Nestled between fast-food restaurants, a discount tobacco retailer, and a tattoo shop called Painful Genius is Thai Phooket II in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, a conservative North Nashville suburb where hunting camo doubles as casual wear. This is where Bully, a.k.a. Alicia Bognanno, has asked to meet. It’s nondescript in the manner of your family’s beloved suburban spot—with the exception that the green curry and the tofu pad see ew are truly banging—a far cry from one of the countless rock ’n’ roll-themed carousing joints across Music City. At some point in the last decade, Nashville has devolved into a giant bachelorette party disrupted by drunk dudes in Kid Rock cosplay peddling party bikes and stumbling their way through overpriced tavern tours. Bognanno is three and a half years sober, having dropped booze a few months before COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. In some ways, this place could be viewed as a hellscape, with beloved spots like Thai Phooket II a remaining relic of the town she once knew, the one rock fans used to celebrate as the American epicenter of punky-garage in inactive bands like Diarrhea Planet and JEFF the Brotherhood. (And in a few active ones, like Bully.) Unavoidably, there’s a haunting feeling—hanging on to something that might not be there anymore, like the looming sensation of being the last one at a party you’re not so sure you wanted to be at in the first place.
When Bognanno arrives, she’s wearing a Bully hoodie (it’s comfortable, very soft, and does wonders for her fabric sensitivity—but it’s inside out. She’s embarrassed to broadcast her own band; I wouldn’t have known if she didn’t reveal it). Her hair is a rich brunette, the opposite of the long bleached locks she’s been known for across this band’s decade-long career. “Now my hair’s not blonde anyone! No one’s saying, [‘She’s like] Courtney Love!’” she jokes about the frequent comparisons. In conversation, Bognanno’s chatty and generous, attentive and friendly; treating our meeting with a disarming level of trust and familiarity. For years, I’ve sensed that the overwhelming majority of her interviews have been conducted by mouth-breathy wankers obsessed with the fact that she once interned at Nirvana/Pixies producer Steve Albini’s famed Chicago studio, Electrical Audio, and are more inclined to spend their 20 minutes together talking at her instead of to her about how much she reminds them of Hole, or the Breeders, or some other beloved band fronted by a woman—how boring!—eroding the unique experience of listening to Bully.
For most listeners, that starts with the scream. Throaty, expressionistic, fearless, controlled, otherworldly. Bognannoperforms a self-exorcism in her songs, relinquishing a furious and rapturous sound: first, in 2015’s “I Remember,” the opener to Bully’s debut album, Feels Like, with its embarrassing condemnations (“I remember my old habits/I remember getting too fucked up/And I remember throwing up in your car”) and spitfire riffs, heavily indebted to ’90s college rock (okay, so there’s some truth to the comparisons), but more brutal and with more melody. Bully’s latest album, 2023’s Lucky for You, is evolved from those impulses. It’s the band’s best release to date—and it’s hardest to listen to and talk about. Over the next two days, Bognanno and I will be doing exactly that.
The 32-year-old Alicia Bognanno was born in Heidelberg, Germany, though it’s rarely reported on. “I moved around a lot. The house I live in now as an adult is the longest I’ve ever lived in one house—seven years,” she says. A lot of the time the moving around was in Minnesota, where her family would eventually settle in Rosemount. (Her Minnesota accent comes out on a rare hundredth word here and there, like in “vague” or “bagel.”) Music was always a passion, despite the fact that there was no community around it in her hometown. “It sounds so stupid, truly, but I don’t know if I have any interest in living without doing this. I knew I wanted to do this since I was young—I’d write lyrics and have my friends sing them. I’d sing Celine Dion or Avril Lavigne with a hairbrush in my bathroom for hours,” she says, then smiles. “It felt freeing—a safe space for all of the disruption and confusion I was feeling.”
She says she was a very sensitive child-turned-adult: “I have a vivid memory of being 7, hovering over the back seat of our Suburban, asking my mom to turn Sarah McLachlan off because I was crying. I was like, ‘It’s too much for me.’” She laughs. “Looking back, I’m like, ‘Damn, I’m the same fucking person.’”
That compassion extends to animals. She became a vegetarian after watching Claire Danes in Temple Grandin, a 2010 biopic about a woman who created a “humane way to slaughter cows...as if there is one.” Dogs, in particular, hold a place in her heart. “I was weirdly obsessed with dogs. The minute I got out of my college dorms, I got Mezzi. She was my world.” (This is where you, reader, might be thinking, ‘Who cares?’ But Mezzi appears across Bully’s discography—she’s the bark over the mid-tempo “Come Down” on 2020’s SUGAREGG—and was Bognanno’s closest relationship. More on that later.)
The whole Tennessee thing was an accident. Despite the frequency with which Bully has been labeled a “Nashville band,” she doesn’t put much weight in geography. A self-described “bad student” because of her neurodivergence, which as an adult she has learned is “severe ADHD—I just learn things differently,” she took a recording-class elective, where she’d spend all of her time, including after school. She excelled there, and her teacher suggested she attend Middle Tennessee State University following high school. “[He was like,] ‘Anyone can get in there, it’s a school for fucking fools, and they have a Bachelor’s of Science in Audio Engineering if you could meet candidacy, and you get in-state after a few years,’” she says. It worked.
At one point, she did, in fact, become a star intern at Albini’s studio, where she developed a deep obsession with audio engineering and recording processes that allowed her to engineer the first two Bully records on her own. It shouldn’t be the sole focus of her work, but it is important: As of 2020, the Audio Engineering Society estimates that somewhere between 5 and 7 percent of audio engineers and producers are women. She was frequently the only non-man in her classes. And it gave her a sense of purpose. “I can fail at everything else. But I do have this one thing that I can really care about. And I’ll do well in it because I really, really care about it. To me that’s like, ‘I’m not a failure.’” She takes a deep breath. There’s something behind her eyes, like she’s working to ground herself at this moment. “It’s fucking crazy that I get to do this for a living. All odds were against this.”
First came a limited cassette release in 2014 for the debut single “Milkman,” then 2015’s Feels Like (on major label Columbia Records’ imprint Startime International). Then a move to Sub Pop Records for 2017’s Losing; a grimier, pummeling vulnerability; and 2020’s exhilarating SUGAREGG, the first record Bognanno felt comfortable bringing in another engineer for, and the first Bully record identified as a solo project. (Bassist Reece Lazarus and drummer Stewart Copeland left while Bognanno was writing the album; she decided to part ways with guitarist Clayton Parker soon afterward.) That record, too, was the first one where Bognanno was forthright about her bipolar II diagnosis. Her walls of noise met new heights through her sagacious lyrics; the floodgates opened. On 2023’s Lucky for You, there’s a sense that she’s gained control of the flow—less hermetic and more fermented songwriting qualities, a painful wisdom and frustration that only come from loss—amplified by the unimpeachable ability to write a spirited hook.
Between Losing and SUGAREGG, Bognanno began writing music for film, TV, and podcasts. The first major breakthrough came from director Alex Ross Perry (you may know him as the guy behind the short-run Pavement musical in NYC, or the forthcoming Pavement movie; clearly, he loves Pavement) and his 2018 movie Her Smell starring Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale) as Becky Something, a Courtney Love-esque frontwoman of a punk band called Something She. Bognanno also wrote the theme and scored the series for NBC News’ Tiffany Dover Is Dead podcast, which hit No. 1 on Apple. She’s doing more of that work—“just me in my room, with all my toys and instruments, ‘making a feeling,’” she says of the process. “I totally get to zone out and mess with all this gear that I don’t always get to—and I like writing for things that aren’t Bully. It’s challenging.” In an aside, she reveals that James Iha from the Smashing Pumpkins has sent her some files to tool around with too.
“Bully—she’ll steal your lunch money!” Bognanno says with a laugh. “All of the bullshit Bully taglines I’ve had to endure in my life...”
We’ve closed down Thai Phooket II, so we’re doing what all former service industry workers do: We’re smoking cigarettes in the parking lot just outside the shuttered building. We decide to drive to a nearby Target—Bognanno is about to embark on her first-ever “adult” vacation, to a spa in Miami, a recommendation from Lucky for You producer J.T. Daly, and she needs a swimsuit. Fousheé plays on the college radio station in her Hyundai Santa Fe.
Bognanno tells me that in 2020 she started fostering dogs and ended up adopting the first one that came through: Papa, a “very militant” Chihuahua she describes as “always on duty, always stressed out, always on the lookout.” He was rescued from an animal hoarding situation. “The woman is in jail now for animal cruelty. They found 100 animals dead and alive on the property. And they took, like, 40 of them out. They were like, ‘We needed to get them into homes now.’ They were like sheep. I saw a news clip of it. You couldn’t even see floor space in the house, it was just kennels stacked on top of each other.” She says she mostly adopted Papa because Mezzi loved him: “They had this crazy bond that I can’t believe I got to witness. Papa was Mezzi’s dog. And then Mezzi died, and I was like, ‘I guess it’s just you and I.’” Her eyes start to water. “Papa is supposed to have another 10 years in him, and I found out a month and a half ago that he has stage 2 kidney disease. He hasn’t been eating.” Tomorrow we’ll meet with a dog psychic who will hopefully tell her how to heal him.
In that time, Bognanno also began fostering children. “I’m such a sucker for misunderstood people. With COVID, I went through this period where I was foster parenting. I would take in teenage girls if they needed an emergency place. Anytime someone feels misunderstood—I don’t have to understand you, you don’t have to understand me, but we can just be there. We can go through this together. That is my community,” she says. “At the women’s shelter, and with fostering the dogs, people would always tell me, ‘I should do that, but I would get too attached.’ And you would, but it’s not about you. It’s about making space for them when they don’t have somewhere to go.” The same could be said of her records.
Lucky for You, Bully’s latest album, begins with the faint sound of Mezzi barking low in the mix, and the fainter, sweeter sound of Bognanno greeting her: “Oh, my baby girl!” Blink, and you’d miss it. Seconds later, she sings, with a full-throated rasp above a distorted guitar riff and ebullient percussion: “Polly’s got a psychic, says she’ll talk to you/You can pay 100 bucks for more bad news.” At the end of the bridge, she delivers the most goose-bump-inducing scream of her career: “I’ll never get fucked up again!” It’s a meditation on sobriety—written from the specter of who she used to be, how she used to get fucking wasted before each performance, hang out at the venue until 1 a.m., wake up the next day and do it all over again—the gut-wrenching clarity of temperance.
That bleeds into every corner of the record—as do personal politics, like in the damning “Ms. America” and “All This Noise,” though she’s concerned it will be “diminished as this ‘political record.’ Everything I do is a political record!”
Since the beginning of her career, “Bully writes such personal songs” has been the dominating narrative around this band, the extent of the laziness behind it only becoming clearer with time. When she sang, “Been praying for my period all week,” on the grungy 2015 cut “Trying,” it was discussed as if the most intimate and/or surprising thing a person can sing about is menstruation. The truth of the matter is that being extremely forthright is in Bognanno’s DNA as much as not having a neat, packaged answer for a particular “theme.” “I feel like I’m going through a perpetual identity crisis, over and over again. And I feel like you could almost hear it [on Lucky for You]. The songs on the new record, when I was listening back, I’m like, ‘This is comical, to me, how confused I am. In every moment of this process. And with this guitar pedal?’” She laughs. “You’re writing this fucking diary and then you’re playing pretend that it’s this well-thought-out thing. Nothing in my life is like that.”
Nothing is so neat, certainly not grief. If there is one sensibility that rises to the top of Lucky for You, it’s that feeling of loss: an appreciation for Mezzi and those in her life, depression, acceptance, denial, the whole gamut of human suffering. “Days Move Slow” was the first song she wrote after Mezzi died—three weeks after passing, an eternity for someone who writes every day to maintain their sanity. It’s a Pixies-like stomper with a heart-wrenching second verse. “I’m tired of trying to prove my worth/To be accepted on this earth/Baby, I’m ready to go,” she belts. It’s a single, and it’s going to be something she’ll have to perform every night, endlessly. “That’s all I can do,” she says. “It’s my only way to cope. It’s going to be hard, but I’m really proud to do it. Writing a record that didn’t involve her would be a fucking lie.” She stares out the window. “That’s how I feel better about it—I get to scream about it every night.
“When she died, I felt a whole new vulnerability,” Bognanno says. “She was with me when I was writing. I’ve never written without her right next to me.” Of course, until now.
The next day, we’re sitting in Bognanno’s kitchen, talking about Shania Twain and waiting for a dog medium. The space is covered in framed photographs of Mezzi; an aromatherapeutic candle sits on the counter. Psychic Marita arrives right at 4 p.m., as if the universe parted the East Nashville traffic for her. She’s wearing suede boots on a day it’s supposed to rain (it didn’t!) and comes bearing gifts: toys for Papa (a bad sign—he doesn’t enjoy playing) and guidance (a good sign—Bognanno could use it). She decides to set up at the dining room table, which requires moving Mezzi’s shrine: a box of her ashes, a lock of her fur, pictures, and red roses. Mezzi is everywhere here. In Bognanno’s home studio, where the overwhelming majority of Lucky for You was written, her dog bed remains on the ground, untouched.
Marita’s voice is like butter, an ASMR fan’s dream—if their dream is having a sharply dressed woman shuffle dog-themed tarot cards on a table, clumsily drop a bunch, then say it was Papa’s spirit guide pulling them. (His selections: soulmates, high priestesses, and...HELL?!) If it’s a bit, it’s not completely clear. She pulls—or, more accurately, loses her grip on—two green Heart Chakra cards and tells Bognanno that they help with grief, and that Papa needs to spend more time outside. She calls upon our spirit guides and reads from the dropped pile. “This top card says someone who is ill is going to recover.”
“There’s a lot of telepathic communication coming through—a dog that passed, there may be something about her coming to you in dreams.”
“The Lovers card, that’s very sweet! The spirits are confirming a lot of what we’ve observed—they were soulmates in some sort of way, so [Papa] may feel like a transition puppy, letting you know that, especially if you believe in past lives, that in the future they will reconnect. And the one who passed—”
Bognanno begins to cry.
“—they don’t want you to feel as if they left. And if you see Papa stare into space, at attention, and nothing is going on, it’s because they shift through realms.”
Forty minutes pass and it feels like two. Before Marita departs, she tells Bognanno that “dogs are your soulmates,” and then directs her attention to the room. “We forget that animals play a large role in filling the gaps where we feel misunderstood or neglected. They will always make sure that we are appreciated and feel loved.”
When she leaves, we step outside for a cigarette. I think of the first lines in “Change Your Mind,” a dreamy indie rock cut from Lucky for You that explodes in the chorus: “I’ve spent hours on the back porch/Burning fire in my hands/Try my best to learn to read you.” Papa joins us in the backyard and then immediately waits by the door to be let in. We laugh. “See?!” Bognanno says, “He doesn’t give a shit about outside.”
The clouds get dark, heavy with rain, for the first time all day—it was supposed to be pouring here for hours now. “Some of that was accurate, though....I have morbid dreams. I take medication because I have horrible nightmares. I’ve written them down and burned them because if anyone sees them, they’re going to think I’m a fucking psychopath,” Bognanno says. “But my dreams with Mezzi, it’s always me forgetting she died and being like, ‘Oh, I have more time with you.’”
She takes a drag. “[Marita] saying that dogs are my soulmates made me feel seen. With them, I feel unconditional love and acceptance regardless of my education or status or whatever. I’ve never connected with anyone on the level I did with Mezzi. I got stuff from her I never got from my parents.” She tells a story about Mezzi’s last moments, how Mezzi couldn’t move, how she carried her outside because she loved fresh air, and how, when Bognanno turned to run inside for a glass of water, Mezzi had miraculously gotten up to follow her inside. She wanted to be next to Bognanno on her final day, to provide her some metaphysical comfort. And then she died.
There is a video Bognanno posted on Instagram of her as a little girl, playing piano at a recital. She makes some mistakes; they’re atonal and cool and certainly the best part. At the end, she runs off stage. Before meeting with her, my assumption as a viewer was: This is a person who loves music but perhaps shies away from performance, from the spotlight, from all the dumb extramusical shit that comes with being in a band, like having to spend two days with a complete stranger for a profile. It was something else entirely. Her voice drops to a near whisper. “When I see that, it hurts. I can see that I was so lonely,” she says. “I posted that because I was challenged by my therapist: ‘You need to find a picture of yourself as a little girl and put it out. Put it in your house and be proud of it and accept it.’ It was hard. I felt so much shame that shouldn’t be there. I’m relearning to love that person.”
That last thought—“I’m relearning to love that person”—hits straight at the heart and the jugular; it might as well be a Bully line. She’d scream the fuck out of it.