Blues singer/guitarist Ana Popovic used to say that the beauty of being a musician was that it was surprisingly stable work. After all, there were always concerts.
And then Covid-19 came along.
“I think I said it too loud,” she says, reflecting upon the past year. “I never had a different job. I never solicited for any other job. This is the only thing I’ve ever done. And successfully, because we’ve never had a slow year, in 20 years. If we lose an agent, or if something happens, that we stopped playing, for example, France for a few years, or Italy, some other countries [would] kind of start working more for us. So we would always end up having 130 shows a year, no matter what. We worked on it hard to spread my name in different territory. So you would always have exciting new territories to play, and always come back to the old ones. Right? Except this time.”
This time there was no other region to tour to find concerts. The whole world shut down. And while there’s never a convenient time for a major part of your livelihood to completely dry up, this timing had a small silver lining. On the one hand, it coincided with Popovic celebrating her 20th anniversary as a musician, which wasn’t great. However, she had recorded a live album and DVD, Live for Live, in December 2019 that was released in March 2020, as the pandemic was hitting critical mass. “In times where there [were] no concerts, I think our DVD was a great thing to receive at home, [watching] a concert when you couldn’t go out,” she says. “So I think that was good timing for that for us.”
Popovic started scoping out opportunities for her band during the pandemic. “We did a lot of recordings, we did a lot of demos, we worked on a lot of songs and that really kept us going basically: music,” she says. She takes her responsibility leading a band seriously. “Because if you’re a bandleader, you kind of feel responsible for the band members as well, not just you. Obviously, I have a family to worry about, but also for the band, all these musicians keep on turning to different side jobs and trying to get whatever they can, and of course, not related to music at all. And that’s a shame to see that happen. So I was trying to always keep [the band] busy.” As part of that plan, Popovic also started doing small, private shows.
“There are some fans that really want to get a small amount of people in the backyard,” she explains. “Some of them have great music rooms, some of them have wonderful backyards, looking over a lake or something. And then with social distance, we basically play for our audience again, which is great.” These small shows allow fans from nearby areas to converge and safely hear live music.
Popovic says she’s grateful for the opportunity to connect with fans, not just because she’s missed them, but also because playing these small, informal venues let her rethink her stage show. “It’s not a concert anymore,” she ways of these smaller shows. “The song or the order of the songs and stuff is not exactly the same as when you’re on a big stage. And [when] you play for a festival crowd or whatever, I totally approach it different. Actually, I take songs I haven’t played before, I do some acoustic. I engage the band a lot more. Because this is really what everybody wants. It’s a healing process, right? Everybody’s in the same situation, no matter what kind of a job you have, everybody’s waiting for this thing to be over so they can get back to their normal lives, which is seeing people, meeting people talking, socializing.”
There’s also a closeness to these smaller concerts. “There is something very, very relaxed about those kind of shows, where you can really be kind of intimate with the crowd in a new way,” she says. “Like, you can tell stories. They’re right there with you in the room, and it just becomes a very relaxed and nice moment, a very intimate setting. In a lot of ways, much better than when you’re so far from the crowd on a giant stage.”
Popovic grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, now known as Serbia. The daughter of a blues-loving graphic artist, she was accepted into a Dutch art school, where she could have followed in her father’s vocational footsteps. Instead, she decided to attend a jazz conservatory, also forming a band. After a year, the band was popular enough that Popovic left school, eventually recording her solo debut, Hush! in Memphis in 2000. Popovic has consistently released music since then, with just four years her longest stretch between albums. Her funk-influenced blues rock is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, but with her own distinctive musical voice that’s evolved over 20 years.
In fact, it’s easy to get caught-up in Popovic’s incendiary guitar playing and skip over her bluesy vocals.” I just think people want to talk about what is first, I guess in your face, which is guitar and which is the fact that I’m a woman,” she says. “There [weren’t] a whole lot of women when I started and even now we can use more. So I guess that’s something they want to talk about. But I do get compliments for my singing. I never learned singing. So I never study singing much. I just sing. I don’t think about what I do. I just kind of sing and I try to fit those to the lyrics that I’m singing and to the message that I’m singing and I try to sound different, and I think I do. And then have the guitar, [to] support that.”
Popovic continues to focus on her voice, not as a standalone skill but rather as her process for constantly refining her craft: “You have to keep improving everything,” she says. “You have to keep improving vocals, guitar playing, solos, stage presence, band, you have to make your band sound tight, so it’s just one of the things you need to keep working on.”
Popovic is also an underrated slide guitarist. She’s been playing since she was a teen, though, never quite transitioning to open tunings. “I started, probably, when I was 13 [or] 14 with Elmore James, Roy Rogers, [and] Duane Allman,” she says. “I just started playing slide alongside these incredible artists, but then I play regular tuning. So I was always kind of postponing that moment where I’m going to start going into the open tunings, and then I never did, because I just realized I’m kind of creating my own style and that is very important to me. So I always insist on whatever I play that I kind of bring Ana Popovic style into it. That was my excuse to keep working on a regular tuning and just play me. Play whatever I feel.”
Many artists find it challenging to remain prolific over the course of a long career, but Popovic finds inspiration everywhere, from music to new studios.
“Just a week ago, I came across this small studio in Los Angeles, which is only like [a] 15-minute drive from my home,” she says. “It was kind of raggedy, because the big studio didn’t have time for us; that particular day was booked. So they said, ‘these guys next to us, they can accommodate you for that one.’
The smaller studio wasn’t the type of space where Popovic usually records, but she was laying down a track for someone else’s record. “I decided to go and [it was] just the best,” Popovic says. “You need to have a right energy in the room and right people and the engineers [were] just wonderful. And just really supportive and loved what they were hearing, so it just turned into a wonderful session.”
New cities can also be inspirational. “My band is in Dallas, and Dallas [has] got an incredible music scene,” Popovic says. “Austin of course, is a huge music Mecca. But don’t underestimate Dallas. It’s got an incredible music scene.” Popovic learned Houston is also known for its cover bands, which translates into tight performances. “Those musicians, they played everything and they’re so rich in ideas just because they’re used to having those songs in their hands, and they play drums on all these tracks, they play bass every night on all these tracks. They’re just full of music. I went to Dallas multiple times during the lockdown and went into some sort of a studio, or we would just rent a rehearsal place, basically, and have an engineer come in and record us while we were messing with some songs. And usually, [the] people had many ideas, just a different type of sound than what I already [did] in Memphis and New Orleans and Los Angeles.”
And, of course, Popovic continues to draw inspiration from Hendrix, still diving into his work via the now-paused Experience Hendrix tour, a live tribute to the beloved guitarist featuring a revolving cast of musicians, including guitarists Eric Johnson and Joe Satriani. “We all would travel together, listen to, watch some Hendrix videos and get into it again,” she says of the tour. “All of us watched Hendrix videos when we were teenagers, but now you’re busy with your own band, and everybody has their own agendas and their own music, they are pursuing their own careers. So there is not a whole lot of time when you can actually sit down and analyze Jimi Hendrix again.”
Hendrix continues to impress Popovic, all of those years later. “[Hendrix] wrote those songs in a trio,” Popovic says. “And even so you can hear different styles of music in [his songs]. One is more on the rock side, one is done blues, one is done funk. You can just take out many different styles out of those songs.”
Popovic also appreciates the time away from her own music, having the chance to study Hendrix, almost like a graduate student. “You have to leave aside some time, aside from your own gigs, or your own careers and kind go and explore [the] music of such a genius as Hendrix was.”
Like Hendrix, Popovic is also aware of the importance of visuals in performing. For her, that means appearing on stage in imposing-looking heels. “I’ve always played in heels, so I wouldn’t know any difference,” she says. “That’s how I started. That’s how I learned it. I stepped on my wah-wah pedal a long time ago and it was in a high heel. So I never changed. Ever.”
The nature of the blues is that if you stray too far from its history and traditions, you’ve created something that’s no longer the blues. To maintain that perspective, having a bluesy sound that’s also unique, requires a serious, deliberate approach. Popovic’s playing sounds care-free but she thinks about every aspect of music, including the nationality of the fans.
“As far as the crowd, well, Europe just got into [the blues] really,” Popovic observes. “They got into it in the 70s and I think they never let go, really. When you have concerts [in Europe], you realize it’s a different crowd; there’s a small difference, but it’s absolutely there. They just have a huge respect for it. Where in America, people just want to have fun with it. And the nice thing is to have both. That why I really enjoyed playing both sides of the ocean, just because when I’m too long on one side, I miss the other. I kind of have to have a mix. In America, it’s more of organic thing. [The blues] comes from here, so it’s not fake or anything. The crowd on a good festival, outside, they want to enjoy it, they want to dance to it, they want to be relaxed and in Europe, it’s more like they have a huge respect for you.“
Popovic also enjoys bringing the blues to new places. “We always open new territories and it’s always incredible to see,” she says. “We went to Dubai, we went to Bahrain, Bali, Indonesia, India, and it’s just incredible to see that people also appreciate that music over there and they know your lyrics, they sing along. You go to Turkey, they sing with your songs. It’s incredible, really. But all of it is nice, if you mix it with the American audience. Then it makes sense because you want to make your name over here. You want to have your name, make your name and make your stamp in the States. If you want to play blues, that is.”
And while large, international tours are not an option at the moment, Popovic has a wish list of places she wants to eventually bring her music. “I’d love to play Australia,” she says. “I still haven’t. I never played in Africa. And I would love that, especially because I would like to mix the music with local musicians. I’ve been to Africa, but I haven’t done anything musically over there. So I would love to open that. Even just for the inspiration and even just to be able to operate with some local musicians.”
Popovic looks past the pandemic. She’s working, of course, on another album. She’s also working on a signature guitar, based upon her favorite Stratocasters, that she says should be ready soon. But even with all of this energy, and all of these projects, she says she’s not one to look too far ahead into the future. “I can just hope that inspiration doesn’t dry out,” she says. “That’s what you hope as a musician, so you’re not releasing same records and stuck in a place where you don’t know what kind of a message you want to bring further. You need to bring out new messages to the world, to your fans, to the new generations. And I still find inspiration around me, which is really a blessing because I would think that while [inspiration] is still going, you can definitely keep going. And unfortunately, there’s people in all kinds of art, not just music, where at some point, it just kind of dries out, right? And then they keep going. But really, you should be able to recognize that moment in your career. So I’m absolutely for playing music as long as I can, but if I can bring something new to the table. That’s absolutely necessary for me; I don’t want to recycle what I’ve already done.”