Ana Popovic can play the shit out of the blues. And she belts it out like a mother in pain, too.
But what really captivated me was the sight of her wielding her Strat and tossing off a bevy of tasty Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque licks while wearing a super-sleek, silver mini-dress. Yep. The totally package. Hot. Cool. Killer chops. But don’t think that Popovic hasn’t paid her dues when it comes to the blues.
Growing up in Serbia under the Milosovic regime, Popovic had to fight for her right to be blue. A battle in which she has obviously triumphed. She’s performed at blues and jazz festivals worldwide, sharing the stage with a veritable who’s who of blues legends.
Her new release, Unconditional, showcases Popovic’s undeniable guitar and vocal chops and features her slide idol, Sonny Landreth, an extremely tasty Jon Cleary on B3 and piano, Calvin Turner on bass and Doug Belote on drums. This selection of rockin’, soulful tunes will have your toe tapping, your head nodding -- and please pass the tequila. You can buy me a round, too …
GUITAR GIRL'D: You’re from Belgrade, Serbia. Is there a thriving blues scene there?
Well, it is unusual. It isn’t mainstream or anything. But there were always bands and clubs and blues fans. There are a few of them who are secure enough to write their own stuff. Most of them are just trying to copy what happens in America. We do have a huge rock scene, however. Especially nowadays with so many concerts over there. Literally on a weekly basis there are so many huge shows that fill arenas.
What steered you toward the blues?
When I was growing up, I got into blues. My father had a huge blues collection and was into blues probably before most American blues players started. I remember when I was 2 or 3 years old there was always blues playing. Way before I knew what the songs were about I was singing them and playing on a small wooden guitar. The only music I ever remember was just blues.
So it’s definitely a part of you …
Yeah, blues feels like home. Especially when I’m in the States.
So how did you take that leap to make your own original songs?
Actually, it was a process. It still is a work in process. It got my first label deal when I was 22. I was lucky enough to get in with Ruf Records in Germany. That’s when my serious writing started.
Since English in not my main language my playing sort of progressed from the beginning. At first I would just write a few licks and use a couple of lines in this movie and a few lines in that book and just made up a story. Then when I moved I started writing about things that actually happened to me, from my own experience.
A lot of journalists were asking me what it was like to grow up in Serbia and my lifestyle, so I decided to put them on paper. My album, Still Making History, was really about me growing up in Serbia, and I wanted to give hope to people born in third world countries. I hope that it is an inspiring record to women born in third world countries trying to follow their dreams.
So then you really got into songwriting?
My favorite part about songwriting is that you have the ability to be whoever you want to be in the songs that you write. An example is my song “Count Me In,” which talks about leading this wild life and borrowing someone’s crib for the night and partying, drinking and smoking, and doing everything that is not allowed. For me, making music is like being in somebody else’s skin, or in a movie!
Tell us about Unconditional, which was released on August 16.
Unconditional is the first record where I really went back and did a solid blues record. Of course, I didn’t want to write a record like they did 50 or 60 years ago that captured the hard parts of life. I just wanted to write in that style. Not like I woke up with my life terribly hard, or that I had to go and pick cotton, because I don’t! I just wanted to write an album that was more thematically put in that old blues form.
Do you feel that your style has evolved?
Absolutely. I was really inspired on Unconditional to make the guitar shine more in the record, rather than the guitar just serving the song. My style and phrasing that I play is different than other guitar players. Someone told me recently as a compliment that when they hear me play, they can not predict where my songs are going. In one second they hear Hendrix, and then some jazzy licks. I thought that was really cool, so I tried to make the record like that.
So tell me a little bit about your gear. What is your go-to guitar?
My favorite guitar is a ‘64 Fender Strat with a sunburst and a rosewood neck. Then I have a maple neck ‘57 Fender Strat reissue, which is equally as good even though I got it as a reissue. All my slow blues I play with that guitar. I have a few other guitars at home like a Tele and a few other acoustics. I am definitely not a collector and just have guitars I use. If I don’t like it I sell it. I am lucky to be endorsed by Fender.
I play a wonderful Mesa Boogie Mark IV amp. It’s got a great clean channel. It has an edgy yellow channel that’s great, too. My favorite is the orange channel that gives it a nice boost with a tube screamer pedal. It’s an original one from the ‘70s.
I also use a wah-wah pedal, especially with slide playing. I also use the VOX British Flag wah-wah. Unfortunately they stopped producing them, but they are the best. A full range and it sounds almost like your guitar is talking without all that scream. I wish I could find another one of those!
What goes through your head when you’re on stage?
Somebody said once when they see my trio play, they want to go home and play guitar. I really liked that! I try to play with passion when I am on stage. I am really very concentrated and into myself and my band while we are playing. I am always trying to find that energy that Hendrix had. That special thing or feel that is unconditional. When I get that feeling it makes it all worthwhile. That is why I play. I am playing this instrument searching for that moment. When I play and we all feed off that energy. Every body can find this in their work if they do it with passion.
Watch Ms. Popovic dabble with a bit of slide, and check out that supremely cool sequined little silver dress as she performs the title track here:
Hear some of Unconditional and find out when Ana Popovic will be paying your town a visit! For more info, visit anapopovic.com.
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Acoustic Bass Amps, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.