Brought up surrounded by almost nightly live jam sessions in her
very own home, Serbian Ana Popović seems to have the blues running in her blood.
Popović leads her own band and has released 10 solo albums, nearly all of which have made it to the top five of the Billboard Blues Charts.
She has shared top billing around the world with artists such as B.B. King, Gary Clark Jr., Buddy Guy, and Joe Bonamassa, and has regularly appeared on the cover of leading music magazines, like American Blues Scene and Guitar Player. She is also the only female guitarist to appear on the all-star Hendrix Tribute Tours, 2014 – 2017.
‘The Boss’ Bruce Springsteen summed up just one aspect of her appeal when he said: “Ana Popović is one helluva a guitar-player.” Guitars Exchange catches up with Popović on a hot morning in Los Angeles, as she gets back home from the gym.
GE: Thank you for finding time in your busy schedule! You said in one interview that your music always reflects your emotions at a particular time of your life – what moment are you in now?
AP: I live in sunny California and I couldn’t be more happy. I always wanted to end up here and it has finally happened!
GE: Your latest release ‘Trilogy’ was a triple album – what was your motivation for that?
AP: On my records there is always a mix of different styles, but some of my fans would come over and say: ‘I made a blues record compilation of your songs’ or ‘I made a jazz record from your different albums’ so I thought ‘why don’t I do that?’ I had a record by Taj Mahal – a fold-out three record album, and I thought ‘Oh man, I would love to do that at one point in my career’, but the way the music business was going I wasn’t even sure if people would be buying CDs, so I thought ‘if I want to do it, I’d better do it now’. It took about three years style-wise to get the tunes together, and the recording took a year.
Also I wanted to be in total control of each song, write them with specific songwriters; to hand-pick the drummers, the horn section, and the producers. I was 100 per cent behind this project myself and I wanted to showcase each individual on the record.
GE: Where did you record it?
AP: Most of my records have been recorded in different cities; I always let the city transmit to my music as well. I don’t like to rush a record by just going into the studio for 10 days. We spent a few months in New Orleans, for example, and before that I was living in Memphis, Tennessee, and Nashville. I wanted to let each song go wherever it would take me, so maybe I would do a soulful rhythm section in Memphis and then take those tracks and add a horn section in New Orleans, and then do the vocals in Nashville – if I wanted a totally different sound for another section I would just go somewhere else.
GE: You play with Joe Bonamassa on the track Train on the album – how did that come about?
AP: I had written, recorded and played the Train, and one day I was listening to it in my living room and I thought ‘Oh man, Joe would kill that.’ I kind of heard his guitar right there. So I texted him and said ‘can you play on this track?’, and two days later we had the solo right there, so we booked the studio and he killed it, like I thought he would.
GE: Is there any specific moment with Joe Bonamassa that makes you smile now when you think about it?
AP: I love that track - he delivered an incredibly firey solo, he is so spontaneous, really a master of his instrument. I am a huge admirer of him as a guitar player; you can hear Albert King, BB King, and Albert Collins, he kind of has a way of making you remember it all, the roots, but then he takes it to the next level.
GE: You cover the Tom Waits track ‘New Coat of Paint’ on the album. What made you choose that one?
AP: Well it is hard to choose one track, because he has so many incredible songs. He is one of the great songwriters of our time. That track had a strong street sound and jazz vibe to it; there was also a lot of space on it for the horn arrangements. I played it to a well-known jazz producer and he loved it, I don’t think he had heard it before. On that record I had so many options I couldn’t choose - the musicians were just masters of their instruments - it sounded perfect.
GE: You once said that Sting and Tom Waits most influence you as a songwriter - why is that?
AP: I am a huge fan of both. They are very modern and write about things that artists rarely write about, and I like to do the same. There were a bunch of songs that I had not thematically touched before; I really don’t like to repeat myself, I prefer to go somewhere else. I look for different sides of myself as a songwriter.
GE: Have you ever met Tom Waits?
AP: No I haven’t, unfortunately, I would love to.
GE: Your track Johnny Ray is a particular favourite of mine. How did you come to write that?
AP: I have a blues song on all of my records. I start by thinking about the style. If I want to write a song about the blues I like to think about the greats, their way of story-telling, their sequencing, their phrasing, and at the same time I look for something modern - it just comes to me. I am not going to sing about the cotton fields because I am born at this time; but it has to be a strong feeling because it is the blues.
GE: You even have some rap on Trilogy. How did you come to work with the rapper Al Kapone on ‘Let’s do it again’?
AP: I had never worked with a rapper, but it just came to me, I thought ‘I want to do something that I’ve never done before.’ Al is one of the best known rappers in Memphis and he’d done a lot of ghostwriting for others. It was interesting to see him come into the studio in Memphis, hear the song, take a bottle of whisky, and go for a drive. When he came back, he rapped right on the spot. It was perfect. I couldn’t think of anything better.
GE: You grew up surrounded by live blues music nearly every night in your home, because your father Milutin plays guitar in a band. When did you start?
AP: I started to record at 12 or 13. I heard Robert Johnson and learnt it by heart at home. I learnt an Albert King solo and then moved on. Milutin was jamming with friends and I would listen to them – my mum and sister would go to bed and I would stay up late, as I wanted to hear them play and hear the progress of their amateur band. I started to play the piano a little bit. I tried Spanish guitar with plastic strings but that wasn’t going anywhere, so finally I tried playing rock guitar and that is how it all started.
GE: You grew up in the former Yugoslavia. Was it difficult to get going as a guitarist in that environment?
AP: There were just a few places in Belgrade where you could listen to blues, and obviously there were no women to listen to, so I formed the band Hush with my friends. We were soon gigging, making some money, and were on national TV several times – the first time they had a Serbian band playing in English. I later played with some European artists as a guest. I had some CDs to sell and they were gone in a few minutes, and I thought ‘Great! I can pay my next few months rent!’ It was a sign that I was on the right path.
GE: Was there a moment in your life when you thought ‘I can go to the top?’
AP: That happened to me in Belgrade when I was with Hush. I met a guy from the States, we had a jam together, and he suddenly said ‘they would love you in America’ – and that was a trigger for me, I was 20, and I thought ‘that is what I am going to do!’ I was happy to do something unique and not just be a cover band of what the Americans were doing. I am a European a woman and a modern blues artist, and I don’t want to let that go. I’m very lucky to have my career in the States, as there are just a few European blues artists here.
GE: If you had to choose three highlights in your career, which would you choose?
AP: Definitely, my first nomination for what is now called the American Blues Award. I became the first European artist to be nominated. I think I have got six now, but the very first one was incredible. I loved being a part of the The Hendrix Tribute Tour; that was a real highlight. I was the only female artist to play with Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Eric Johnson, and others. I’ve been on that tour for four years in a row, which is great. And moving to the States and signing with Monterey International was a big moment in my career.
GE: Moving on to guitars now, what is the six-string you can’t live without?
AP: My 64 Fender Strat.
GE: When someone stole your tour bus did you lose your guitar then?
AP: No, no, luckily. I never part from my guitar, it is always with me.
GE: That sounded like a terrible moment.
AP: Yes it was terrible, they tried to take the whole thing. But I spoke to some incredible people online who were very supportive and ready to help.
GE: What advice would you give to aspiring guitarists?
AP: Believe in yourself and stick to whatever you think is different. It might not sound great at the moment, but if you continue and people like it, it is going to become your signature style.
GE: You once caused controversy with some ‘blues purists’ by posing naked for the cover of your 2012 album ‘Unconditional’ – were you surprised by the reaction?
AP: No, no, I wasn’t surprised. People have different views. It was a very bold cover and I was 100% behind it. I am very proud of it; it is great art. It is one of my favourites for sure.
GE: It sounds like you took more control on ‘Unconditional’ than on your previous albums?
AP: Yes that was the moment I took control of my career - the style, visuals, production, video - and I have never regretted it. It’s a fantastic record.
GE: There have been many stories recently about women experiencing harrassment and sexism in the film industry – do you feel it is the same story for women in music?
AP: I’m sure. I have had incredible luck not to be one of those women, but I am 100% sure that it has been happening. I sometimes have not been shown respect as an artist, and it’s not a lot of fun, but I’ve always worked through it and I’ve always set my rules down. My advice is to keep control, and get your ideas out.
Our interview closes with Popović explaining that she is shortly off to tour in Belguim, Germany, the Netherlands and France. A quick glance at her webpage shows a lot more scheduled shows in the USA, Canada and France in 2018, but she says she is also looking forward to working on her new album. “I am about to begin pre-production for my next record in Los Angeles. I am working with a person I really admire, but I can’t say who, because I want it to be a surprise,” she concludes. “I think it will be very exciting.”
(Images: © Jack Moutaillier, Mark Goodman, Ruben Tomas, Dinko Denovski, Cheryl Gorski, Marco Van Rooijen)