Bully’s Alicia Bognanno returns to her roots with freewheeling ‘Sugaregg’

The singer and guitarist is amped for her first post-shutdown tour. Now she just needs to find someone to care for her plants.

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive

Alicia Bognanno, the creative force behind Bully, hopes that her longest active touring companion is able to survive this current stretch of dates — her first since the coronavirus shut down the live music industry in March 2020.

“I’ve had so many memories in that van, but at the same time I know it’s gotta go,” Bognanno said of the vehicle she received as part of the recording deal she inked with Startime International prior to the 2015 release of Bully’s debut, Feels Like, and into which she recently invested $3k for a new transmission, a repair followed in quick succession by other mechanical issues. “It’s going to be a sad goodbye, for sure, but so many things have changed since I first started Bully … that I feel like now I’m a lot better with dealing, or at least understanding that this thing is lifelong for me, and people are going to come and go as I do it, and I just have to accept that.”

This included the departure of longtime band members prior to the recording of 2020 full-length Sugaregg, with Bognanno embracing Bully as a solo project as a means of recapturing the excitement she felt about music entering into recording that first album.

“After touring that first record … I came back to make Losing (released in 2017) and it felt like a lot of pressure to release something or Bully would fade away,” she said of the sessions, which were further hindered by the weight of expectation. “The first record was just a little more fun and carefree. … I get why I [approached] Losing the way I did, where I wanted to challenge myself, but it’s like, listen, I don’t need to do this difficult lead part if the song doesn’t call for it. There’s nothing wrong with going to drop D and playing some power chords. If it’s a good song, it’s a good song.”

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sugaregg, in turn, arrived as a more loose, streamlined affair, filled with sugary, singalong hooks and arena-sized riffs. Even so, Bognanno never shies from addressing complex issues, with multiple songs capturing her own struggles with bipolar disorder. The record never feels bogged down, though, projecting a thrilling sense of discovery throughout, particularly on tracks such as “Every Tradition,” a rejection of traditional societal roles for women that also sounds like the musician jettisoning the overthinking that crept into Losing sessions. “I’ve been … wasting my time second-guessing what I need,” she howls.

Of course, Sugaregg surfaced amid the pandemic, and with the musician unable to tour behind it, the record never gained the momentum Bognanno hoped it would — a small price compared with the mental health struggles amplified by the 16-month loss of the stage.

“Having the only thing that I ever felt gave me a sense of purpose taken away for so long really put me into a dark place,” said the singer, who got sober prior to COVID and has maintained it throughout shutdowns (this tour, which stops at Skully’s on Saturday, July 31, will be Bognanno's first time hitting the road sober). “I’ve never felt as close to my true, ideal form as I do when I’m onstage. It’s like all of a sudden you get this confidence and comfort. … I can be stressing 23 hours a day, but that one hour I’m playing makes it worth it.”

Absent that live release, Bognanno sought out comfort by exercising her green thumb, turning to horticulture early in the pandemic, drawn to the calming effect that caring for plants provided amid the surrounding chaos. “Now my house is a greenhouse, just full of plants, and I like to take care of them and watch over them,” she said, noting that the interest arrived in tandem with her sobriety. “And, wow, I probably sound so boring, but it’s satisfying to watch the leaves grow and to know something is living and growing and changing in your house. It’s so rewarding.”

The same could be said of Bully, which continues to evolve under Bognanno’s creatively restless hand, with the singer describing this post-COVID emergence as something of a reboot.

“Coming out of quarantine … it’s a full new chapter,” Bognanno said. “I want to sound better than before, and put on a show that’s better than before. I don’t want to just pick up where I left off.”