As far as opening salvos go, few tracks in recent memory have come armed with such fervent, sit-up-and-take-notice chutzpah as Bully’s ‘Milkman’. Barely two minutes long, last year’s breathless blast underpinned by a sense of raw, organic passion would rightly see the Nashville four-piece career their way onto everyone’s radars. “Yeah, I was definitely a little bit surprised at the attention it got” admits frontwoman/force of nature Alicia Bognanno, reflecting on the eponymous release ‘Milkman’ featured on. “I’m glad I got it – or rather the EP got it – but I wasn’t expecting it and I hope it carries over to the new record, I’d like it to do well and pave the way for us to be able to make a second one.”
If its inherent quality is anything to go by, Feels Like (a record we’ve described as “a record that makes [Bognanno’s] band one of 2015’s essential US exports” and one “to be savoured by all”), it’s set to do very well indeed. Just over half an hour long, it feels like an aural smash and grab raid, or a head-out-the-window blast down a freeway. But that’s not to say it’s devoid of nuance either, as evidenced by its ability to meld the freneticism of ‘I Remember’ and ‘Six’ alongside the more stately (well, all things are relative) ‘Trying’ and ‘Sharktooth’ with equal aplomb. “It feels like that EP was an age ago,” offers Bognanno, reflecting on the band’s development between their two releases to date “we’ve been playing as a band for at least a year and a half since then so the way we play together has definitely improved, we understand each other musically better and what we’re going for has improved too. We’ve been able to record with a lot more time and a lot more freedom to get the sound how I wanted it, I definitely think the engineering side is a lot better on the record than the EP….and I hope the songwriting has gotten better too!”
That engineering nous is arguably Bully’s secret weapon. As deft a studio engineer as she is a songwriter, Bognanno can proudly list being Steve Albini’s intern to an already formidable list of achievements. Speaking of how that understanding of studio trickery has helped in the daunting task of preparing a hotly-anticipated début album, she says “I think it was extremely helpful, what was great about engineering it myself was being able to not have that gap in communication, that would probably have existed if we’d had someone else do it. It’s hard trying to explain how you want something to sound, especially when you don’t have the correct engineering dialogue – though I probably do simply because I studied sound engineering – still being able to bypass that situation and do it myself was a big help. We got to avoid a lot of confusion and frustration.” Was there ever a time where trying to get the album where you wanted it to be – both musically and sonically – felt overwhelming? “It probably led to moments where I felt like I needed space from it all” she admits “but overall it was an advantage that we didn’t have to filter through anyone else and I was just able to do it myself.”
If I fall in love with a record, go and see it played live and it doesn’t sound the same it’s a bit of a bummer.
The aim from the outset – as far as the sound and feel of the record goes – is twofold. Firstly, “I really wanted the record sonically to replicate the energy I felt was present in my vocal takes,” admits Bognanno, an element best witnessed via the gritty, intense video for ‘I Remember‘. Musing on how the approach influenced the record, she adds “on songs like ‘I Remember’ I really wanted it to sound blown out and energetic and a little more live, whereas on something like ‘Trying’ I knew it was a poppier song so I wanted it to be more polished and the vocals more present. I kind of had it all figured out in my head before I even went in there, for the most part I’m happy with the way that everything turned out. I think it goes back to having the time to figure everything out and make sure all the elements were where we wanted them in the mix. That definitely helped a lot.”
Their other aim – which, on even the most perfunctory of listens to Feels Like is definitely a case of mission accomplished – was to capture that raw, raucous live shows which have made their gigs such standouts during their May UK tour. “That was definitely a big priority and I think they way we went about achieving that was to make sure that nothing was over-produced or pitch corrected or drowned out in reverb with a million different guitar parts. I really wanted to make sure we made a record that we could replicate live and vice versa because personally if I fall in love with a record, go and see it played live and it doesn’t sound the same it’s a bit of a bummer. It’s different for every band, but for Bully it was a priority and a point of focus.”
Yet, for all its careening vivacity, it remains a personal, honest record. ‘Trying’ alone deals with missed periods, debt and self-doubts and anxiety, while ‘Six’ touches on sibling misadventures and injuries. “It is difficult sometimes to write from a personal perspective, in the same way others would tell you it’s more difficult to write abstract or obscure lyrics,” Bognanno admits, with admirable candidness “but for me it was important to be able to understand what I was writing about and what I was trying to say and making sure that I was saying it clearly rather than throwing words down on a page. In the past I think I’ve been prone to writing more abstract words and thinking that it’s fine if people don’t know what I’m talking about, but that was possibly an excuse to not really focus on what I was writing. So I decided to write from a more personal angle in order to get a better understanding and make sure it was clear. Maybe it was more difficult overall to do it like that, but I guess it’s subjective.” If anyone’s poring over it trying to find an overarching theme, she’s quick to point out “There isn’t one overall cohesive message I’m trying to get across over the whole record. Every song is about a separate situation and it’s almost its own story. I didn’t have one particular thing in mind while making or writing it.”
The one thing I want people to take away from the record is for them to be able to relate to it in some way, for it to pull out any kind of emotion.
But for all its streams of consciousness and memories, you can’t help but get the impression that, to a degree, this chapter of Bully’s great adventure is competing with the future for the band’s attentions. Speaking of their 2015 plans, she divulges that “we’ve two more weeks left on this tour and then some summer festivals, but after that we’ve got most of July and almost all of August off so I’ll be able to go home and write a bunch of music which I’ve not been able to do while we’ve been away. Then from September to just shy of Christmas we’re going to be on the road again – we’re going to Australia in December which I’m really looking forward to as I’ve never been there. It’ll be nice to write some new material to take on the road with us when we tour later in the year.”
So don’t let the Bully express leave you behind, take it as a cue instead to jump on as it roars past your stop. For all the talk of the future, Bognanno takes a moment to reflect on their début, newly released in the wild, and suggests “I think the one thing I want people to take away from the record is for them to be able to relate to it in some way, for it to pull out any kind of emotion. I would be happy with that.”
Buy: Bully – Feels Like