Writing Grunge Songs for Elisabeth Moss

Alicia Bognanno (Bully) on crafting the music of Her Smell's fictional band.

Alicia Bognanno — the front-woman of the Nashville-based band Bully — is the artist behind the original music at the center of Alex Ross Perry‘s new movie Her Smell. The film follows the seemingly endless free fall of Becky Something, the front-woman of the ’90s-grunge-reminiscent band Something She, played by Elisabeth Moss. Here, Bognanno discusses what went into crafting the sound of the fictional iconic band.
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse

There was a guy I knew in Nashville named Keegan DeWitt — he used to play in a band, and we had the same manager. He’s in LA now, and he does most of the music for Alex Ross Perry’s films. For Her Smell, Alex had described to him what he was looking for with Something She’s music, because I think Alex had never written anything that required original songs that were subject to the script. He presented the ideas to Keegan, and Keegan pointed him in my direction. Alex sent me the script, and he and I started talking from there.

He had me write three songs. Or, I guess two and a half — the half was supposed to be the one that’s kind of falling apart when the main character Becky is really fucked up in the studio [“Pulled Down”]. There weren’t many guidelines for the songs, but I did base it off of the script and the context in which the song was taking place. It was kind of just like, “Put yourself in Becky’s position and write from there.” Alex may have sent me a video for a band to give me an idea of the ballpark that the song should be in, but there was not much direction at all, which I think was good because I was less likely to do something super derivative. I always feel like if someone says specifically, “I want it to sound like this,” you kind of get in your head about it and end up ripping something off.

Still, just because of the nature of the character, it was kind of hard not to consider Courtney Love. Reading the script, I was like, is this about Courtney Love? Not exactly, but from what you’ve heard about Courtney Love and her relationship to music and her career, it seemed kind of similar to what Becky is going through. But none of the songs were supposed to be like Hole. Hole’s music is pretty noisy and fast and intense; two of the Something She songs weren’t supposed to be like that, then the final song [“Breathe”] was supposed to be kind of like a pop-punky hit. Her music wouldn’t have fit the script, so I wasn’t trying to write a Hole song. I’m not good enough to write a Hole song.

The process of writing the songs was maybe over the course of a few months, but I got the script a long, long time ago. There wasn’t a rush writing the songs — I would send something over, then Alex would take time with it, Elisabeth Moss (who plays Becky) would take time with it, and then they’d get back to me. I remember trying to keep the sound of Elisabeth’s voice in mind when I was writing — with Bully, I do a lot of screamy stuff, and I particularly tried not to incorporate that in the Something She songs, because I wasn’t sure what kind of range she’s most comfortable in. There was one song that I sent over a second version that had kind of a screamier part, and they went with the other version that would be more easily accessible for anybody’s voice.

I have an awful memory and I have close to no music theory knowledge, so every time I write a Bully song, half the chords I’m playing I’m not sure are actually even chords; I have everything I’ve ever written filmed in a folder on my computer so that I can look back in case I forget it. Since I was doing that anyway, I’d just send over a video of my hands on my guitar for each song so Elisabeth could see where my fingers were for each note; then she would take that and work on it with a guitar teacher. Then after I heard back, I would move on to the next song. I think the process of getting everything worked out on the business end took way longer than writing the actual songs.

There are a lot of different things that played into the way I felt after I turned those songs in. It was the first time I gave over control of a song I wrote, which I’d never had to do before — just hand it over. I had to think, OK, these harmonies that I wrote for it are probably not going to be there, or this melody is going to be changed a little bit. I mean, it was executed great — Elisabeth did a fantastic job, but it was still really jarring to let go and have to see these really subtle changes that probably only I as the writer would notice.

But then, it didn’t feel the same, because I don’t consider those songs mine. I consider them Becky’s songs, and that’s super separate from me. I loved writing for a fictional character — I hope I get the opportunity to do so much more of it. It’s a good exercise as a writer, to write something that’s not necessarily from your viewpoint. Over the years, there’s been a lot of times where I write something and I’m like, I wish this would work for Bully, but it’s not going to, and I forget about it, so it’s nice to be given an opportunity to write something that’s not for my band — to get out of that, and to not constantly be thinking about myself and the way I feel. That was probably my favorite part, just sitting there and trying to put myself in somebody else’s shoes.

I’ve been asked in interviews before if I was going to play these as Bully songs, and in my head I’m like, No, these are Becky’s songs. I take a lot of pride in knowing that I did something that wasn’t for Bully — that I did something completely separate.To combine those two worlds just doesn’t feel right to me.

As told to Annie Fell.

(Photo Credit: left, Alysse Gafkjen)

Alicia Bognanno is the front-woman of the Nashville-based band Bully. Their most recent album, Losing, was released in 2017 via Sub Pop.

(Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen)