Touching Base: How Bully’s Alicia Bognanno Adjusted Vigorous Music For Virtual Isolation

Alicia Bognanno of Bully

We asked Nashville artists who released music during the pandemic to reflect on the experience of putting their art out into a world on pause: how did they cope and stay connected, and how have they been gearing up to return to live, in-person shows? In the case of Alicia Bognanno, singing, songwriting, guitar-playing visionary of the band Bully, this past year was about finally learning to keep plants alive and avoiding music that would further bum her out. Bully’s high-energy, third album Sugaregg, released in August 2020, made it onto a slew of year-end lists, but navigating virtual performances of the songs on it was a different beast.

How have your priorities changed in the last year? 

Alicia Bognanno: Well, I wasn’t able to keep a plant alive before quarantine, but now I’ve got, like, a garden basically inside my house. So that’s become a priority, and really anything that makes me happy, since it’s been such a dark year. But music related, the record came out at the end of August and I sort of spent a few months promoting that and wondering what was going to happen with that. Eventually I just decided to dive into the fourth record, because I didn’t know how long things were going to last. So writing became my priority pretty quickly, writing and focusing more on the [new] record as opposed to touring and doing live shows. 

How has the whole virtual thing gone for you? 

AB: The virtual thing has been interesting, as I’m sure it has been for everybody. I kind of like the meetings. It’s just now I don’t see a point to go back and have in-person meetings. I usually would be able to, like, go up to Seattle and meet with [Bully’s record label] Sub Pop, but I didn’t get to do that. So that was not as fun.

But the virtual music thing was interesting. I just I never expected to have to play the songs solo, especially learning how to play songs for a record that you’ve never played live solo. There were a lot of them where I had to decide between playing the guitar part or the bass part, and I ended up just doing a bunch of work with pedals to try and use them to like build up the chorus and drop it back down and to try and create movement. It is also just cool to see how stoked and accepting Bully fans were, because I was really self-conscious about doing it at first. I was insecure that it would not sound nearly as good as it did live, and it probably didn’t. But it was cool to get such supportive feedback from a lot of the people. It was really sweet and good to know that I wasn’t letting them down in any way. I would say it’s been a learning experience. 

What’s been the most effective way of staying connected to fans? 

AB: Really, the only way I’ve had to stay connected to fans is through social media. I had to be a lot more active on it than I generally am promoting and releasing a record. That’s literally all you have. A lot of blogs and stuff were covering other things that were going on in the world, which they totally should have been, because there were a lot more important things going on. But yeah, it was just a different way to do things, and we relied a bunch on social media. That’s just the way it is now, so you might as well make the best of it.

What music has spoken to you in this time?

AB: For the last year and a half, I have basically not been able to listen to any sad music — any sad, slow acoustic music I just haven’t had any tolerance for. I think I was already bummed enough. I just didn’t want to put salt in the wound. I don’t know what it was, but it just completely knocked out any attention span that I had for that music, or maybe I just didn’t want to feel even more than I was already feeling. So I really tried to listen to a lot of upbeat music, you know, just loud, distorted music and whatever else. I mean, different genres. But yeah, I would say the music that has spoken to me the most is anything except for really, really sad, quiet acoustic music. [laughs] And there’s nothing against that at all! But I’m still surprised by how much the past year and a half I’ve just been like, “Nope, nope, can’t do it.” Anything that’s going to bum me out more, I cannot do it. 

How are you approaching the return to live, in-person performance? 

AB: I’m going to practice, figure out who is going to come on the road. I just think, like, practice times a million because the stakes feel pretty high. I feel like everyone’s going to be on the road. And also I just want to come back with a really, really, really great show. I don’t want to settle for anything less. (Bully is headlining a coast-to-coast American tour, and many shows have already sold out.)

I think it’s going to be great because I know that everyone misses playing music so much. I know for me, when I’m not playing live, I’m just like, “What’s my purpose? Why am I here?” We had practice for the first time the other day and within like the first minute of playing a song, it was like everything made sense. It just felt like, “OK, this makes sense why this last year has sucked, because I wasn’t doing something I loved.” So my approach is just going to be to go all in. And I’m excited to see people that will come to Bully shows, because there are a lot of people that have been to past shows and it’s nice to see them again.