How a Minnesota education helped make Bully an indie-rock force

Bully aka Alicia Bognanno

Bully aka Alicia Bognanno

Sitting a half-hour south of Minneapolis in the Wisconsin-abutting brush of Dakota County, Rosemount, Minnesota, doesn't stir much in terms of imagination.

The Twin Cities suburb is home to the largest oil refinery in the state; it boasts a median household income of $85,051. But the historically Republican broomball mecca is remarkable in that the local school district offers a vocational partnership with the Minnesota Zoo. It's that very program that set Alicia Bognanno on the path to becoming the hard-shredding impresario fronting Nashville indie-rock band Bully.

Bully — who play a sold-out 7th St. Entry on Monday — are much more than just a band: They're a creative enterprise. Rosemount native Bognanno, 25, is not only the band's vocalist and guitarist, she also engineered and mixed their debut firecracker, Feels Like, which came out on Columbia imprint Startime International in June. The record was met with critical acclaim from outlets like Pitchfork, Spin, and the A.V. Club, leading to a knockout national TV debut on Conan in August.

Though Bognanno abandoned her suburban hamlet nearly a decade ago for Music City, she still remembers Rosemount fondly for the opportunity she was given as a high school student to take an elective in audio engineering.

"I remember being younger and asking my teacher, 'How do people make records, how does any of this happen?'" she tells City Pages. "And this was the first time that I could just pick someone's brain about how the music industry works. It really influenced me."

But the whitewashed 'burb was ultimately more stifling than nurturing. After bouncing from Rosemount High with her diploma, Bognanno moved on to Middle Tennessee University to parlay her newly acquired passion into a four-year degree. Once arriving in the Volunteer State, she found the thriving, inclusive scene that'd evaded her in Minnesota.

"It was the first time where I felt like I had some sort of access to music," she says. "When you're in Nashville, all the 15-year-olds are in bands and playing house shows. Nobody that I was hanging around with was doing that at the time I was in high school."

In college, Bognanno scored an internship in Chicago at Steve Albini's analog dojo: the famed Electrical Audio recording studio. There, she learned to master her trade under one of the industry's most respected, outspoken production and engineering talents. Bognanno did not fail to impress her mentor with her passion.

"You can tell if somebody has the drive and the ability to express herself uniquely, and that was pretty obvious with Alicia," Albini says in an email. "I couldn't be happier that Bully has found an audience. But, popularity and recent success aside, I would still have bet my house on Alicia to do something outstanding."

Part and parcel of Bully's success is Bognanno's proficiency on both sides of the studio. By working the mix herself, she was able to imbue each track on Feels Like with the exact emotion she drew upon in her performance.

"The biggest problem with the interface between the band and record production can be that the engineer or producer doesn't really understand what's special or good about a band," Albini says. "Alicia obviously isn't going to have that problem, and that removes one of the biggest obstacles to excellence."

The level of control Bognanno applies on Feels Like is deliberate and measurable. She points to "I Remember," in which she intentionally blew out her vocals, and "Trying," wherein she polished the guitars to make a more appealing single, as examples of how she was able to meld her Nashville and Chicago educations into a singular sonic vision. And as long as the results are positive, she's going to keep exerting her will.

"If we were ever getting to the point where the music was being sacrificed because I was insisting on engineering, I'd definitely turn it over," she says. "It just hasn't gotten there yet."

Beyond the fact that Bognanno's brand of studio-takeover despotism doesn't really jibe with Minnesota Niceness, nothing about Bully feels explicitly Minnesotan. She is confrontationally frank in her lyrics. On Feels Like, she stoically sings about menstruation ("Trying"), drug abuse ("Brainfreeze"), and sexting ("I Remember"), an effect she achieved by shedding the habits she'd developed as a high school songwriter in Rosemount.

"When I first started writing, it was just very abstract lyrics," Bognanno says. "There were a couple things that made sense to me, and I could kind of bullshit the rest." But bluntness was ultimately where she felt more comfortable, giving her the momentum to appeal to a broader audience. "If I wasn't writing something I care about," she asks, "how could I expect anyone else to relate to it?"

Though Bognanno's vocals evoke flashbacks of Fontanelle-era Kat Bjelland (especially on "Trash" and "Picture") and she retains her 651 area code and sing-song accent, Minnesota cannot rightfully credit Bully as one of its own. So much of the band's identity is about breaking free of Bognanno's hometown's restrictions. 

The second verse of "Reasons," for example, could be construed as an ode to losing touch with one's roots; she seemingly rages against her suburban upbringing in the new video for "Too Tough." But, at the very least, Minnesotans can pride themselves on the fact that their inventive educational system set her on the rise.

"It was super cool that we even had that opportunity," Bognanno remembers. "I wasn't a very great student in high school, I got pretty bad grades, and that was the first time that I found something that I wanted pursue and wanted to work for. It was a huge step for a 17-year-old."

With: Heat Flakes, Fake Limbs.
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 12.
Where: 7th Street Entry. 
Tickets: Sold out; more info here.