Bully’s Alicia Bognanno Tackles Grief With “Lucky for You”

The musician's fourth LP is her best to date

Bully

Alicia Bognanno of Bully

By Sean Fennell

In the cyclical world of indie rock, the ending is always right there in the beginning. You spend months writing a record, a few weeks recording, another few months promoting and then, give or take, a year touring, all to start the process over again as soon as it’s finished, climbing the mountain to get to the bottom. It can be taxing, to say the least, especially in a pop culture landscape that only gets noisier and more cluttered by the day. Bully, the project of songwriter Alicia Bognanno, has a chance to cut through all that noise, and this is the record that will do it. Lucky For You, out today (June 2) via Sub Pop, is the culmination of four albums and almost 10 years of work, a truly excellent record of razor-sharp indie rock that shows the best of what Bully has to offer. It is also about the end of something, about saying goodbye, and about how we proceed even with the knowledge that everything, even success, is fleeting. 

Origin stories are incredibly reductive techniques for explaining someone’s career, which is my way of prefacing one of the more common things written about Bognanno’s earlier musical endeavors. Right after college she interned at the famed Electrical Audio studios with the often curmudgeonly but equally revered producer Steve Albini. Much has been made about this connection, which is apt if only for one reason; Bognanno is, and always has been, an incredible producer. It’s evident from her earliest work. A song like “Milkman,” the first released by the fledgling Bully in 2014, simply does not sound like any band’s first song. The way Bognanno’s vocals ricochet among the urgent thrash of her guitar is something bands, and producers for that matter, spend years trying to master. She would, unsurprisingly, go on to produce Bully’s first two full-length efforts, 2015’s Feels Like and 2017’s Losing, honing their sound to a razor’s edge and further defining what makes a Bully record. One thing that has always been undeniable in that equation is her work as a vocalist. There’s a lot to a Bully song and even more to a Bully record, but the first thing you notice will always be Bognanno’s voice, a serrated, soaring, seismic force that evokes completely earnest comparisons to someone as distinct as Kurt Cobain. “Her sandpaper scream is still the most immediately arresting element of Bully’s music,” wrote Sasha Geffen in Pitchfork after the release of Losing. And it’s true; even as her songwriting progressed and tone and subject matter shifted, that howl remains the defining characteristic of her career. 

That’s not to say, however, that the songs were given short shrift. Bognanno and her band have continued to churn out good record after good record, finding variations within their grunge-inspired framework on both on 2020’s Sugaregg and now here, on Lucky For You. In between, Bognanno was even asked to write songs for the Alex Ross Perry film Her Smell in which the fictional band Something She, fronted by Elisabeth Moss, performs her songs within the framework of the movie. 

Throughout all that, though, there was one steadying force that does not appear on a single record or, for that matter, a single lyric, until now. “Time’s just a useless measurement of pain,” sings Bognanno on mid-record standout “Lose You.” “Either way I’m gonna lose you.” It’s one of several songs dedicated, in part, to Bognanno’s closest companion, her recently departed dog, Mezzi. It takes a while to arrive at this point during our recent conversation, but once we do, the floodgates open. Bognanno adopted Mezzi when she was 19, making her an essential piece of every single thing Bully has ever produced. This, above all, is the primary focus of Lucky For You, an album that helps Bognanno take stock of a relationship even she didn’t know was so essential to her life and creative process.  “I’ve lost, you know, family and friends before, but losing her was losing this presence that’s with me literally all the time,” says Bognanno with a slight, distant smile. “It was just the two of us going through the most pivotal points in my life together.”

To bring these songs to life, Bognanno decided to forgo producing duties this time around, instead soliciting the help of producer JT Daly in what turned out to be a marathon writing and recording process. “I had never really collaborated with somebody in the way that I did with JT,” says Bognanno, excited to give credit to someone who she feels genuinely understood her process. “He wasn’t trying to totally change me or force ideas on me. He just wanted to elevate what he liked about what I already did.” Though it wasn’t necessarily intentional, this was also the longest recording process Bognanno had ever experienced, the album built piecemeal over a seven-month process of open-ended creation. Though she admits this was, at times, nerve-wracking, the result was something that would have been impossible without the kind of gestation period these songs were allowed to have. “A lot of songs came out of the time that we took between sessions, songs that never would have happened without it,” she says. 

When I talk with Bognanno, Lucky For You is still a few weeks from seeing the light of the day, and her mood can best be described as a kind of tempered excitement. This is Bully’s fourth full-length record, and you get the sense that the cycle is starting to take its toll. “Every time you record, you hope that it’s going to be explosive,” she says. “And it’s never going to be what you think, it’s always going to be a little bit less than what you were hoping.” To be clear, this isn’t some kind of woe-is-me bid for sympathy. She seems to know that the idea of some kind of indie-rock stardom is inherently misguided. It is, instead, about removing herself from this validation loop that is artistic expression. “I’m tired of trying to prove my worth, to be accepted on this earth,” she sings on “Days Move Slow,” a sentiment that echoes throughout our conversation. “I always want it to just be massive. I don’t know if I will ever get to that point, but I’m happy with where I am,” says Bognanno. The issue here is that, with an album like Lucky For You, she might just have something as massive as she imagined.  

Bully has never been a band of drastic swings. The sound they have now is not substantially different from the one they established all the way back on “Milkman.” And so the journey is not in reinvention but in perfection. Lucky For You is not a new version of Bully; it is the best version of Bully. This was evident from the moment the record’s first singles started trickling out, which included “Hard To Love,” perhaps the band’s best release to date. It’s a song that manages a Pixies-level control of hard and soft, see-sawing between a resigned whisper and a crippling howl, the titular chorus bursting through the mix as if escaping from the subconscious. It is two-and-a-half minutes of self-incriminating potency, and it’s damn near perfect. 

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In other places, Bognanno takes the opposite approach, purposely contrasting the sonic quality of a song with its lyrics or, in other cases, the songs that surround it. This is no more true than on “Ms. America,” a song that, while releasing plenty of built-up vitriol, is one of the quietest and sweetest songs Bully has ever released. “I think there’s opposing forces that come about often in my writing,” says Bognanno. “I like that contradiction of having something really heavy musically, but saying something really sweet over it, or vice versa.” On the other hand, a song like the appropriately titled “All This Noise,” which directly follows “Ms. America” to close out Lucky For You, chooses to match subject and form perfectly, shooting Bognanno’s vocals out of cannon among pummeling drums, guitars and a laundry list of timely gripes.

Of course, everything eventually returns to the beating heart of this record, a loss Bognanno is still processing even months after these songs were written and recorded. “She was just my best friend. She was my soulmate,” says Bognanno of Mezzi, a force of comfort in her life even through grueling tour schedules and several life changes. “She would travel with me and make records with me. She was always right next to me when I was writing. Mezzi was the first thing in my life that I really felt was accepting me for who I was. I didn’t have to explain myself to get that unconditional love and understanding. I didn’t realize until after she passed that I had never really experienced the level of love that I had with her.”

Because of the depth of this connection, there is a sense of longing that permeates almost every song on this record, but perhaps most acutely on “A Wonderful Life,” a melodic and sweet tribute to the invisible force that presence can provide and, conversely, the hole it leaves behind. It would be appropriate, maybe, that Mezzi’s final record would be the one to finally reach the heights Bognanno dreams of, making use of all that love one more time.