When we spoke to Alicia Bognanno for the release of Bully’s 2017 album Losing, the singer-songwriter-guitarist- audio engineer said she would be “really bummed” to ever relinquish production control to another pair of hands. For Bully’s superb third album – the buoyant, blithe and fuzzed-up SUGAREGG – that control has been yielded to one of the indisputable best in the biz: Grammy winner John Congleton. How did that revolution of responsibility happen? “I had so much change,” the musician says from her hometown of Nashville, as the gentle buzz of summer cicadas floats down the phoneline. “My mental state changed the most. A lot of it had to do with… just not feeling like I had that responsibility to constantly prove myself! I didn’t need that validation anymore.
“I was like, as a female and an audio engineer, I want to do this for young women. And I just realised I can still be an engineer, I can still do other peoples’ stuff, and I don’t have to sacrifice my music and beat myself to death making these records to prove that.”
Another auspiciously golden beam which lit SUGAREGG’s creation was the fact Bognanno tracked these guitar-wheeling, palpably emotional, wildly triumphant tracks during the summer – something she’d never done, because of the planning of tour cycles. “I tell you what, I will never record a f-cking record in the winter again – over my dead body!” she says. “It was so nice to be outside, having space to be creative, having my dog… it was a new experience.”
Bognanno’s dog Mezzi can be heard a few times across the album (a little woof in Come Down, and responding to a ‘speak’ command at that cut’s conclusion), as can other details of life: “Oh-h-h yeah, I just wanted to pick up the tempo,” Bognanno sing-songs to her studiomates at the beginning of Stuck In Your Head; she also offers an enthused, “Shall we?” before Every Tradition unleashes its sunny, soaring electric guitar riff.
“Those things are like, my favourite parts of records,” Bognanno smiles. “I love the things that kind of make them authentic, and give you a little personality on top of the songs.” She says she was experimenting a lot with ambient sounds too, and describes one exercise in which she laid out every voicemail she’s ever saved from people she loves, and played them in the background of Come Down. That little venture didn’t make it to the record’s final form (“’What the f-ck is going on here?!’” she mimics her label’s response), but investigations into new writing methods reaped great rewards – such as creating structures on bass rather than guitar, which Bognanno says “opened up a lot of doors” for her.
Stand-out Stuck In Your Head contains multiple overlapping vocal melody segments, Bognanno’s signature throaty-but-feminine howl, and a very slashy hi-hat rhythm on the kit. “It’s just me talking to myself about this larger meaning that I’m not seeing – stressing out about little things that, when something drastic has happened, don’t matter as much any more,” she explains of the song. “One voice is saying ‘I’m trying to get out’ and the other one’s saying ‘I can’t f-cking get out!’ – it’s this opportunity for inner dialogue that I think the sound calls for. So much of my writing is in the demos. I’m working out: ‘This is going to be reverb, this is going to be distortion, this needs an echo here.’ It really depends on what I’m trying to convey emotionally in the song, and what kind of tension is going to be there.”
As for John Congleton’s influence and skills, Bognanno extols the man’s astonishing capacity to act as a kind of translator; he could articulate abstract ideas which Bognanno was having trouble communicating to her musicians. “It was the craziest sh-t, I swear to God,” she says in awe. “Another thing he was great at was, he could sense when I was getting a little stressed out in my head, and he’d say, ‘Just take a break.’ That meant the world to me, because I never would have allowed that of myself. He just has this sixth sense. It blew my mind. I fully trusted John; I’m so glad I did it.”
SUGAREGG by Bully is out vow via Sub Pop.
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