You’ve been hearing “Trying” by Bully on 100.1 FM. This Nashville quartet that is transforming familiar ‘90s alt-rock (Dinosaur Jr, Pavement, Weezer) into smart, sharp-edged millennial indie rock, but “bully” is certainly an apt description for the band’s churning guitars, rambunctious rhythms, and tightly coiled intensity. Their debut Feels Like sounds alternately like a balled fist and a fresh bruise.
More crucially, the word “bully” is a perfect distillation of frontwoman Alicia Bognanno’s visceral approach to songwriting. She trades in steely observations, raw-nerve confessions, and intense anger directed almost exclusively at herself—although a few bystanders and bad exes might get caught in the crossfire. Her voice rises from sugar-sweet to scratchy howl as she bares her most harrowing fears to the world. In other words, Bognanno is her own bully.
Not merely the band’s vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, and all-around visionary, she is also Bully’s producer and engineer. Her musical life in music is inseparable from her experiences studying audio techniques and technology. Growing up in Minnesota, Bognanno often made up her own lyrics and melodies—nothing so complete as a song—but it wasn’t until her senior year of high school that she found an outlet for those creative urges. “I took an audio engineering class at this alternative school,” she recalls, adding that sessions were held at the local zoo. “Suddenly, it was like, Wow! I have a way to record stuff. Now I need to figure out how to play an instrument.” She learned piano quickly, but guitar was more difficult; she had more fun using Logic Pro X to loop beats for some of her friends who were aspiring rappers.
Audio engineering engaged her in ways that other subjects had not, and Bognanno credits her teacher with recommending an inexpensive four-year Bachelor of Science program at Middle Tennessee State University, about thirty miles south of Nashville. There she immersed herself in courses in recording techniques, music theory and history, even copyright law. She even took another stab at guitar, this time with better results. “I think learning just some basic theory helped a lot, but I think it was because I picked up an electric guitar instead of an acoustic,” she explains. “It was a lot more fun.”