Bully’s Magic Trick

On her new album ‘Lucky For You’, Alicia Bognanno transforms personal pain into raucous joy

By Jeff McCord

“I’ll never get fucked up again. I’m done!”

Alicia Bognanno sings, well, screams these lines at the end of Lucky For You’s opener, “All I Do”. It’s a defining moment, shouting out loud her new credo. 

Around the release of Bully’s previous 2020 album, SUGAREGG, Bognanno quit drinking. It wasn’t a casual choice. Bognanno has described the cathartic writing of her previous three Bully albums as “morning after” musings, borne from regrets and missteps. 

“It was necessary and I feel really good about it,” she says about her decision. 

Bognanno sits down to talk with me after Bully’s latest Studio 1A session. She’s poised and relaxed, if a bit furtive, and speaks in a rasp not dissimilar to her formidable vocals. It’s almost impossible to comprehend how her wiry frame produces such volume. 

“It’s definitely made me feel a lot better mentally, and I think I can manage my mental health better.” (Bognanno started bipolar treament a few years ago). “I try and speak really highly of quitting drinking because it’s so romanticized in the rock world to be a wreck and struggle with addiction. Songwriting-wise, it’s nice because I’m kind of –  well, it’s actually a blessing and a curse – because I feel like I’m forced to be present a little bit more than when I was drinking and I could kind of escape whatever I wanted to by way of that.”

Sobriety has not solved everything for Bognanno. Her latest album, Lucky For You, comes after an extended period of trauma. Not only world events like COVID, school shootings, adverse supreme court decisions, but also, personal tragedies. Looming large over the proceedings is the death of her friend of 11 years, her beloved dog Mezzi. In Mezzi, Bognanno saw acceptance and love she admits she has trouble finding elsewhere. The grief and aftermath of Mezzi’s passing is chronicled in the churner “Days Move Slow”. These lines jumped out at me. 

‘But I’m tired of trying to prove my worth /

To be accepted on this earth’

Lucky For You is already being mentioned as one of the best albums of the years. All four of Bognanno’s releases have been celebrated. Bully is currently on a tour opening for the Pixies. Does she, I wondered, after all this acclaim in the music business, still really feel she’s not being accepted? 

“I feel like most of the time I’m stressed, but I try and be aware of that, and I try and be present. There’s a lot that I really love about [the music business]. But yeah, I definitely don’t feel like I’ve ever had a point where I was like, ‘Oh, I’m good, I’m great’. It’s like always like, what am I going to do next? Where am I going? What am I going to try? I’ve never had like a moment of just being like, ‘Good job. You did it.’”

Even with all your success?


If all this makes Bully sound like a downer, nothing could be further from the truth. By her own account, Bognanno feels things very acutely and leans her into her traumas in her songwriting. 

But, in person, Bogannno smiles and laughs easily. And almost perversely, what emerges in her music is uplifting and joyous, buoyed by a ferocious rock backbeat and Bognanno’s powerhouse presence. It’s musical therapy of the best sort.

From the beginning, Bognanno has labored over her work, writing, producing, and engineering. A former intern of Steve Albini, she knows how to capture the live force of her music on recordings. In the past, she has worked hard and fast, letting her work consume her. The consuming part has not changed, but this time out, she got some help. And for the first time, the recording stretched out over a long period of time. 

“It wasn’t intentional at all,” Alicia explains. “It was just the producer (JT Daly) and I had so much stuff going on. He lived only 5 minutes away from me. So we were just finding time that we would both be in town to work on it. Once we got started, we were just way more focused on attention to detail and tones; really just wanting to narrow down the best of the best song-wise, but also [we] wanted to see everything through. It naturally became this very long process. Both of us were very invested in it and we were having a good time with it and it was great, because I got a bunch of songs out of it over that time that I wouldn’t have had if we just went in and knocked it all out off the bat.”

Why, when Bognanno is so skilled at recording herself, did she want to hire an outside producer?

“Because I don’t think I’m a good enough mixer. I wanted to hear, really just for an experiment, what Bully mixes would sound like’ really massive and kind of radio-friendly, because I’ve never heard that. JT comes from more of the pop world. But more so, I just wanted a little bit of help. I feel like the longer I do this, the better I get at asking for help. It’s really nice to have a second set of ears, especially when you’re working alone. It  can be so isolating and it’s so easy to go down the rabbit hole.”

“It’s cool because when I have someone else figuring out the engineering aspect of it, there’s more room for me to mess around creatively, and with tones. When I was engineering and mixing or producing the first two records, I did it all on tape, and then mixed it all analog. So it was a very intense process. At that point, I really wanted just to push myself to see where I could get with that. And I just really loved engineering. But for this record, I really wanted to lean more into the songwriting aspect, especially since we weren’t doing it on tape. And I think working with somebody gave me a little bit more freedom to focus on the other things that I was prioritizing for this record.”

Bognanno has fashioned a recording that expands her sound without losing its high-voltage kick.

Song after song transformed personal pain into raucous joy before our eyes, the magic that only comes from a rock band at the peak of their powers.

“With every record, it’s just experimenting with new gear; the goal is trying to be less concerned about how it’s going to be received and what I think other people want and really lean into what’s fun for me and what I want to do. There are songs like “Hard to Love”, where I sat down to write that song purely just as an experiment, and I used gear that I had never used before just to experiment with different sounds. That [took on] a couple of different forms and then essentially made its way onto the record, and now is a single, which is never something I would have imagined. At this point, the most fulfilling thing for me is to feel like I’m learning something new and growing in some capacity. That’s kind of the priority now.” 

Album artwork for Lucky For You

That, and the tour they are on. One thing that has always characterized Bognanno’s work is the attention to authenticity. Bully may have a new producer but the ferocious rush of her music is undimmed.

Later that Sunday, at Waterloo Park with a heat wave raging, Bully took the stage at 6:15. Still wearing the same clothes she wore earlier at KUTX, Bognanno launched into her set in front of a growing force of Pixies fans more concerned with finding their seats. Never mind that it was over 100 degrees and the sun was still blaring. Never mind that they were given a ridiculously short set time, at a crazy early hour, playing in front of two other bands’ gear. Down front, the faithful, the accepting, were already in place, and they knew what was about to happen. For Bognanno, she might as well have been headlining Madison Square Garden. Song after song transformed personal pain into raucous joy before our eyes, the magic that only comes from a rock band at the peak of their powers. And then she was done, off to find meaning in some other town and do it all over again.

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