As one of the new wave of young female Blues performers, the twenty year old Ana Popovic compliments her raw sex appeal with a solid package of mostly original tunes on her new album "Hush". Reaching the top 25 in sales world wide in a recent Living Blues monthly stat; it was a pleasure to catch up with this up and coming performer, and listen to her thoughts on life and music, in this e-mail interview with mnblues writer danny murray.
DM: How big an influence is your family on your life and song?
ANA: I could freely say- major influence, not only on my music, but on the way of life as a musician too. My dad was playing Blues all his life (and still is), just as a hobby, playing with his friends once a week, holding jam sessions at our house while my mom was making amazing food. We all enjoyed these days so much. This is the main thing that connected me with live playing, and created this need to perform and make music.
Later I found my first band and started performing at the age of 18. My dad was always a huge fan and a support for everything I did, but always trying to point out the bad sides of life as a musician, as the best possible job you can have and as [the] worst (when or if it starts going wrong.) He always pointed out how important it is that I am able to lead my career smart, as [being as] important as being a good musician. I as well learned to listen and understand and respect the early artists, and this is the first Blues I've been listening to, such as Sonny Terry, Son House, Elmore James (my first slide lics), Bukka White, Robert Johnson, Albert King, A. Collins, later: SRW, Sonny Landreth, Rot Rodgers. I grew up listening to the Blues (mainly), Jazz, Funk and Rock of [the] 60's, 70's, and 80's since my dad was into this music.
DM: Where did you learn to play and sing like that?
ANA: Just listening to the records. I never had a day of singing lessons, and I've been studying Jazz guitar at the Conservatory of Music in Holland for a year and a half, and world music and pop for another year. Then my band started to be my main preoccupation, we started playing really much, so I decided to quit the studies for some time. But I learned my first lics when I was 15 listening to my dad, and listening to A. King's records, SRW, and since no one in Belgrade we knew how to play slide I picked [it] up from the Elmore James records (later Roy Rodgers, R. Johnson, J. Money etc.). That's the reason I never learned to play open tuning for slide, I just played what I've heard from the record.
DM: Are you walking the line between Blues and Jazz?
ANA: Actually, at the age of 20 I've heard Ronnie Earl for the first time, and that was something so influential for me to start looking for some new sounds and new scales. I loved the way he was melting simple Jazz influences into Blues (playing standards such as 'Round Midnight', 'Moanin'). I'll never forget his song called 'Akos' where the theme is G Minor arpeggio, played in a swing feel, that sounded so jazzy, and cooool to me at that time, and I wanted to know more about jazz. I still like the crossover T. Bone Walker and SRW had, between Blues and Jazz. I always wanted to sound jazzy for the Blues man, and bluesy for a Jazz man. Later I started listening [to] what Sonny Landreth is doing with mixing new scales with slide, and what Robben Ford is doing with his fusion phrasing, started listening to J. Scofield, K. Eubanks, and Dean Brown etc. But I never wanted to lose the large base in Blues as a base for my music, and something that [is] my roots.
DM: Where did you come up with the Ana Wall of Sound?
ANA: I think my sound (singing and playing) was changing rapidly, over [the] last couple of years. I learned to recognize what is really my sound, and what emotion I want to bring out in the song. Now, that was really difficult for a female singer in Yugoslavia, (not [in] her mother's language) and listening to a lot of male artists [such] as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters. It was very hard finding my own voice, since I wanted to sound like them. What I did a couple of years ago was so different, insecure, still developing, and it was just a bit of Ana Popovic sound. But actually I listened to a lot of Taj Mahal, and admired what he was doing with his voice, being able to transmit the emotion of anger, laughter, sadness etc. to the listener. Actually I like to bring up to my audience- how does Ana sound when she's angry, and when she's sad, in love, worried etc. with my voice and with my guitar, and to melt all the musical influences, and find them a good place in my music. And believe me, sometimes I just let go, and I even surprise myself…
DM: The production values on this recording are excellent, the clarity, and polish, this is something we don't often see on a Blues album, but for you it works. How have you managed to sound so raw yet so clean on each song?
ANA: I was amazed and so thankful to my record company for putting so much trust in the musical ideas of a Yugoslavian born Blueser on her first record. And I got a chance to work with my dream producer, Jim Gaines (who worked with so many artists: SRW, A. King, Santana, H. Hancock) and the way we understood each other was amazing too. I brought my demos to Jim, and he liked most of my arrangements, and we kept them all. He as well said it's something new for him, and he just wanted to let it go, like that. I want Blues, but I want to surprise the audience with each new song. I wanted to reflect my musical influences through the years, but still mix them naturally. My music simply should represent me, just talking to somebody for an hour about my life… Jim said at the start, he liked my guitar playing really much, but the main thing for him was concentrating on the vocals, 'cause it's so different [from] the usual Blues vocals, and it can transform in each song bringing out the new emotion. It's bluesy, but that slight jazzy touch, and rough rock touch, was so surprising and inspiring for him.
DM: What was it like meeting Allison, and did you have much time to practice- the harmonies sound amazing.
ANA: Bernard was the main man who (after I met him in a club in Germany and jammed with him) sent my first record I recorded in Yugoslavia to Ruf Records. That's how I got my record deal. I wanted him to be a guest on my record since I think he's one of the best young Blues artists of today, and a real follower of the great Bluesers (like his dad). We toured together for a month. For this song there is a special story. We had no time to practice! At the time I was in Memphis he was not even in the States. But I wanted him to be my guest so much. So I picked one of my favourite J. Copeland songs, and sang and played guitar, almost knowing exactly how his singing should sound. I even wanted to bring up the joy and fun we had while playing together. All those wild, long slide guitar 'battles'…so I said to Jim I'll make up an intro, like calling Bernard to join me and play his guitar , and will leave everything up to him to finish it. Then I called him on the phone and said, "Man just listen, and play and sing whatever you feel." Told him I want the harmonies there and there, and his guitar on a duet, question-answer there and there. Wow! When I got the final version I was amazed. It was so much fun doing this song with someone you know so well, and finding that he understood exactly the atmosphere and feel I wanted to have, and that we managed to bring back that energy we had on stage while playing together. I'll never forget the recording of that song.
DM: How big are you in Europe?
ANA: My record is not even two years old. Everything was happening so fast. I always wanted to skip the small clubs, and go for the promotion and big festivals. That was my wish, I could never imagine that it will really work, [for] someone who just moved to Holland from Yugoslavia three years ago. But actually even on the first year of playing we did the major Blues festivals in Europe. We are trying to play [in] new territories, so our tour dates and venues are really spread all around Europe and the USA. [We] played the major Blues and Jazz fests in Benelux (Peer, Bospop), England: Bishopstock (Taj Mahal, Booker T.), France (La Defence Jazz, Cahors, Nancy Jazz, Lucky Peterson), Switzerland: Blue Balls in Lucerne ( with B.B. King, Maceo Parker), Italy: Belincona (with Gary Moore, Otis Rush), Notodden: the most famous of Scandinavian Blues fests (headlining one of three biggest stages- with Buddy Guy, T. Joe White headlining the other two stages.), opening for Robben Ford in Amsterdam's Paraiso: the night of the guitar with Steve Lucater, Eric Sardinas and Steve Val, and American Memphis in May (Cult, Tower of Power, War). We have a lot of press in the European and USA press (commercial appeal in Memphis [with the] front page and a story.) My wish [has] always been to play my music [at] big festivals, for not only Blues audiences, especially to the young audience, and bring Blues closer to them by the modern arrangements, the slight touch of the different styles of music.
DM: Is the appreciation for the music different in Europe than it is in North America?
ANA: Very much. America is something completely different. People listen and appreciate the music. They are able to recognize the roots of it and the direction I'm aiming [for] with my music. They much easier recognize my influences and are able to describe my personal style and appreciate it. Don't get me wrong, I have a beautiful audience in Europe, they give me so much support and follow what I'm doing. But I never had such welcoming, standing ovations, and so much appreciation for my style of Blues than I had in the States. And that in a way gives me so much joy since I am playing American music, and to see that Americans understand the musical language I'm talking- there is no greater reward than that.
DM: How do you feel about the potential for war in the world today? Can you change the world with song?
ANA: I am very scared since it all seems déjà vu to me. Coming from the country that had war for ten years, and still seeing people who suffer from the wrong politics. When it comes to the nationalism, and carrying national flags all over the place, it doesn't seem a good sign to me. This can be dangerous for the whole [of] mankind, and for the major countries, and can change lives of people just because of the wrong leaders and wrong politics. The most scary part (and that's my answer to your next question as well) is that even if the people have impression that they can choose, and make a vote and change their future, and that they are involved in their future, it's all so far from the truth. Changing the world with song is a beautiful thought. Sadly, our future [has] already been decided by our leaders. Let's hope we still have some time to make music, love, and enjoy our freedom. But if and when it's gonna be over- the choice doesn't depend on us.
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