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Friday, October 16, 2015

Bully's Alicia Bognanno Doesn't Need Your Sexism or Ghostwriters

Posted By on Fri, Oct 16, 2015 at 10:55 AM

click to enlarge POONEH GHANA
  • Pooneh Ghana
Before a band plays a live show, there’s usually a brief conversation with venue staff about how the music should sound. Maybe there’s a preference for highlighting the vocals over the guitars, or vice versa. But in many of the clubs Nashville four-piece Bully has performed, these pre-show sound questions are directed toward the three guys in the group first, and not frontwoman Alicia Bognanno.

“The one thing that pisses me off in venues is when the promoter or the sound engineers will address the men in the band,” Bognanno says, “instead of me.”

This is a strange phenomenon since Bognanno wrote, produced, and sound-engineered all the songs on Bully’s 2015 debut, Feels Like. The 25-year-old also studied audio engineering and recording under famed producer Steve Albini, who produced landmark albums for Nirvana and the Pixies. Bognanno even handled sound for a Nashville music club for a while.

So if there’s anyone venue staff should defer questions to about Bully’s live sound this Monday, Oct. 19 at Rickshaw Stop, it’s clearly Bognanno. And yet, too often at other venues, that’s just not the case. “Most of the time that happens, and I’ll look at them and be like, ‘Oh, hi! I’m definitely the person you need to talk to about that,’” she says. “I’m not self-conscious about it. It’s just stupid.”

Bognanno brought up this trend while discussing Pitchfork writer Jessica Hopper’s recent experiment of asking her Twitter followers — specifically women and other marginalized community members — for examples of times when they felt like they didn’t “count” in the music industry. The flood of responses she received went viral, with answers ranging from feelings of disrespect and sexism, all the way to rape.

Whether it’s the bygone world of hair metal or current mainstream EDM culture, the music industry has never been known as an oasis of safety and progressivism for women. “I think I’ve definitely been doubted at times,” she says. “Especially when I was running live sound, there were a lot of times where I could just tell maybe they didn’t know what I was doing because I was a woman. But for the majority of it, I’ve been lucky.”

Sound itself has also been a huge part of Bully’s breakout success. When you first take a spin through Feels Like, you may swear it was recorded in 1993 — a time when people didn’t chuckle at the term “alternative rock.” There’s plenty of chunky basslines and chugging guitars, and the occasional soft verse that rockets into a screaming chorus courtesy of Bognanno’s gritty voice, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on grunge-era radio. Hell, Bully’s name is even one letter away from another memorable lady-fronted alt-rock band: Belly.

As fashionable as reviving the early 1990s is these days, Bognanno says she didn’t intentionally set out to make music that pairs well with flannel shirts, combat boots, and nose rings. Bully’s throwback sound is just a product of her influences. “I obviously know I’m writing a rock song, not a country song,” she says. “But stylistically, it’s hard to pinpoint because genres are so loosely used these days anyways.”

Growing up Minnesota, Bognanno first became interested in audio engineering during her high school years, studying the artform in a college just outside of Nashville. Around the time she was interning at Albini’s Chicago-based studio, Electrical Audio, she also wrote songs for a project that would eventually become Bully — formed with friends from college and around the local music scene in Nashville.

Ghostwriting has been a hotly debated issue in the music world recently. This past summer, we saw everyone from Drake to Taylor Swift to The Weeknd called out for not penning their own hit singles, deferring instead to industry ghostwriters and Norwegian super-producers.

Bognanno sees songwriting as an outlet for her personal expression. She wants a deep connection to the lyrics she’s singing, which often don’t leave much room for interpretation. On the first verse to the infectious single “Trying,” for instance, over a thick bassline, Bognanno sings, “Been praying for my period all week/ And relief that I just can't see/ I question everything/ My focus, my figure, my sexuality/ And how much it matters or why it would mean anything.” When Bognanno roars into the sing-scream chorus, it feels like there’s a hailstorm of genuine catharsis happening.

That a fresh voice like Bognanno wrote, sung, and recorded lyrics that recount fretting over her period, or puking in a car on album opener “I Remember,” is reminiscent of more than just the radio airwaves of the early ’90s to which her music gets compared — it also parallels the DIY ethos of that era.

“It’s really weird that songs Taylor Swift is singing were written by 40-year-old men,” she says. “That’s so bizarre to me. I don’t ever want anyone to write music for me. I just couldn’t imagine not having that personal or emotional connection to a song you have to play on stage every single night. How are you supposed to give a shit? Unless you’re really good at faking it.”

For Bully’s second album, Bognanno says she’ll continue to write and engineer the music as she did for the debut. And while she might not have a team of mysterious Scandinavian producers working with her to ensure its success, if you like what she’s doing already, you wouldn’t want it any other way. 
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Kevin W. Smith


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