Alysse Gafkjen

Bully’s Hardly Losing At Crafting Smart And Searing Rock

Alicia Bognanno unpacks her sophomore album and the mad audio science of it for MTV News

The simple truth is, no: Alicia Bognanno has absolutely no clue how she can scream like that every single night without ripping her throat to shreds, either.

“I’m thanking my lucky stars everyday,” she says, taking a swig of tea and laughing on a recent afternoon in New York City. For every show, Bognanno — who fronts Nashville-based rock outfit Bully — screams so brutally that it makes your own vocal cords cower and ache with sympathy pains. She points out that tea is less acidic than coffee, which she’s avoiding; this, along with easing up on partying in favor of sleeping on tour, are two ways in which she’s “mindful” of the merciless strain she puts on herself while howling through her sets. Tea and sleep aside, that careful consideration shatters when she steps up to the microphone. She’ll compromise on the caffeine, but not the velocity of her ferocity.

“We’re just going to wait and see, honestly,” she continues. “It almost seems like when I get on the road, and that muscle memory builds, [my voice] gets stronger, and it’s used to it. That was my experience with the first record, so I’m hoping that this one will be better.”

Bognanno, with bandmates Clayton Parker and Reece Lazarus, has delivered a scorching sophomore effort with Losing, which dropped October 20, and it doubles down on her deafening full-length debut, 2015’s Feels Like. While she does what she can to avoid threats to her vocal sustainability, it’s nothing compared to the meticulous care that went into the album, from pushing herself to write herself into new challenges to squeezing every last note out of them onstage. Bully is Bognanno’s creative outlet, but its recorded output is the culmination of her production education, too: She studied audio engineering at Middle Tennessee State University, and later interned at Chicago’s Electrical Audio, the studio founded and run by Steve Albini.

The renowned producer’s credits include Nirvana’s In Utero, the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, and an embarrassment of grunge, alternative, and ‘90s rock riches that share the same breakneck pace and blunt lyrical aesthetic Bognanno favors. But unlike the vast majority of those who came before her at Electrical Audio, Bognanno engineered Losing, and Feels Like before it, herself. She put the chops she honed there to work as she obsessed over how to mic the drums and make the guitar parts pop, and her perfectionist tendencies flourished when she was laying Losing to tape. Most people pick up a GoPro camera to document vacation cliff dives or crazy crowd footage at music festivals, but Bognanno used hers to document the alignment of her tape machines.

“Everything was just the nerdiest thing!” she says, referring to her painstaking studio approach. “It was really hilarious. I can go through and see exactly how I was tweaking that microphone placement, and I have Polaroids of everything as well.” The documentation ensured that she didn’t lose any of the off-kilter note patterns she conjured up that don’t belong to a standard chord progression. Making sure Bully sounded their best was one thing, but the added bonus to this surgical attention to detail was that no improvisation or impulse was forgotten, which wasn’t the case with Feels Like.

“Every time I wrote something for this record, I took a video of me playing it and how I played it. Every file of that song is a video for that part and how I played it in case I ever forget so I can bring it back up — little pieces like that. That whole process, we knew better, this time around. It’s tied into how we feel about this record.”

From start to finish, Losing is a direct line the brain and heart of a narrator thoroughly through with bullshit, and the hard-lived, carefully chosen words of each song offer a clear reflection in the discordant notes barreling out of Bognanno’s amp. The first track, “Feels the Same,” sets Losing's tone when she states plain how she’s numb to even the most intense kinds of stimulation when she misses someone. “Kills to Be Resistant” and “Running” shrug off any embarrassment or regret in the presence of a crush or on the turf of an ex. She keeps the lyrics vague enough so that they’re relatable (who hasn’t worried about encountering the ghost of a past relationship on an ex’s old block?) without giving too much away, and this thick skin is inspired in part by a ‘90s classic written by another strong rocker.

“I feel like it’s those songs that you can apply to any situation that kick my ass more than ever,” she says. “I’ve been asked a lot if I regret certain things I say and how personal I’ve gotten with things, and I’ve never once regretted it, or wished I didn’t say it. I’m a huge fan of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, and one of the reasons I honed in on that record was because of how direct she was, and I just really respected that. There was no bullshit: This is what happened, this is how it is, and this is how I feel about it.”

It’s tough for her to get through these songs without picking scabs on her heart, on “Running” especially, but Losing is proof that obsessing over choices — about her voice, how her guitar sounds when it’s fading out at the end of one particular track, or which emotional wounds she should rip open for the sake of communal catharsis — pays off. And though engineering is still a largely dude-dominated field, something Bognanno plays an active role in changing, Losing is an indie rock record helmed by a woman in a year full of excellent indie rock records made by women, a fact that isn’t lost on her when she takes stock of the sea change she’s a part of. She doesn’t know how, exactly, she can scream herself just shy of hoarse on the road. She does know she’s not alone in doing so.

“When I think of rock music, all I know is women who are dominating it,” she says. “To me they own that genre. Palehound, Courtney Barnett, Speedy Ortiz, Snail Mail, Waxahatchee — I’m just surrounded by really talented, amazing women who are kicking ass. I don’t want to listen to dudes talking about partying and drinking beers. I want to listen to women talking about shit that matters and mean something to them, something I can learn from. So yeah: I hope it keeps getting better, especially in the engineering world. It’s way tougher for women.”