The Serbian guitarist/singer talks about her new album, writing music and her passion for the blues.
Born in Belgrade, Ana Popovic’s affinity for the blues came via her parents’ record collection. Inspired by singers Tina Turner, Nina Simone and Koko Taylor as well as guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy, Popovic formed her first band while still a teenager.
Scheduled for an August 16 release on Electogroove Records, her latest album, Unconditional, was recorded in New Orleans and was helmed by Grammy-winning producer John Porter.
Popovic recently talked with Pollstar about Unconditional as well as how she approaches writing her music and why parents should never discourage their children’s musical aspirations.
What’s different about your new album, Unconditional, compared to your past work?
Unconditional is a back-to-the-roots record and I spent a lot of time preparing it. I wanted to go back to the roots and write true blues. But I want to make statements, excite people and I wanted to say something I stand behind. Unconditional talks about how I feel towards my music. A lot of people tell me, “When you’re on stage, you close your eyes and it’s like you’re not even there.” It is that moment in Unconditional. It is something I live for, it is something that really inspires me. It is a very special moment when I’m on stage with my band. Me, my guitar. I think all people can have that in their line of work if they’re doing it with passion.
Also, blues, as a music form, is unconditional. You can’t alter it too much. You want to be blues? You can be blues but you have to be very experienced and to know that less is more. So it all came together, this whole idea about “unconditional.” It represents me. It’s my feelings about being on stage playing my music. I’m not concerned about what people think about it. If you like it, that’s great. If you don’t, too bad. I think it’s the same way about blues. [Unconditional] talks about blues, talks about passion. It talks about being proud of what you do.
The album’s cover art is a nude photo of you holding a strategically placed guitar. What inspired the album cover?
I did it for fun. My record company had the same idea because of the “unconditional” theme. So I talked with my photographer and said, “Let’s do it just for fun.” Then I decided not to use it at all. Until one time we had a day off with the band. I trust my band’s opinion. They’re great friends and would never advise me to do anything because of fame. So they were coming up with all these stories from the road. But I had no stories. I’m a mom and lead a very usual life. So I said, “Okay. I have a photo for you.” And they’re like, “You’re not going to use it?" You gotta use it.”
Then my husband said, “Of course, you have to use it. It’s a fabulous photo. It definitely represents you, the album, the blues and everything you stand behind on that record.”
What the photo represents is how I see blues. A lot of people tend to represent blues as an old man playing a guitar. That’s not exactly how I see it. It’s an old genre but every now and then it comes back to the mainstream. It’s a bold genre. It’s beauty of the basics. I thought the photo represented exactly that. It’s somebody who’s experienced enough to know that less is more and doesn’t let anything come between herself and her instrument. That’s exactly how I feel onstage – the enjoyment of playing an instrument.
How old were you when you began playing the guitar?
Pretty late, when I was about 13 [or] 14. By the time I was 18 I could play some solos. Basically, I started without intentions of making this my life’s work. I couldn’t even dream of that. I just wanted to be able to play a little when my father had a jam session. But I never thought I’d be good enough to make a living of it. Growing up in Serbia, all my favorite artists were American and it was like a world a part.
When you began playing, did the guitar come naturally for you, or was it something you had to study and learn?
I began going to guitar lessons about a year after I started playing. In a group of 20 students I was the only girl. The others were boys around the same age, maybe 13 to 16, and they were faster than me. They learned faster. They had all these licks and I was like, “Man, I’m no where.”
But my dad said the talent is only ten percent and all the rest is work. He would repeat that and I really stand behind that. I started graphic design on the same principle. I was so passionate about it. I studied it. An artist would come to our home, see my paintings and see my younger sister’s paintings. And he would go, “Who’s that? That’s amazing talent.” She was more talented than me but I was just making this whole thing happen because of my work.
I think it’s very wrong, as a parent, to say, “My kid has no talent. He can’t sing.” That’s so wrong. Everybody can sing … If you really want something, you can make it work, really go far.
Now, after all these years, all those boys that were playing with me, they’re not in music at all. That proves that if you want something, you should go for it. You work hard and it’s going to happen.
Do you consider yourself a woman guitarist or a guitarist that just happens to be female?
I would vote for the second. I don’t think there is a difference. I would definitely want to be considered a guitar player, not as a female. Nowadays there are so many female guitar players. If I see a girl and she asks me [about playing guitar], I would say, “Take another instrument. Like a double bass or trumpet.” You can [create] a great stage performance playing any instrument. Any instrument can be sexy if you know how to dance [and] how to move. If you feel the instrument and you’re relaxed with the instrument then you can, of course, play. It’s a huge plus if you are rare in what you do.
When I was starting in America it was pretty unique to be a woman playing guitar. That was a plus. I guess it’s very hard for a girl nowadays when it comes to guitarists because there are so many. Esperanza Spalding is so fabulous. Such an incredible talent and beautiful. The way she moves with the double bass, it’s like you’ve never seen that before. So pick another instrument and try to do something no one has ever done before.
When traveling, do you visit places known for their blues history?
Sure. Also different kinds of music. New Orleans has so many fabulous things and they’re so proud of their musical history. They really live for music. I love Chicago, and only because it has a large Serbian population. But I’m not only looking for the blues. I really like art. When I go to a museum it’s very important to me because my little one loves art. And, of course, musical history.
The very first stop I made in America was Memphis and there couldn’t be a better place to start. Memphis is stopped in time. It has a fabulous musical history. Beale Street and all the houses, it’s like 50 years ago. It’s one of my favorite cities.
Can you describe the writing process? Do you begin with a melody, lyric or perhaps just a riff that’s been running through your head?
I almost always start with lyrics, which is unusual. If the lyrics are good enough and reach the point where its almost done, then they have some sort of phrasing, timing and rhythm in them, and that’s how I make the song.
The process of writing kind of changed through the years because English is not my natural language. For the first two records it was more like I had to write songs, so I’d just close myself in a room then I would speak a line from this movie or that book, something that I would hear. I then put them on a piece of paper and made a story.
So many journalists asked me about the times in Serbia, so I wrote from my own experience. That was the first time I put something on paper that happened to me or the people around me.
With Unconditional, I can be whoever I want to be in my songs. For example, “Count Me In” is about doing all the stuff you shouldn’t be doing. I’m getting into somebody else’s crib in New Orleans. We’re putting on this party and we’re smoking and drinking and doing everything that’s not allowed – that I’m not doing in my everyday life.
But I can do it in my head and in my song. The way that song felt for me, even my guitar was sounding completely different. Not the usual thing I play. The lyrics inspired me to do different stuff.
There are a couple more. “Reset Rewind” is about somebody who has writer’s block. He’s at that point in his career where he doesn’t know where to go. He’s going back to the place where he was born and talking to real friends who really know who he is and where he was when he was starting. Those kinds of stories, you can get into someone’s head and it’s more like a movie, like writing a scenario.
As a writer, are you constantly bombarded with inspirations? Can you watch a movie just to be entertained, or do the images and sounds immediately inspire you and give you ideas for future songs?
Books, movies, anything that happens, sounds. I get inspired when I’m in the clubs. There’s this feature on the iPhone where you can recognize what song is playing. I usually record everything while walking. In Amsterdam I’m on the bicycle or walking, and I always have the iPhone with me and I’m singing while walking. I get inspirations everywhere.
When you’re home with your husband and son, what do you play for fun?
My son is a little drummer. He got a drum kit for Christmas and he loves to play. He was on my Blind For Love CD. He wants to jam. My husband plays very little bass. I just bought him a bass for Christmas. We just jam and it’s wonderful.
Ana Popovic plays the Mammoth Fest in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., Aug. 5; the Blue Star Blues Festival in Littleton, Colo, Aug. 6; Winter Park, Colo., at Smokin’ Moe’s Aug. 8 and Du Bois, Pa., at Treasure Lake Ski Lodge Aug. 9. For more information, click here for AnaPopovic.com.