Interview: Bully’s Alicia Bognanno digs deep into process

Bully w/ Big Ups

The Mill — Friday, Nov. 3 at 9 p.m.

Bully returns to Iowa City this weekend. — photo by James Willamor

Two years after a powerful performance in Iowa City, Bully returns to the Mill on Nov. 3, promoting their fantastic sophomore album, Losing, which was released on Oct. 20. The show starts at 9 p.m. featuring opening act Big Ups; tickets are $15. I spoke with lead singer Alicia Bognanno late in October about the album, the tour and the what was most important about losing over the past year.

Tell me about the album — what sorts of differences from the first album are you most pleased with?

Well, the record is more matured; there’s more space in the songs, and I think that having a year and a half touring got us used to playing together.

What appealed to you about the album, in particular?

I really like “Focused,” because it broke me out of a songwriting rut. That is a high point for me.

What did you feel like you did aesthetically in this album that you didn’t before?

I wanted to be more conservative with drums than the last album. And I also wanted to push myself a little bit more. A lot of time when I started writing and couldn’t come up with a bridge, I would just move on. I took a little more time in trying different things.

What did you mean by Losing?

I picked that title before I did the lyrics and that was one of the last things. It was a line on “Focused” — it wasn’t about anything too particular. It seemed right.

You’ve spoken before about going through multiple drafts of lyrics. What about that process was beneficial in discovering or revealing the heart of Losing you wanted, song-by-song?

When I sit down to write I want to — I go through a cycle where I want to put the pen down or guitar down if it isn’t good. Usually things will come out. When lines turn out as cringy or off, I need to put it in more time with it. I did that this time instead of walking away.

Sometimes playing live, things won’t roll off the tongue as you thought. I want to be confident in all I am singing, and so [I] need to edit sometimes.

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What is the heart of Losing?

I started writing differently — I wrote with bass and looped in guitar. I think that I have a lot of appreciation for “Focused” because it opened up the door for me and led me to believe that there was multiple ways to write a song. You can change things up, take a different perspective.

What is the song about?

The song on the record is revisiting an old friendship and two best friends — and when you can reflect on experiences you shared when younger and process them as an adult, it is interesting. It seems intense, but it is a sweet song to me because it reminds me of my friend. The record seems negative, but underneath there’s a positivity that’s harder to sense on the surface.

How is that sense of Losing, where there’s a positive lying beneath the negatives, reflected in the mixing of the album?

The vocals are really up front; they’re really present. There’s so much time put into lyrics and tracking them, and when we were comparing mixes we could identify what sounded best, and it was the up front ones. I don’t know if it reflects confidence in songwriting, or myself, but I feel it.

How do you present these elements live? How has your show changed as you’ve continued to refine the material — even from 80/35 this summer?

There’s a lot more vocal stuff that we can’t do live because there’s not six of me, but the other two cover the vocal stuff. They talk more because they each have a microphone. We’re in the process of reworking the set — I have four different tunings and insist on using one guitar, and there’s also switching up to avoid a long batch of slow songs or fast songs. The first [tour] was good, but I think this will be better. We can play longer than 25 minutes now, too.

What new directions do you think your emphasis on Losing will open in the future, personally and musically?

I think we might … this record got really heavy, and I didn’t have intentions to make it that way. I might lighten up the third record and bring the playfulness from the first record. But I write by focusing on what’s interesting to me and not boring. And I want to explore new instruments and stuff too. We just have to wait and see.

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