When her sixth studio record Can You Stand the Heat came out earlier this spring, Ana Popovic was already at the helm of a blues career successful by all measures of time and achievement. After splitting with her first professional band Hush in 1998 after three years together to go solo, the Serbia-born Popovic released her debut Hush! in 2000 and began touring across the globe. Over a decade later, Popovic has performed at high-profile music festivals around the world, moved her base to Memphis to indulge in the local music scene, and took on another full-time role as a mother to two young children. With Can You Stand the Heat currently at #4 on Billboard’s Blues Albums chart and the music video for “Object of Obsession” sizzling on the YouTube channels of blues lovers everywhere, Popovic donated some of her valuable vacation time to Blues Rock Review for an exclusive phone interview to discuss the record and her plans for future projects.
Where are you currently?
We have been based in Memphis for the last year, and we are actually on our way to Europe. We are doing some shows with a nine-piece band in a few different countries and are getting ready for that. I am now fronting two bands: my own band, which is the four-piece Ana Popovic Band, and a nine-piece band called Ana Popovic and Mo’ Better Love featuring Tony Coleman, who has been a drummer with B.B. King for over two decades, and John Williams, a bassist with Al Greene. This is sort of a side-project of Tony and myself, and these are the people that recorded on my recent record.
How did you first get involved with music?
I was surrounded by music where I grew up back in Serbia, and my father has a huge blues collection, so I grew up listening to everything from Delta blues, Chicago blues and Texas blues to all the different music that influenced the blues. When I was about 16, I started playing guitar, and by 18 I had my first band. Then I moved to Holland to study music at a conservatory, and I started working on my career.
Did you have any favorite blues artists early on?
I really liked Albert King, and I liked Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ronnie Earl – basically all different players. Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson…those are all people who really inspired me when I started playing. Before that, I was listening to the blues as a kid…some kids just get it, and they feel it, and some don’t. I don’t think you can really push it onto kids or make them want to listen to it. But for me, I always felt that it was a very groovy music, and I sang those songs even before I could really speak English. I have a sister who’s five years younger, and she was brought up in the same surrounding but is completely into another style of music. You can’t really force anyone to like it or listen to it. It’s a very specific style of music that you can’t really describe. You just have to feel it.
In what ways have you changed as an artist since your work with Hush in the 1990s? How have you evolved as a solo musician?
I think every record has been different. Every record I thought I would find a bit more of who Ana Popovic really is. Writing is a very important part of my music: I’m very serious about the lyrics of the song, and there are very strong messages in every record. Since English is not my first language, it has really evolved from the Hush times. With Hush, we recorded three songs of our own, and it was very hard to write those lyrics. It was hard to come up with something different. I still think we did, and I think it was important to try and write something that was our own instead of always doing cover songs. From then on, I put a lot of effort into writing.
Still Making History is the record on which I think I evolved the most. There was a big jump just before the Still Making History record because I started writing about the political stuff that was going on in Serbia. It was hard to write about those things from experience versus just writing a story. The next record was Blind for Love, where I think it was more personal. I had my first son by then, so it was a very personal record filled with the message of what the most important thing in life is, besides traveling, being on the road, and putting all your effort into your career. And finally Unconditional and Can You Stand the Heat, those are the last two records where I really tried to write blues, which is very hard. What I tried to do is, I’d write the way they did 50 years ago, but then write for young people. As a guitar player, I try to play in the service of the song instead of overplay everything. I think that evolved from the Hush times: in the beginning, I was just playing random notes, and now I’m trying to figure out what the song really needs, instead of trying to show off on every song. The record is really a showcase of your subject or message, and then the guitar is just an instrument like any other. So I try to avoid overplaying and instead play what is necessary.
Over the last 13 years, you’ve released six studio albums and two live albums. Is it ever difficult for you to find inspiration?
No, no. Actually, the more you experience, the more you can see things around you that can potentially inspire a song. In the beginning it was very hard to concentrate on a theme that would work for a song or a record, but nowadays I have at least three new directions for records that I want to follow in the next year or two, whenever I find time. I have so much on my To-do list in terms of musical styles and messages and things I want to write about. So I would say it gets easier. At the moment, it’s a very pre-production period, because I just came out of the studio and I don’t think I will go back for a year, but I have three very different directions I want to take for the next three records.
It must be hard to keep track of every idea that comes in; at the same time, I imagine it’s impossible as an artist to turn it off.
You cannot really turn it off; you’re not supposed to turn it off. However, I do try because I think my life is more like two very different lives merged together: one on the road and one with my family, spending time with my two young kids. For me, I’m usually unreachable when I’m on vacation with my family; when I close myself out of the music world like that, I have many new music ideas when I come back. I need to give myself time off from the music scene and just live a regular life for a while.
Do your children influence your music?
They do. They’re very inspirational to me. My daughter just turned one, so she’s really tiny. My son is five, and I’m also kind of looking at what he likes in music. Sometimes he comes home from school and he has the weirdest pop song ever, and I’m like “Oh man, how did you hear that, it’s really bad.” But what I do is I analyze what works for him. I think it’s amazing how the production of pop works today, how it’s really aimed to attract kids. When he comes back with a pop song like that, I listen to the song, and then I give him a Steely Dan song in return. He’s a very good blues listener. He sits down on the floor with his grandfather, and they just listen. I think he’s one of those kids who really got it without me pushing it. He can enjoy listening to Delta blues, and he’s only five years old. I think he’s the youngest Steely Dan fan because when he was two, he’d just sing Steely Dan songs.
When you first set out to make Can You Stand the Heat, what were your initial goals for the record?
Can You Stand the Heat actually came together as an idea of Tony Coleman, who is, as I said, a long-time drummer for B.B. King. He thought, “What you’re doing is interesting, but when I listen to your records, they sound so old.” He said, “All these producers want to produce you sounding old. You’re not old. You’re young.” We came to the same conclusion. We are both fans of Albert King, and he said, “Well yeah, I’m truly a fan of Albert King, and if he was still alive, he’d be very hip.” And it’s true; when you listen to Albert King’s records, they’re very funky, but still blues. They’re very soulful, his voice is very sexy, and he has these cool, modern lyrics and arrangements that were at that time not typical for blues. It was always very groovy, and I think if he were making music nowadays, he’d still be very hip.
If you listen to a lot of bands on the blues circuit nowadays, the groove is no longer there. We thought, “What happened to the groove?” So we decided to put a record on the scene that’s groovy. Tony put the band together, and I loved the idea – I enjoyed working with them so much. We decided to pull all our songs, co-write them and just make a funk blues record. We definitely did not want to make a modern funk record; we wanted old school funk and blues. We tried a couple of demos first: I went to Memphis and we recorded six songs while I was still expecting my second child. “Ana’s Shuffle” was recorded there; I was seven months pregnant and we did one take. There was a lot of guitar playing on the side because I couldn’t fit it on the front as I can usually. It was a whole new sound for me. As I said, I always try to make a different record. This is something that’s been on my To-do list, to make real greasy, funky blues, and I think we achieved that.
How did Grammy nominee Lucky Peterson and Grammy winner Tommy Sims get involved with the record?
They were also people I wanted to work with. Tommy Sims is a fabulous producer, and actually we did that song [“Mo’ Better Love” featuring Tommy Sims] as a demo. When I heard him sing, I said, “Well you’ve got to sing it with me, as a duet,” and I think it’s a fabulous track. Lucky Peterson is of course an amazing blues artist, one of the biggest talents around, and this song [“Hot Southern Night”] particularly has very fun lyrics. It’s obviously a track that’s kind of flirty, but it actually talks about playing the blues and about how one note is better than a whole lot of shredding. It’s actually about how you get better with time, and about how sometimes playing less is better than shredding all over the track.
“Boys Night Out” on Can You Stand the Heat is fun for both its speed and the attitude behind the lyrics. What inspired you to write that song?
I think there are a lot of stories going around about why boys need their night out, and why girls have to stay at home, and I have a positive opinion about that. I think boys should have their night out, and I think a little trust with that does no harm. Now I get a whole new response from my male audience. At the last show, it was so funny – I was saying, “We’ve got a brand new song, ‘Boys Night Out,’” and they all jumped up and when I looked over, I saw that the first five rows were just “boys night out” guys who had come to see the show, which was very funny.
Can you describe the story behind “Blues for Mrs. Pauline”?
It’s actually a story that really happened. My drummer told me this story when we were thinking about the slow blues. When he [Tony Coleman] was 10 years old, he didn’t have much money, and he was walking around a little town when he saw a store. He went in and spotted a little cookie. He looked to the left, to the right, and saw nobody in the store; so he grabbed the cookie and put it into his shirt. Now there comes this guy, Mr. Elliot, and he says, “What you got there under your shirt?” He says, “Nothing.” But Mr. Elliot wanted to have fun with him, so he said, “I’m going to call the police on you, because you cannot just steal a cookie.” And Tony says “Don’t, I’ll never do it again.” But then his neighbor Mrs. Pauline comes into the store and asks what is going on. Mr. Elliot said, “Well, he stole a cookie, I’m going to call the police on him.” And she said, “Don’t worry about it – I’ll take care of the cookie.” She pays for the cookie and goes right back to his grandma and tells her. And the grandma comes and says, “Mrs. Pauline wants you to work at her house so you can make some money on the side.” Well, she made him work all summer without giving him a dime; he went there every day after school, he worked at Mrs. Pauline’s house and he never got a single penny for it, and his grandma didn’t know about it. Finally, after three months, he couldn’t take it anymore; he went to his grandma and told her what happened, and the grandma – well she was furious. So the grandma went to Mrs. Pauline’s house, and that’s what the blues is about.
There’s something magnetic about the echo and reverb on the intro to “Tribe” on Can You Stand the Heat. How did you come up with that opening lick?
I like to think of that song as very tribal; it was supposed to be kind of like a storm coming up. Like a tornado: you see it coming closer, and there’s a whole lot going on, and then it dies out. We recorded the shorter version of this song for the record; we have a longer version where it really does sound like a storm. Basically, this is something where I wanted to come close to bands like War, which is one of my favorite bands. We wanted that kind of tribal beat to it, and the lick really is kind of like an old-fashioned ‘70s jam band thing.
Do you play the longer version of “Tribe” when you’re performing live?
Sometimes we do, yes.
What’s next for you?
We’ve been working very hard; this record is on our own label, which is very different from before, and we are very happy with the result. The music video [for “Object of Obsession”] has been a huge thing, as well as the magazine charts, so a lot of great things are going on. Now we are going to take it easy for a while. The next big thing we are getting ready for is the nine-piece band tour in Europe. Next week there’s going to be two shows for the big band in America, and then we are off to Europe. There are a lot of nice shows coming up; it’s going to be both Europe and America in the coming months.
Interview by Meghan Roos
*Photos by Karsten Koch, Alan R. Smith