How Alicia Bognanno found peace, let go, and made a new Bully album
Before Alicia Bognanno had even written songs for Bully’s new album, she knew it had to be called SUGAREGG. “There was an episode of Radiolab on NPR, and they were interviewing this guy who had gotten a sugar egg when he was like seven, and he kept it and held onto it,” says Bognanno. “He was sixtysomething, or maybe 50. And then [Radiolab] took the sugar egg to try to replicate it but they accidentally broke it.”
The name of the record is in a lot of ways the antithesis of Bully, which typically features Bognanno’s throaty roar over propulsive rhythms. But over the past few years, she experienced a creative shift. “There's a lightheartedness there that I wasn't capable of reaching before,” she says over the phone from her home in Nashville. Unlike her previous album, 2017’s Losing, a slightly more upbeat approach is woven throughout facets of Bully's third studio effort. Songs like “Where to Start,” “You,” and “Let You” meditate on dysfunctional romance with a hopeful edge. An added sweetness, if you will.
The newfound perspective also stemmed from letting certain things go, like Bognanno engineering her own records. “I love engineering, but it definitely takes up creative space that I could be spending on the music, especially when I'm actually in the studio recording," she says. She realized she didn’t have to “prove” to anyone that she could engineer a record. "It's okay. Just ask for help. You don't have to do everything yourself. You're not going to lose your identity if you lose a little control." For SUGAREGG, which she’s been writing on and off for nearly three years, she enlisted Grammy winner John Congleton as producer and mixer.
Out of 32 songs, 12 made the final cut. “She didn’t necessarily take the first idea as the best ideas, but also didn’t dismiss her first ideas,” says Tony Kiewel, co-president of Sub Pop. He was especially taken by Bognanno’s “tenacity and endurance” when it came to songwriting. “It was a laborious, painstaking process and I think a lot of artists would have suffered.”
Born in Minnesota, Bognanno began recording demos in 2012. She eventually moved to Nashville, found work as a sound engineer, and formed Bully with drummer Stewart Copeland (not that one). Their debut, Feels Like, put the band on the map, though the project has since evolved into a solo endeavor.
Bognanno’s ability to loosen the reins on herself is also the result of finding control in other areas of her life. In 2016, she was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. “Before that, I just had so much paranoia, I could barely get through the day. It was so taxing,” she recalls. “The lines were blurred of whether or not I was being rational or I was in a heightened state of mind. It just put me in this constant game of jeopardy.” SUGAREGG recalls that emotional rollercoaster. On “Prism,” Bognanno’s hazy vocals recall a reluctance to take medication for her mental health, while the slow burn of “Come Down” explores the exhausting highs of her disorder. More painful moments await on “Like Fire," a song she's hesitant to discuss; at one point, she sings, “It was euphoric I felt so high/Could’ve took my life couldn’t tell you why."
A series of medication changes eventually helped Bognanno take control. And when she did regain her self-confidence, she found a new perspective. “I could be fun, I could be optimistic, I didn't have to be so literal,” she says. “I wasn't thinking about how the lyrics were going to be received or whether or not it was cool or whatever. I just did what the f—k I wanted to do for the first time in so long, and it felt good.”
In addition to finding peace with her mental health, Bognanno is now 10 months sober. These days, she meditates, exercises, and regularly attends her therapy and psychiatry sessions (now via Zoom). “It really, really helps any sort of negative feelings or emotions," she says. "When I just need to scream, that's usually what I turn to.
Another thing that helped her get out of her head: writing music for the film Her Smell, which follows a destructive, fictional '90s rock star named Becky Something played by Elisabeth Moss. (Moss tells EW, “I probably took more from Alicia for Becky’s performing, singing voice, and personal style than she realizes. Her blonde hair in her face and the slightly throaty but beautiful and lyrical voice — it really helped me form that character.”) For Bognanno, the opportunity to work on the film came at the perfect time: She had just wrapped up a tour for the second record and was about to start working on SUGAREGG. “It was a nice writing exercise in between, where it just got my brain going again,” Bognanno says. “I would go off the script and try and put myself in the shoes of what I thought Becky would write about, and it was really cool. It was awesome to not write something for Bully for once."
But Bognanno knows she's unequivocally tethered to to her band. “I have such an unhealthy relationship with Bully because it is my identity,” she says. “There is no separation between Bully and myself, and I don't know what I'm going to do when it's not a thing anymore.” All things considered, it doesn’t seem like that’s something she needs to think about anytime soon.