Ana Popovic sizzles with the blues. She plays steaming hot, fire-breathing guitar.
Ana is one of my favorite guitarists. One of the distinctive things about her playing style is her absolute comfort with her instrument. Most guitar players spend a lot of time with their eyes on their fretboard. Popovic goes for a long time without even looking down at her guitar. She’ll stand on stage with her eyes closed. She’s in a zone where she breathes the music.
She described that space for me. “It’s a magical place,” she says. “I become so focused. It’s an indescribable feeling when the energy really takes off. I wouldn’t even see my friends if they were right in front of me.”
When many people think of the blues, they picture musicians like Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King or Buddy Guy. Black. Men. American. From places like Tupelo, Mississippi or Memphis, Tennessee.
Serbian guitar phenom Popovic isn’t black, isn’t male and wasn’t born in the American south. If you walked by the slender blonde European mom on the street, you could easily think she was an urban professional. A funky one. Smokin’ hot blues artist wouldn’t be your first thought. That changes the minute she steps on stage in her signature mini-dress or leather pants. She’s where she belongs in the heart and soul of the blues.
Popovic was born in Belgrade in 1976 during the reign of Communist era Milosevic. Yeah, that Milosevic, the one charged with war crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity.
But Popovic had a strong family and a good childhood. Her father was into blues music. Still is. Ana likes to jam with him.
“He’s just a modest man,” she says. “His singing is exceptional and he’s a good slow hand guitar player.”
As a child, young Ana listened to her father’s huge blues collection, absorbing the styles of Delta, Texas and Chicago blues.
Delta is the dirtiest. It’s raw and relies on a lot of bottleneck slide guitar work. You’ll hear the influence of early players like Robert Johnson and Son House in Popovic’s slide guitar work, which is one moment screaming, and the next soothing. She also has the introspective, soulsearching lyrics and vocals like the early players.
Texas blues include smasters like Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. There’s lots of guitar and serious jazz improv influences. There’s some heavy T-Bone Walker Stormy Monday-style phrasing in some of Popovic’s work.
Her funkier stuff has more than a subtle sense of sophisticated Chicago blues. In other words, Ana Popovic has a great blues pedigree.
As a teen she formed her first band, Hush, playing rhythm and blues, funk and soul. By the time she was 20, she was performing at more than 100 gigs a year. In 1998, she moved to the Netherlands to attend a music conservatory to study jazz guitar. She started her first solo project, the Ana Popovic Band. Her skills were obvious and the best sat up and took notice. In 2000, she performed on a Jimi Hendrix tribute album. So did the likes of Taj Mahal, Eric Burdon and Buddy Miles. Popovic was in good company.
Her first solo album arrived in 2001. Following recognition and album success, she left school to focus on her performances. Good decision.
Ana’s jammed with Buddy Guy, Hot Tuna, Taj Mahal and John Lee Hooker Jr. She’s been on the cover of Vintage Guitar, Guitar Player and American Blues Scene magazines. She recently performed at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
As her fingers fly and weave along her Fender Stratocaster fretboard, the blues cooks to a boiling level, at times exploding. She’s become known internationally for her soaring and intricate guitar solos.
For guitar geeks who are interested, Popovic’s main guitar is a ’64 Fender sunburst Strat with a rosewood neck. She found it in Nashville. She’s endorsed by Fender and also has a couple of custom Strats she likes a lot. But the ’64 is her workhorse.
“The first couple of shows I thought, ‘man, what did I buy?'” she says, laughing. “I wanted to give it back. But it became part of me, that old Strat. It responds to every touch. You can find other guitars where every note sounds perfect. But that Strat is a wild guitar. It’s very inspirational to me. I can switch from really pushing the notes in a bad, mean blues, to a subtle jazz sound. That Strat makes me work. That’s what I like about it.”
Ana Popovic pushes the blues to unknown limits with her virtuosa technique. Behind it all, love and family inspire her.
“There is only one thing you’re hoping you’re going to find in your life, that is true love, of course,” she says. “That must be the thing you want to live longer for. You’re not going to live longer to put more cash in your account.”
She works hard to keep things in perspective. Her schedule looks intense, but her band is doing only a fraction of gigs available.
“We book tours around family needs,” she says. “We say ‘no’ to a lot of offers.”
She’s breaking all the molds. On June 1, 2012, she gave birth to her second child, a baby girl named Lenna. To the best of my knowledge, wee Lenna was not born with a guitar pic in one of her hands.
Four weeks after Lenna’s birth, mama Popovic was back on a tour (called The Big Family Tour, of course) that took her (and family) through about 50 cities across North America. After five weeks on the road, the family relocated from Holland to Memphis, Tennessee, where Ana went into the recording studio.
She notes that she’s probably visited every children’s museum and park where she’s performed.
“We want our kids to have a normal life. On weekends we usually do nice things together. My little girl is only a year old. But Luuk has started school and I want to be a mom who is there for his school plays and events. Being a regular mom is important. My music isn’t full time anymore. I want to be there for people who need me.”
She sounds a lot like her humble father.
“A lot of musicians act like big stars,” she says. “What I do is important. But equally important is the person who works in a booth or an office. What really matters is to create a stable life.” On the other hand, she does think music is vital in any culture.
“It’s a mirror for your soul, our fears and inspiration,” she says. “Lyrics are a huge part of my music. Music reaches something that’s hard to touch personally, not to mention the role it can play politically. Growing up in Serbia under Milosevic, there were lots of things people did not dare to say. But people will sing it even if they can’t say it.”
She now finds herself living with her family in Memphis. The move was almost accidental. She planned on spending a lot of time recording Can You Stand the Heat, so she rented a home in Memphis.
“We just ended up staying” she says. “We love the place. My son goes to school there. He speaks better English than I do. When we left Amsterdam we wanted some place with better weather. We’ve got that in Memphis. And we’ve got the music. Not many musicians still play the blues like Albert King or James Brown did in his early years. It’s an African-American art form and has to have the groove. They’ve got it in Memphis. They still understand the blues.”
So does Ana Popovic. She creates her own path. She plays her own style. It’s the blues, Ana’s way.
You can hear Ana Popovic as she headlines the Limestone City Blues Fest (www.kingstonblues.com) on August 24. For more information and full tour details, visit http://www.anapopovic.com.
On Twitter @markaidanbergin