Often times our eyes can mislead us when we let them do the job that our ears are supposed to do.
Case in point – Ana Popovic’s latest compact disc – Unconditional (Eclecto Groove Records).
Unless they’ve been living under a rock since late summer, most fans of music – blues or otherwise – have at least seen the cover of Unconditional.
While it might be easy to gaze at the cover featuring the lovely Popovic wearing nothing but a vintage Fender Stratocaster and come to the conclusion that she’s trying to compete for attention with the current crop of pop divas, that would be a huge disservice to the music that awaits inside when one opens up the CD case.
And according to Popovic herself, the outside cover has everything in the world to do with the music found inside.
“Well, the cover is my take on blues. A lot of people, when they think of blues, think of an old man with a guitar in his hand and the picture should be in black and white. But for me, the blues never has been an old genre,” she said. “It (the blues) still inspires and is still very vibrant. I was trying to point out that for me, I am aware of the basics and am aware that less is more. And it’s also about being one with your instrument. That’s what Hendrix and Robert Johnson and Elmore James had. They were one with their instruments. So basically the cover is about the beauty of the basics and being one with your instrument. And on the cover, I was actually wearing the most expensive clothes ever! Someone said, ‘what happened to the clothes?’ and I said, ‘there was no budget for the clothes (after paying for the guitar).”
As attention-grabbing as the cover certainly is, the real beauty of Unconditional lies inside. And the reaction of the blues-loving masses seems to back that up.
The album peaked at number seven on the Billboard Blues charts and enjoyed a nine-week run there.
Along with that, Unconditional has been nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Album at the 2012 Blues Music Awards, and Popovic is also on the list for Contemporary Blues female Artist of the year.
Since bursting onto the scene with the Jim Gaines’ produced Hush! (Ruf Records) back in 2001, the Belgrade born and raised Popovic has managed to create quite a stir with her fiery guitar playing, along with the amount of passion she pours out on a nightly basis, whether taking the stage in Finland or in New York City.
But when it came time to begin work on what would become her sixth full-length CD, Popovic changed up her method of operation a bit.
“I decided to spend three months in New Orleans and really enjoy the city and prepare for the record,” she said. “Instead of rushing into the studio like I’ve always done before – touring, writing your songs on the tour bus and then running into the studio and then rushing back out to get back on the road – I actually canceled some shows, went to New Orleans, found a vocal coach and just enjoyed the whole process of preparing a record. From January through March of 2011, I was in New Orleans and loved the whole process.”
That process started with the decision to get back to the basics of the blues, momentarily shelving some of the jazzier parts of her playing that were highlighted on 2008’s Still Making History.
“I wanted to go back and do a blues record. But I didn’t really want to just pick out 12 blues standards. I thought I should go deeper and try to write some songs like they did 40 or 50 years ago,” she said. “But then again, I couldn’t write stuff like, ‘woke up this morning feeling bad,’ or ‘been out in the cotton field,’ either. I wanted to take modern subjects and put them into blues form. Not bluesy-feeling, but strict blues form. I wanted the songs to have a meaning, where you could read between the lines and have them relatable for the modern, young people.”
What Popovic might not have bargained for in this return to the roots of the blues was the painstaking time and effort that it would take to churn out some of the songs that would end up on Unconditional.
“Yeah, songs like “Fearless” and “Count Me In,” these songs took the most time to come up with. If you read them, you’d think they’re just a simple blues song with some things repeating, but then those songs were the most challenging and the most time consuming,” she said. “I’ve listened to blues for years, ever since I was little, and for me, writing those songs was a big step, a big learning experience – getting into that frame of being very precise and going back and trying to make the songs very bluesy without the help of crossing over to fusion or rock, or whatever. Musically and lyrically, both.”
Just like all blues songs worth their salt should be able to do, the songs that Popovic crafted for her new album have managed to help pull some of her fans through some dark times.
“Lyrics have been a big part of my music for all these years. And to write a simple blues text that has deeper meaning and inspires people … it’s been really challenging,” she said. “But I have young girls calling me up and saying, ‘wow. When I hear “Fearless,” no matter how down I am, I feel like I’m on top of the world,’ that’s wonderful. And that lets me know I achieved what I wanted to. To have them listen and find the deeper meaning in a simple blues text is an amazing thing.”
The list of amazing music to pour out of the Crescent City over the course of the past 50 or 60 years is a mighty impressive one, and that list spans every known genre from rock to jazz to funk to country and blues.
And though the spirit of the city was definitely present during the sessions for Unconditional, Popovic wanted to make sure that heavy presence didn’t sonically dominate her latest project.
“I knew I didn’t want to make a New Orleans record. I wanted to make an Ana Popovic blues record. But the city did influence the record by just the way that the city is and the way that the people in that city are,” she said. “I found it very unique. I’m a big fan of America and have a couple of favorite cities, but in New Orleans, it was the first time, anywhere in the world, ever, that I saw that much positive energy and love in a city. They make everyone feel welcome there. Even after all they went through with Katrina – losing everything they had – they have just moved on and are not looking back. We made so many friends in those three months. And that truly inspired me. It kind of reminded me of Belgrade after the war.”
A couple of Popovic’s friends – Jon Cleary and Jason Ricci – lend helping hands on Unconditional – as does one of her idols, slide guitarist supreme, Sonny Landreth.
The two guitarists went fretboard-to-fretboard on the appropriately-titled “Slideshow.”
“Obviously, that was my favorite day in the studio. At that time, most of the tracks were already done so we knew we could relax a little and play. And when I wrote “Slideshow,” I had Sonny in mind. It really reminded me of his type of song,” she said. “I grew up listening to Sonny and spent hours and hours copying his licks – along with Roy Rogers’ and Elmore James,’ as well. And I sent him a demo and he said he wanted to play on it, which was amazing, of course. And having him in the studio was fabulous. We did the song in three takes. And for me, it was a big moment. I proved to myself that I could stand the heat of playing with the best slide guitarist around. It was a lot of fun and a dream come true.”
As challenging as her rise has been, going from a young girl with a guitar in Belgrade to becoming one of the brightest young blues’ stars on the horizon, Popovic’s biggest challenge to date might have started a little over three years ago, when she gave birth to her son Luuk.
But the way she sees it, if you’re grounded properly and have the proper amount of help from your family and friends, you can fit watching Mickey Mouse cartoons with your child one evening comfortably next to sharing the stage and jamming on “One Room Country Shack” with Buddy Guy the next evening.
“You realize that you have to make time for those people that actually need you in their life. You realize that being on the road and being a musician is not the most important thing in the world. I try not to forget that in my relationship, my marriage, and being a mom as well, that music doesn’t necessarily have to come in first place,” said Popovic. “You want to have a successful life, one that includes being a mother and a wife. And I think that saying ‘no’ sometimes is not a bad thing. And I’ve done that. I get my energy in life from balancing things; from being a person that people back home can count on and from taking my son to school and spending quality time with him and my husband. I treasure being a wife and a mother and I also treasure my life as a musician. You can have both a family and a musical career. You can be a Superwoman of sorts, especially if you have the wonderful support group to help that I have. And I think if a mother is happy, the baby will be happy, too.”
Luuk not only has turned into a veteran road warrior, hitting the concert trail when he was barely six weeks old for his first tour of the States, he’s also becoming quite the drummer, as well.
“We just started jamming and even though he’s just three-and-a-half years old, he has a great sense of rhythm. He can really back it up and when you get to the bridge of a song and need more energy, he kind of picks it up,” said Popovic. “And my husband plays four or five songs on bass, so finally we have a family trio and we love it. We jam together and I think that’s a way better way to spend an evening than sitting in front of the television.”
Family-themed jam sessions back in Belgrade played a major role in Popovic’s desire to one day grow up and play the blues on a much bigger stage than the family living room.
“When I grew up in Serbia, my dad encouraged us to play, you know, singing Howlin’ Wolf songs and Bukka White and Victoria Spivey … that was way before I could understand any of the lyrics. But that’s how I remember my childhood,” she said. “Thanks to my father, I was introduced to great records at a young age. He had a very good taste in music and in blues in particular. It was difficult to get those records over there in those days, but they would swap them and people would bring them back from the states and sell them. But my father was a true lover and whenever there was a new Stevie Ray Vaughan record out, we had it in our home. That, along with the three Kings and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Taj Mahal … you name it and we had it. I was very well educated.”
That musical education really intensified and picked up steam when young Ana was finally able to play her way into the jam sessions that her dad would host in their house.
“His friends would get together and play and I would stay up really late, after my mother and sister had went to bed, sometimes until four in the morning, listening to them play,” she said. “And finally when I was about 12 or 13, I could play a couple of Elmore James songs, and I was the only slide player around, so I could get my five minutes jamming with my father’s friends. And that was what really inspired me to play.”
And that inspirational continues to this day.
“I don’t think it ever stops. I hope it never stops – that mission to always strive to write a better song or play a better guitar solo or things like that,” Popovic said. “The line to get better gets higher and higher all the time. Music is a beautiful thing and is definitely my passion. It’s a wonderful thing when you’re on stage. I can’t compare it to anything else. It’s one of the things that I live for.”
Photos by Marilyn Stringer and Bob Kieser © 2012