On its release in 2015 Bully’s debut Feels Like marked the emergence of a band who could take relatable everyday anxieties and heartbreak, filter them through what would become their trademark brand of searing honesty and and turn them into anthems. Over sandpaper-raw vocals and frenetic songwriting, Alicia Bognanno sang about everything from late periods and childhood injuries to relationship woes and inner turmoil with a candour which resonated and swiftly afforded them a fervent fanbase.
In terms of the wider world, a lot has changed in the couple of years that have followed. The world feels like a more deceitful, dishonest place, and unashamedly candid and forthright songwriting like Bognannon’s seems more important – and more needed – than ever. “Sitting in the basement, sitting alone/Saw you in my sleep last night, wish you were home,” she sings on opener ‘Feels The Same’, instantly setting out the record’s themes of isolation and longing that run throughout the album (and the writing process, with Bognanno writing the record on her own). But in a Trumpian America that has been not only been a backdrop to but also a staunch feature of recent American art, it’s unsurprising that her fears have turned from the personal to the more wide reaching, with the record’s politically-charged finale ‘Hate And Control’ containing a chorus that defiantly asks “What is it about me that makes you so uncomfortable/Can we just exist without your hate and control”.
Speaking ahead of heading out on a US tour in support of Losing, Bognanno talks about the influence of the political landscape on the album, her own development as a songwriter, and how the new record picks up the thematic baton from its predecessor.
Looking back to Feels Like, how did the way it was received compare to any preconceived expectations you might have had and how did it shape the way you approached making Losing?
I wouldn’t say that how it was received really had a hand in how we approached the second record. I try not to put too much thought into how reviews turn out and stuff, but there definitely was pressure in making the second record because we knew that Feels Like had been well received and we wanted Losing to at least be received in the same way. But as I said we don’t really focus on reviews and things like that and instead just try to make something that we’re all happy with.
The album seems to be underpinned by themes of longing, loneliness and regret. Does the record represent an accurate depiction of your mental state when writing it and do you find that music offers a cathartic outlet for you?
Yeah it’s absolutely a cathartic outlet – that’s half the reason I do it. Any negative energy I have I can push into songwriting and music and use it to work out whatever it is that’s been on my mind and bothering me. It’s a little bit like a diary in that way.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about how you wrote the record in isolation – is that your standard songwriting process or one you adopted specifically for this album, and how do you feel it shaped the finished record?
Writing alone is my standard songwriting process. I think writing alone has a lot to do with why Bully songs end up being so personal – I would be very uncomfortable if I was sitting in a room with somebody else while trying to sort out a song or lyric idea. I seem to work best, be more creative and also be less self critical when I’m alone.
There’s been some commentary that has likened Losing to being a thematic extension of Feels Like. Is that how you view the two albums and where do you think the differences and your own development as a songwriter lie?
I think a lot of the differences lie in the space that goes on within the music; on Losing there’s a lot more space that goes on in the music and everything’s a little longer and slowed down and worked out a little more extensively. It probably won’t register from a listener’s perspective but I also got to play lead – that was nice, and it was good for me and Clay[ton Parker, guitarist] to switch between lead and rhythm. From a musician’s perspective that’s changed too.
As someone whose songwriting has been based around personal experiences and honesty, do you think those are essential ingredients for creating truly resonant songwriting that connects with people?
I think it does. Well, I more hope it does than think it does. Based on the feedback we’ve had I’m pretty positive that it connects with people.
As a songwriter, does knowing that your songs resonate with people and that people have an emotional investment with them present its own pressure?
Not really – I never really try and write for anyone else, I just try and write for myself. It doesn’t create too much pressure from my perspective.
Again, as someone who writes personal songs, is it difficult for you to put yourself out in the wider world so starkly on record, or do you view it as something necessary both creatively and in terms of your own wellbeing?
I view it as something that’s invoked creatively. I don’t know how else I could approach songwriting and any time I try to exercise that it just feels disingenuous. There are times where I might overthink things a little bit but for the most part I only put out what I’m comfortable with and I’m careful not to throw anyone under the bus in the process. It’s alright with me.
It seems fanciful to think that American art made in the last twelve months hasn’t, in some way, been influenced by the changing political landscape. How true do you think that is of Losing and to what extent does the record, in part, document your journey of trying to make sense of a Trumpian America?
Losing was absolutely influenced by the political climate, along with most other art created during this time period I would assume. It seems pretty unavoidable whether or not it’s intentional or subconscious I think it’s creeping in everywhere.
Having headed up the production front on both records, how important is to you to have control in that aspect of the record in order to fully realise your creative vision for the songs?
I think for me it’s a learning experience and I force myself to do it to immerse myself in the practice of audio engineering. I definitely see the benefits of having an outside engineer come in with a fresh set of ears but it’s nice to bypass that dialogue between myself and an engineer, and being able to try different things without everything having to go through one extra person.
Were there any standout lessons you learned while making the first record that you’ve been able to transfer to the new one and if so how do think they’ve manifested themselves on the finished album?
The big one that we learned from the first record was to be as prepared as possible when we go into tracking, because there’s so much that can go on on top of the process of trying to demo new songs. It’s about having that dialogue beforehand and to be open with each other in regard to how we want it to go sonically and just working everything out before we go into the studio. As a musician it’s hard for me to say how it’s translated onto the record, but we have really good documentation and it’s evident to me looking at that – that we never had with Feels Like – that we progressed organisationally.
A large part of your last album cycle was your live shows – did you have any reservations as to how Losing would translate to a live setting and having started touring it how are you finding it’s resonated among audiences so far?
So far it’s been great. We always want to be able to perform live an accurate representation of the record but at the same time I didn’t want it to limit any sort creativity in the studio. There are background vocals and harmonies that I knew wouldn’t be able to be replicated live but Clay and Reece [Lazarus, bassist] did a really good job of figuring out where they could help out vocal wise for the live show. Other than that everything else seems to be pretty spot on.
If there was one thing above all else you hope that people take away from the album – be it an emotion, sensation, lesson etc – what would you want it to be?
Any sort of connection that they could get from it. That’s what I’d want.