album 'Feels Like' live in the studio.

Roger Kisby/Getty

Feels Like, the debut album from the Nashville four-piece Bully, opens with a blast of painful catharsis. “I remember getting too fucked up,” singer-guitarist Alicia Bognanno, 25, yells at the top of her lungs over churning chords. “I remember showing up at your house/And I remember hurting you so bad/And I remember the way your sheets smelled.” For Bognanno, who also wrote, produced and engineered the album, capturing the song’s raw intensity on record was no challenge. “‘I Remember’ is a minute and 25 seconds of screaming,” she says. “I used ambient mics on the drums and the vocals to make it feel a little bit like I felt inside.”

Most of Feels Like was recorded live in the studio in just a few takes, and Bognanno says she lets instinct take over when it’s time to sing. “Part of it being raw and immediate is that I don’t really have to prepare much,” she says. “Usually I’m singing about real stuff that happened, so it’s not hard for me to pull that energy. The minute the song starts, it just kind of finds itself. And after I get done with a song, there’s a sigh of relief.”

Growing up in Rosemount, Minnesota, a half hour outside Minneapolis, Bognanno took her first audio-engineering class around age 17. “I don’t come from a musical family, and I didn’t really play any instruments,” she says. “That was the first time that I thought, ‘Hey, maybe I can actually do something with music.'” After high school, she enrolled at a university in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in the same field. While she started off learning piano for a music-theory course, she found she was much more comfortable playing a friend’s borrowed guitar. “I felt like I couldn’t express myself correctly through piano,” she says. “There were so many more options on guitar.”

Bognanno has mixed feelings about her undergrad experience; on “Trying,” the catchiest song on Feels Like, she sings, “There’s no flawless education, just a stupid degree.” “A lot of people don’t finish in an audio-engineering program, and the people that don’t finish are really bitter,” she says. “All you hear is, ‘Oh, there’s no money in it.’ And I definitely felt isolated through a lot of the program, because there was maybe another girl or two in my classes, if I was lucky. In the end, I’m just glad I found something that I like to do.” 

Alicia Bognanno

The 120 Minutes–worthy sound that she went on to create with Bully has its roots in her college internship at Electrical Audio, the Chicago studio founded by Nirvana and Pixies producer Steve Albini. Working there, she got to meet some of her alt-rock heroes — “Kim Deal came through one day, which was really cool, because I’m obviously a Breeders fan,” she says — but Bognanno was most excited about using the studio’s analog equipment to develop her own recording technique during off-hours. “My head doesn’t work the same that Pro Tools does,” she says. “Once I started using a tape machine, it really clicked.”

While at Electrical Audio, she managed to make a very good impression on her famously cantankerous boss: “Alicia is maybe the top student intern we’ve ever had,” Albini told NME this year. “She was a fucking joy to have in the studio. If everybody in the studio worked as hard as Alicia then everybody’s records would be Number One hits.”

Late last year, Bognanno returned to Electrical Audio to record Feels Like with her three bandmates. (Bully’s drummer, amusingly, shares his name with another famous rhythm-section member. “Just today on Twitter, I woke up to someone saying, ‘Is your drummer really named Stewart Copeland? And he’s not the drummer from the Police?'” she says with a laugh. “It happens all the time.”) The album came out on Startime, an imprint of Columbia Records — and while signing with a major might not bring the sales boost it did in the Nineties, Bognanno says that was never the point. “That’s not why we made the record,” she says. Instead, she adds, they went with Startime because label head Isaac Green promised the creative freedom she craves: “He was 100 percent supportive of me engineering the record and letting me do what I wanted with it. Finding that was a really big deal for us.”

Bully will play Lollapalooza on August 2nd, followed by a full tour of the States this fall, during which Bognanno will most likely be screaming out “I Remember” every single night. “We’re never trying to overthink things,” she says. “I do not ever want that. Everybody should just play how they feel all the time, and not think about what they look like.” In between, she hopes to spend most of August working on new material. “I want to get a bunch of stuff written for the second record,” she says, “and make plans to make a better record than the first one.”

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