Heading into her third album as Bully, Alicia Bognanno didn’t have a particular concept to explore, or a message in mind. Instead, her agenda was much more straightforward: “I was like, ‘You know what? Fuck it, I’m gonna write whatever the hell I want to’.”
It might sound like an obvious mission statement, but it was a necessary one all the same. Emerging after three years away with her project’s third album, ‘SUGAREGG’ still packs in the raw energy that Bully has always so deftly harnessed, but it’s a very different beast to 2017 predecessor ‘Losing’.
That, in some respects, comes purely down to where Alicia finds herself in life right now. Having begun writing for the record back in 2018, it’s an album that’s not only been a long time in the making, but also one that’s seen the singer striking out on her own and fully labelling Bully as a solo project.
In her personal life, too, Alicia was processing some changes. Diagnosed with Bipolar II, her latest work and this subsequent promotional time around it marks the first period in which the singer has felt comfortable discussing its impact on her life. “I couldn’t avoid talking about it; it had everything to do with everything,” she explains candidly. “So many of these songs - ‘Like Fire’ and ‘Come Down’ - those are just all about being at the peak of that frustration. But, feeling like I could navigate it a little more, and have a little more control over it let me be able to not look at it as such a heavy thing. I can let go of the stigma that you usually hear around being bipolar, and just talk about it in a comfortable way.”
Between the two major adjustments in mindset, it’s enabled Alicia - and ‘SUGAREGG’ - to become far more open, creatively. “I went into it wanting to just do what I wanted to do, instead of thinking about how it was going to be received, or whether or not it was gonna be ‘cool’,” she explains. “I wanted to experiment with different things, and try and do it a little bit more for personal growth, as opposed to ‘Losing’, where I had a lot more voices in my head and was in a weird place. During ‘Losing’ I remember thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t say this lyric because I know that I’m gonna be asked about it a bunch’. But with this third record, [I knew] I shouldn’t censor my art.”
“I thought about it and I was like, ‘I don’t owe anybody shit’.”
— Alicia Bognanno
It’s a thought that artists are still struggling to come to terms with: balancing the pros and cons of exposure on a knife’s edge, and how - even seven years on since the band first formed - social media continues to transform the ways musicians are forced to broadcast their lives, and consider their art. “We’re just constantly giving, giving, giving so much of our personal lives,” she agrees. “It’s heightened these expectations that people have. I thought about it and I was like, ‘I don’t owe anybody shit’ - I don’t owe the world my personal life when I’m talking about my art! The thought of not being able to make the art that I want to make because I feel like I’m gonna have to explain it to the world is crazy, it’s outrageous.”
The resulting record, then, sees Alicia making her own rules. For each track like ‘Every Tradition’, which cuts deep and direct, there are songs like ‘You’, ‘Where To Start’ or ‘Let You’, which feel more playful, and provide some levity to the album’s more weighty themes. “I [used to be] like, ‘No, this has to be completely true, and very literal! There has to be no bullshit’,” she says of her previous approach to songwriting. “I kinda let go of that, and in doing that, I could write more playful storylines that excited me. I think that adds to the lightheartedness. I’m so happy,” she laughs, “because - not to talk shit on my [other] records - but sometimes I listen to ‘Losing’ and I’m like, ‘Ugggh, it’s such a drag!’”
That approach of exploring new avenues also saw Alicia handing over the production reins for the first time. Having self-engineered both her debut ‘Feels Like’ and ‘Losing’, it was a move some perhaps wouldn’t have anticipated, but for this record, it felt right. “Leading up to it, I felt like I was gonna be sad, or that I was going to micro-manage,” she says of the album’s first session with John Congleton. “But the second I got in there, I did not give a fuck what John was doing! I was just like, ‘You are so good at what you do, I am just gonna let you do your thing!’. I’m so glad I worked with him and didn’t engineer it [myself] - I couldn’t say that enough!”
While it’s easy to pin any artist’s latest record as their most accomplished work yet, with ‘SUGAREGG’ it feels like Bully is truly returning as a rejuvenated entity. Visibly contented about her new project, this time around Alicia Bognanno’s done it her way, and it undeniably pays off.
‘SUGAREGG’ is out 21st August via Sub Pop.
As featured in the August 2020 issue of DIY, out now.
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