Morning, Noon and Night:
Ana Popovic’s Many Shades of Blues
The label “hot blues guitarist” can be applied to Ana Popović in more than one way. The Serbian-born, conservatory-trained guitarist cuts an undeniably striking figure onstage with her short skirts and stiletto heels, but those visuals shouldn’t detract from the fact that she’s a skilled interpreter of a decidedly modern version of the blues.
Popović has been a professional musician for more than half of her 40 years. She put together her first band, Hush, in 1985 when she was living in her hometown of Belgrade, Serbia (then still part of Yugoslavia). But her immersion in blues – somewhat unusual for someone born and raised in Eastern Europe – began much earlier.
In those days, Yugoslavia was ruled by Marshal Josip Broz Tito; though the country was under a kind of Communist rule, Tito positioned the Eastern European country as part of the Non-Aligned Movement. Yugoslavia was generally viewed as less repressive than the Soviet and East German regimes. As such, Yugoslavian citizens could travel abroad with relative ease. “We used to travel a lot,” Popović recalls. “I was brought up to be a ‘citizen of Europe.’”
Ana’s father Milton was a serious fan of American blues; when the family would make annual visits to places like Holland, Germany and Belgium, he would often buy records and trade with other collectors. When they got home, those records would form the soundtrack of many parties with family and friends. “My dad was like a DJ,” Popović says. She laughs when she recalls that her family was a bit unusual. “I would think that all of the rest of the people were listening to blues as well!” Her childhood was filled with the sounds of blues as well as soul and R&B. “I realized later: yeah, that’s not what the rest of Serbia was listening to!”
Popović’s earliest memories include hearing the music of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, “all three Kings (Albert, B.B. and Freddie), Albert Collins, Bukka White, all of the roots stuff, the Delta stuff, and Chicago blues and Junior Wells, Buddy Guy.” To a young Ana Popović, that music was just “the regular stuff. It was only thing we had in our home; we never listened to Serbian music.”
Popović’s father is a blues guitarist, too, and he encouraged his children to sing. “He would get us around the guitars,” Ana says, “and so I was singing [songs by] Howlin’ Wolf when I was 3 or 4 years old. I learned those songs way before I could understand what they were meaning, and before I [learned] English in school.” She recalls that while the male members of those family-and-friends gatherings appreciated all of the legendary blues guitarists, the women – “my Mom and all our other cousins” – liked Stevie Ray Vaughan best.
“There was something [about] the production of those records that was different: it was modern,” she says. “And I thought, ‘If I ever do music, I would want to have that sort of music [which] will unite not only the players but also people that are not players. People who just enjoy the good arrangements and good sounds. That was something that I [discovered at] a very early age; I noticed the difference.”
By the time Ana was 12, she had already picked up the guitar. Learning songs by Elmore James, Robert Johnson and even modern-day bluesman Sonny Landreth, Popović initially developed her skill as a slide guitarist. She recalls that at her father’s living room jams, “I was the only slide player, so every now and again when they would play a slide song I would be the one to play [that part]. I would take a little part of the jam session. And that’s how it started.”
In school, Popović studied graphic design; that was her planned career path. But eventually she decided to change course. “I formed my own band when I was about 18, so that’s when I really started playing solo guitar. And then I realized, ‘You know what? I am just going to study music and go for it 100%.’” Soon she left for Utrecht, Holland to study at that city’s Conservatory. But while enrolled, she missed quite a few exams and assignments because of gig commitments. “I had a lot of shows right from the beginning; it was difficult to coordinate both study and playing live,” she recalls. Once her music career took off, she left the Conservatory.
Ana doesn’t necessarily believe that as a female musician she had to work harder than men. “I can’t say how it is for men, because I don’t have that experience.” She says that her focus has always been on having a unique style. “I didn’t want anybody to think, ‘Okay, she’s good … for a woman.’” She acknowledges that there are plenty of reasons for people to judge her differently. “But I wouldn’t know if it was because I was a woman, if it was because I was from Serbia, or if it was because I was from Eastern Europe.”
Speaking of which, while Popović earns consistently positive reviews for her albums, charges of “inauthenticity” do come up now and then. It’s worth noting that (to cite the most obvious example) Eric Clapton wasn’t exactly born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, but being a musician from Eastern Europe does seem to subject Popović to some skepticism from blues purists.
But her response to that reality is a bit surprising, too. “I don’t hear that,” she says. “This is a surprise to me.” She writes off this alleged criticism as nothing more than difference of opinions. “It’s okay that they like something better than the other,” she says. “I am at all not bothered by it. I invest time in my style, and whoever likes it, that’s great.” And as for those who don’t like her style, Popović suggests that “there’s a whole lot of other guitar players that you can like.”
That style of hers is informed by much more than blues, after all. “I have a perfect excuse to be different and to try myself in different genres,” she says. “I’m not born in Chicago, [so] they don’t expect me to be Chicago Blues. I’m not born in the Delta, so I make full use of that. And I am a modern artist.”
That modern approach made itself manifest from Popović’s first American release, 2002’s Hush! Taking full advantage of her interest in – and skill at delivering – a wide array of styles, Hush! is most definitely not an album designed to pander to blues purists. The disc has a dozen tunes, three of which are composed solely by Popović; three others are co-writes. Those, along with a sampling of blues standards (including Buddy Guy’s “Girl of Many Words”) collectively set the tone for Popović’s signature approach: a style that is rooted in the blues, informed by the blues, but open to other influences.
By the following year, Popović had released a follow-up, Comfort to the Soul. That set continued to have it several ways: traditional blues like an uptempo reading of the standard “Sitting on Top of the World” sits comfortably next to a cover of a Steely Dan deep album cut (Pretzel Logic‘s “Night by Night”) and a Popović-penned tribute to jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius.
Popović ‘s 2011 release, Unconditional, courted a bit of controversy. On its cover, an apparently nude Popović stares straight into the camera lens, her “naughty bits” obscured only by the guitarist’s signature Fender Stratocaster and a bit of strategically-placed shadow. Once listeners got past the racy packaging, they would find another solid collection of music, highlighted by a strong reading of Nat Adderley’s soul-jazz classic, “Work Song.”
And in 2015, Popović released Blue Room, the first released musical collaboration between the guitarist and her single biggest musical influence: her father. Blue Room displays more of an Eastern European flavor than one finds on Popović’s other releases, but it’s still very much rooted in traditional (and electric) blues.
To date, Ana Popović has released eight studio albums, a pair of live sets and two DVDs; each continues to explore the guitarist-singer’s varied musical interests, from the blues to soul to funk to rock, and eventually back to the blues once again. Noting that she has studied both jazz and world music, Popović insists that “I give myself absolute freedom to make music that comes straight from the heart. And the last thing I want is to put a label on it.”
Labels or not, the latest Ana Popović release is yet another varied offering. Released last May, the 3CD set Trilogy presents the guitarist-vocalist in three distinctly different styles. The individual discs are subtitled “Morning,” “Mid-day” and “Midnight” and each has its own musical character. “Trilogy is the most diverse record I’ve ever done,” says Popović. “It’s all me, obviously, but it represents a different take on blues.” The album features guest spots from Joe Bonamassa, North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson, famed drummer Bernard Purdie and rapper Al Capone.
The Trilogy project was carefully thought out. “I don’t make my moves overnight,” says Popović. “I put a lot of time into the concepts. It took me about three years to get the concept together.” Building on her previous studio experience, Popović applied all of that knowledge to the creation of Trilogy. “Nowadays when you go into the studio, you need to have 90% done in order to have a successful record. There is no more, ‘Okay, let’s just get into the studio and jam and see what happens.’”
Four different studios – and several different sets of support musicians – were used to make the album. “I wanted specific sounds,” Popović says. “I wanted exactly the horn section that’s going to be more soulful in Memphis for soul tracks, more funky in New Orleans for the funk tracks.”
Popović wasn’t intimidated by the risk inherent in releasing a 3CD set into a marketplace increasingly dominated by single-track downloads. “I thought this was maybe the moment, because everyone is saying constantly, ‘There’s no CD sales; let’s just put out a five-song EP.’ I said, ‘I’m going to prove different.’ If the product is good, people are going to buy it even if it’s twice the price of the regular CD.”
The guitarist admits that she wasn’t completely convinced Trilogy would come out the way she wanted. “I’m making the records for myself, because I’m my biggest critic. I know exactly what’s right about it and what could have been better. And Trilogy came – by far – the closest to my standards. Because I had the whole project in my hands.”
The award-winning musician – in 2003, Popović was the first Eastern European to be nominated for a W.C. Handy Award (Best New Artist Debut) – clearly enjoys the spotlight, but she’s happy to share the stage with other well-known and celebrated musicians. While Popović isn’t the first female guitarist to be featured on the Experience Hendrix tour, she’s the most oft-appearing. Discussion of that project finds Popović letting her guard down just a bit, revealing an otherwise suppressed competitive streak. Describing herself as “the only woman to be called upon four times” for the package tour, she makes a point of adding that other than her, none of the other female musicians “lasted more than one tour.”
Popović believes that she has developed her own style of playing guitar. “That doesn’t happen overnight; you need to work on it,” she says. From the beginning, she set out to learn from the recordings of greats like Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan (the latter is one of her major influences), but not to copy them. “I always thought it’s better to be different than just to copy other guitar players,” she asserts. “I think it’s important to insist on your own style. And then after so many years, you wake up with your own licks. And that’s a great feeling.”
Photo by Jack Moutaillier.