Ana Popovic: "The cancer took a lot out of me, and so did working towards getting better. I had to spend every atom of energy on playing guitar and writing songs"

Serbian blues rock guitarist and singer Ana Popovic, poses during a photo session in Paris, on March 13, 2023.
(Image credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)

In the 25 years since the release of her debut record, Hometown, tail-gunning blues virtuoso Ana Popovic has proved herself a force of nature with a vintage Strat in hand.

Like clockwork, the Serbian-born spitfire has unleashed record after record of powerful yet soulful modern blues, stunning critics and fans. Indeed, Popovic's licks are blessed with bite, able to crush curious onlookers in one fell swoop.

Indeed, through her first 10 records, Ana Popovic has seen and done it all, which makes record number 11, Power, utterly unique. Faced with a life-threatening disease and thoughts of retirement and retreat swirling around her, Popovic doubled down, making what could be considered the finest music she's ever laid to tape.

"After the breast cancer diagnosis, I had a moment of uncertainty," Popovic admits. "I had to look myself in the mirror and ask, 'Is this the last record I am going to make? Can I keep going?' Because I don't do anything halfway. I give it my all when I play guitar and make music, so I had to choose to keep going or give up. I chose to keep going and am so glad that I did. I always want to be positive, and I want to help enact positive change in the world. I chose to put my personal situation aside and make a record about positivity, which helped me heal."

As the fear subsided, Popovic dug in harder than ever before. Buoyed by swells of positivity paired with untold levels of perseverance, Popovic balanced her treatments with her music, allowing herself to erupt via a groundswell of a tracklisting of truly empowering and inspirational music.

"I found strength that I never knew I had," Popovic continues. "After 14 rounds of chemotherapy, I realized I had so much inside of me that I wasn't aware of. And so, that's the point of Power as an album: to inspire people. I want to inspire people who go through all sorts of things so that they can get through it as I did. I want people to know that to do that you have to hold on to your passion tighter than ever before and not let it go.

"It can be easy to give up in those moments, but if you hold on, it can help guide you. Whatever you're going through might change you, but if you hold onto that passion, it'll still be there and change with you."

Resilient and fostering a renewed outlook on life, music, and the guitar, Ana Popovic dials in with Guitar World to recount her struggle and eventual triumph over breast cancer, the creation of her latest record, Power, her love for vintage Strats, and her message of hope to those who might be struggling.

What was the background behind Power?

"This record is completely like anything else I've done before. And what I mean by that is Power is not just my next record; it was done during the craziest time of my life. The circumstances are beyond anything you could possibly imagine. Physically and mentally… this record was challenging for me to do. Going through cancer was hard, and doing this record was my light at the end of the tunnel. All I had to look to was music; this record healed me in so many ways."

How did your cancer diagnosis alter your creative process?

"It's such a funny thing… discussing my health situation with the rest of the world and waiting for people's input on social media was such a scary thing for me at first. It was very important for me to find a quiet space so that I could focus that I had on my music and my guitar playing. Doing that empowered me to remain the musician I've always been and strive to be the musician I've always wanted to be.

The cancer took a lot out of me, and so did working towards getting better. I had to spend every atom of energy on playing, writing songs, and thinking of cool stories that didn't come off like a pity party

"But the cancer took a lot out of me, and so did working towards getting better. I had to spend every atom of energy on playing, writing songs, and thinking of cool stories that didn't come off like a pity party. Ironically, I wanted the songs to be entirely different from what I was going through, and through that, I found levels of creativity and was so inspired."

Would you say you're more inspired now than ever before?

"In many ways, yes. This got me to a place of working on trying and doing everything that I've always wanted to do but never had the time to do. Because once your life is threatened, and you realize that it could all be taken away, you understand how to make that time.

"So, this past year, since my last chemo finished in February of 2022, we've played 150 shows, the most I've ever played. But still, there's so much time on my hands, and so much I want to do because I'm invigorated. If you channel your interests and energy correctly, you'll be able to always do new and exciting things."

Ana Popovic

(Image credit: Brian Rasic)

Was there ever a moment when you felt like giving up?

"When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, at first, I decided not to share it with the world. Instead, I only shared it with a few people in my inner circle, and all those people were there for me from the very start. The most important was my bassist and musical director, Buthel [Burns]. Of course, when I was first given the news, my mind immediately went to thoughts of giving it up, retiring, and maybe going back to Europe to focus on my well-being. I figured, 'I've had a wonderful career, we've made great records, and we've toured the world, but maybe it's time for something else.'

"At that point, Buthel said, 'No, you can't give up. Now is not the time to retire. You were born to be a musician, and that's what you need to do.' So, that type of thinking is what pulled me through this whole thing. I needed that encouragement, and I had to take the time to accept what was happening to me because there was no way to prepare for that."

How did that newfound acceptance manifest in your performances?

"I had to get comfortable with a new version of myself and embrace who I am now rather than who I used to be. I had to do things like going to the wig store when I needed to play shows because, at that time, nobody knew I was sick, not even my band. I didn't like my looks when I was sick, and I was insecure about it, but at some point, I said to myself, 'I've got to embrace this new me and be thankful that I'm alive.' I learned that maybe my looks didn't matter because I could still play and still have concerts. And once I got out there, everybody loved it; they just wanted to see me play guitar."

You've gone through a lot of changes, but is there anything that's remained the same for you regarding your new record?

"Oh, of course. So much has changed, and I might look different, but I can still play like always. And as is the case with all my records, I wanted to indulge in some new sounds, grooves, and musical styles. I spent a lot of time writing Power and even more time making demos, which were all done between my treatments. 

"I kept going back, making changes and tweaking things, and I was okay with the amount of time it took because I wanted to give myself the time that I needed to be completely happy with the record. When it came down to it, you'd think it might be the other way around, but I was in no rush. Not only was I sick, but the pandemic was happening, so the entire world was at a standstill."

Did you inject any of those new sounds you mentioned into your guitar stylings?

My favorite guitar will always be my original '64 Strat. That guitar has a mind of its own and is truly different than anything else

"For sure, there are many instances where I was able to do that. I wanted to evoke the emotions that the blues give, and there's plenty of that. But there are also gospel influences, jam band things, swells of jazz, pop, and some funky things in there. I got the nylon-string guitar out and added some jazz and classical touches, which was a lot of fun.

"You'll hear some Brazilian chord progressions in other areas, which might be hard to point out, but if you listen, you'll hear them. So, yes, there are all those different sounds, but at the end of the day, what I usually do is going to be there. My style will always be based in the blues, but I am allowing myself to sort of go all over the place and genre-bend now."

Which of your guitars did you deploy across Power?

"There is a whole range of guitars, like my nylon-string guitar and my D'Angelico jazz guitar. Of course, I used my '64 Strat, and my '57 Strat reissue, too. I have a Les Paul Custom that I used for a few songs, which is pretty standard for me when I record. I think I pretty much kept it to those guitars."

What is it about vintage guitars that you love most?

"Vintage guitars have so much soul, and I love their history. My favorite guitar will always be my original '64 Strat. That guitar is my baby, and I love playing it. I love how it reacts to strumming and how it changes tone if it's played soft or if it's hit hard. That guitar has a mind of its own and is truly different than anything else. It's been on stage with me for so many years, and I can't picture myself going on without it."

How about pedals and effects?

"I used a whole bunch of those! It's a long list, but here goes: a Hall of Fame reverb by TC Electronic, an Xotic SP compressor, my two original Tube Screamers that I've had forever, and a [Electro-Harmonix] Deluxe Memory Man. Oh, and of course, I used my Dunlop slides and Dunlop MC404 wah pedal, along with an MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay and a Boss Blues Driver."

How would you best describe your present-day approach to the guitar and songwriting?

"I am balanced between being more in the moment and planning out. I've learned that it's essential to have that balance. I really love being in the moment, taking inspiration that way, and keying in on what the rest of the group is doing. I want to be in the pocket; it's an essential part of my playing. My goal is always to sound like I do when I play live, which isn't always easy.

"But when it comes to solos, those are sometimes a bit more planned out, especially when I am writing. An example of the new record would be Recipe is Romance or Luv'n Touch; those songs have more planned solos. But then you have a song like Strong Taste, which is about sex, and there are a lot of connections to be made between sex and the guitar for me – the style, the swag, and the sense of cool: there's another form of inspiration.

It's incredible how you can try to copy your own self, but it's never the same. You can't always plan it out

"Deep Down, which is more basic and has elements of soul and all that, and maybe I didn't have to plan that as much. I recorded the demo for that – I kept trying to recreate it and wasn't happy. So, I went back to the demo, and once I let go a little bit, I finally found it. It's incredible how you can try to copy your own self, but it's never the same. You can't always plan it out. Because the way you feel it at the moment and land the notes can't consistently be replicated. So, maybe things are best when they're natural and allowed to happen."

Now that this record is done, how has your outlook on life and music changed?

"That's a great question, and it's an important question. More than any of my other records, this record has a very positive message. I always want to give people great music and some quality in their lives. I could say that having cancer changed everything, but the truth is that I'm not the first person to ever go through this. You read about it all the time; sadly, people deal with this daily. Life throws so much at us all, so I needed to make an album that gave back something positive.

"I don't know everyone's story, but I definitely know my story, which pushed me to take chances, get out and do what I want, and have fun. That outlook relaxes me, and it helps my guitar playing. I've learned that I don't need to be perfect, and maybe that's something I would never have fully realized had I not been in that situation. I wrote songs that made me happy, and I hope they inspire people as they did me."

  • Power is out on May 5 via ArtisteXclusive Records.

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is a contributing writer at Guitar World, a staff writer for Copper and Rock Candy Magazine, and a steady contributor for Goldmine Magazine. In 2019, Andrew founded VWMusic, a successful outlet that covers music in all its forms. A guitar junkie at heart, Andrew is proud to have interviewed favorites including Joe Perry, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Steve Vai, Richie Ranno, Brian May, and many more. Some of his favorite bands are KISS, Oasis, Spread Eagle, and Starz.