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Ana Popovic – Turnin’ her Luck

Acclaimed blues guitarist Ana Popovic discusses her new album "Power," surviving a health crisis and emerging stronger on all fronts

While the world was dealing with COVID, Ana Popovic found herself in a personally dire situation upon learning she had breast cancer. Standing at the crossroads of life, she contemplated giving up on her music career, but with support from friends, family, and her ’64 Fender Stratocaster–persevered.

She dove into several projects when she could – learned drums and embraced her creativity, making videos and recording new music. The results are absolutely inspiring. The eclectic blues artist’s latest album, Power, due for release in May 2023 (ArtisteXclusive Records), is not only a recipe for romance but a soulful batch of songs with a rocking beat.

Popovic, originally from Belgrade, Serbia, has received many accolades since she emerged on the scene, releasing her first album Hush in 1999. With a variety of albums in her catalog, she has always reimagined herself and her music with each one. Today, she sums up her brand of modern blues, saying, “We’re free to explore the edges of the genre–bend it, stretch it–it won’t break.”

And does she ever test the boundaries? On Power, it’s evident Popovic loves a hard stomping blues beat but then revs up the rock riffs and pulls some jazz licks out her handbag. Thus, sweetening the pot even more with her exotic classical guitar playing. As always, she’s gathered a stellar lineup of musicians from around the world.

We connected with the accomplished guitarist while she was out touring the U.S.

Photo by Brian Rasic

It’s not a stretch to say you’ve had a rough couple of years. You really exemplify survival. Do you want to talk about it? 

I have no problem talking about it. No, to the contrary. I’d decided to fight a quiet fight back then because I had to concentrate all my strength, and energy, and every bit of positive attitude towards the music. I didn’t really need people’s input and everybody’s advice. I didn’t read stuff online and make myself crazy. But afterwards, obviously, this is now behind me and hopefully forever; we can only hope. So now I’m approaching it from the perspective of a survivor and a fighter. 

If people get this kind of news, or anything that life throws at them every day on this planet, they can look at me and find hope. Not even a year after treatment, I mean, I finished it in February and then played 150 shows in that year. So right away, in between, I was recording songs, directing music videos, and started playing drums. There’s so much you can do with your time, even in situations like that. It can actually open up your views on things that you really want to do in life but never had the chance. Whatever your dream is, you can still do it.

The theme of reinventing yourself comes up a lot. What’s the message behind that? 

You can reinvent yourself, and it’s a wonderful thing. There’s never enough reason for it. Especially like me, I was in this business for 20 years, and there are certain things that people want to see, they want to hear certain things. Now it was almost like I had carte blanche to do new things. You can start all over. Time is on your side. And I really took advantage of that. I think the reason I got my story out is because now it’s all behind me. I would like to inspire people that they can deal with anything that life throws at them. You can reinvent yourself and your sound and just go for what you want in life, and not do what people around you want. And it’s very inspirational.

Obviously, it had a transformative effect on you and is evident on the new album, which has an underlying theme of unity and power (and the album’s cover art, too). Can you offer insight about creating them? 

Yes, it did. And it’s something that Buthel, my bass player, and I focused on when we rewrote all the songs except the opening track (“Rise Up”), which is by Kenny Wayne Shepherd. But we were talking and sending each other images of white and Black people holding hands. Or for a few years, actually, when we would find something like, “Hey, this is cool.” Because we can talk about everything as far as race, music, how Black people or any people are treated, or female empowerment, or homeless people on the street. We would have these conversations about life and everything. I was like, “Okay, if I’m going to put emphasis on my new record, what is the message that I want besides being strong and coming out on the other side — on the bright side after such hardships?” I’m thinking, “There’s got to be another message.”

I do feel strongly, we have so many problems in the world. Black Lives Matter and all throughout COVID. And I live in Los Angeles, where the homeless are everywhere. Women are battling all kinds of fights all over the world caused by religion. And it’s just too many things. So let’s tackle one at a time. But I do think that people just want to stand by and watch and not give their opinion. And I’m thinking, “You know what? I’m going to give my opinion.” And my opinion on the whole thing is that unity will save the world. The bottom line, and most importantly, is how you educate your children to move in a more positive way — and how to create the world for the next generation, which is accepting and respecting other races and living in unity.

The album cover has a very striking and stark image of unification. 

Yeah, exactly. You just need to look at that. It’s right there, and that’s really the bottom line about the cover art, and I think it’s strong. Just like if you look at Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd), there’s no title. You may not even be familiar with the songs or music, but you know it’s Dark Side of the Moon; it’s that strong. So I was like, “You know what? I’m not going to put the title on the cover. I’m just going to show two hands. And everybody who sees it is going to say, ‘Okay, that’s Ana’s power record.’ Because I want people to associate unity with power.

When you record a song like “Rise Up” from another artist (Kenny Wayne Shepherd), what’s that process? Did you rearrange it? 

We totally reworked it. If you Google “Rise Up,” Kenny Wayne Shepherd, it’s a wonderful song. And to me, I get many, many songs as an option to record. And there’s only some that really capture my attention. And this was one of them because the lyrics were so strong, and they fell in line with what I was trying to say with unity. And to me, it was almost an anthem. And I’m thinking this needs more powerful music. This needs to be real, almost like a call for action. We rearranged the music and came up with those backgrounds that are very powerful.

So the song has a totally new life. I liked it so much that I decided to make it the opening track. Because it also showcases something different. It’s something Ana hasn’t done before. So I think it’s a great opening track and tells people, “Get ready for a different sound.” I think it’s a moving track, and it says exactly what it needs to say on all levels. We just need to work a little harder in making this world a better place for the future generation.

The song “Doin’ This” is very percussive, with heavy guitar, and gets super fast. Tell me about playing that song. 

Oh my gosh, it’s so good to play live. And while writing it, I was thinking right away, “Oh, I just can’t wait to play this live.” It’s almost like a jam song. Buthel and I wrote all the songs. And we were talking about this particular one and about the joy it brings being on stage and performing for people. After our shows, many people tell us, “I’m so energized. I’m just so full of positive energy after your show, and it’s amazing.” So we’re talking about what music does to people.

And in a way, from the moment an instrument is made in a factory, goes to the shop, and then we pick it up as kids, and we practice for years — then we make it our work and we tour the world with it for years.

But just playing it live, it goes up another notch. That energy is crazy, and people are just moved by it. I’m so glad that we had this amazing drummer, Chris Coleman, on the record, who is one of the best drummers in the world. He’s played with Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan — played with everybody.

It has that live feel on the album version, for sure. 

I’m so happy with how it turned out on the record because it is almost like a live song, something you should play live. But I think we were able to capture that energy on the record as well. It sounded live, and those vocals just really take over, those background vocals, and it’s just a real celebration — a celebration of music and a celebration of that moment on stage with the audience. That’s really what the song is about.

And then you have “Recipe is Romance,” which is about being comfortable in your own skin. 

Absolutely. I also directed a music video for it, which came out on Valentine’s Day. But really, the back story is about female empowerment, which in situations like mine leaves a lot of women, first, alone because a lot of their partners don’t want to go through the treatments with them; especially the Third World countries, it’s become almost 50-50, and I just can’t believe that. And also, women are left thinking they’re half the women they used to be because it does so much to their beauty — the hair loss and everything. It’s something you have to deal with. So the message is, “Okay, you can get yourself together, pull out your best clothes, embrace your new look and rock it.” People love it. I know a lot of people who’ve never thought they’d see you this way, but hey, make the best out of it and make the world love you for your new self. So that’s really the hidden message behind this new music video.

Yeah, that is so true and a wonderful message! And the guitars definitely stood out to me; a very classical feel. 

Yeah. It has that Brazilian kind of Portuguese feel. Very European, I would think. And, of course, the modulations in the background are so full, and gospel-ish in a way. And the song is wonderful, the arrangements and modulation and the jazz guitars. I played a combination of (guitars) the D’Angelico Guitar, which is actually a jazz guitar, and a Yamaha nylon string classical guitar. I played them simultaneously on this track, so that’s the sound you’re hearing. And it was fun to try something new as far as the gear.

You’re a blues artist, but your sound is very diverse, especially on Power. 

Oh, yeah. We got everything in our set. Of course, my guitar is in a way blues guitar, but our style is really everything. Blues too, but also soul and funk, and of course rock, and gospel influences, everything. And we are just free to explore the edges of the genre. Bend it, stretch it. It won’t break.

Having shared the stage with icons from B.B. King to Jeff Beck and others, do you have any standout moments? 

Oh my gosh, there’s so many. Buddy Guy was incredible. We had a few jams, as well as Joe Bonamassa and Robben Ford. I mean, the list goes on and on. Sonny Landreth. That’s almost like a cherry on the cake. In my world, in my business, it’s like I have had a chance to spend time with Jeff Beck and B.B. King backstage, just to spend time and chat with them about everyday ordinary things. And that’s just amazing when it happens. So I cherish those moments. And also, of course, Robert Randolph on my record, Sonny Landreth, Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, just wonderful to have these people actually give a little bit of their talent to my music.

And what would you say is your favorite guitar?

Well, I have a ’64, all original Strat. That’s my main guitar and it has a Rosewood neck. I got that about 15 years ago. And it’s my baby, it’s my main ax, and I’ve played it everywhere. My second to that one is my Rosewood neck ’57 reissue Strat, which is Fiesta Red. And I got it when I was about 18 from my parents. And that’s another guitar that’s almost always on stage. That’s responsible for the slow songs and all the soul songs and blues, slow blues, it’s got the crisp Maple neck sound. And then I have a few like that. I have some custom shops and some reissue guitars because I play both sides of the ocean. So some gear is here, some gear is there, but my main guitar is always with me.

Power is a strong album title. How has music empowered you? 

It’s just wonderful. It’s fabulous. It really gets you distracted from reality in a way and just lets you kind of cruise through the difficult times and come out well on the other side. And this is really the power. Yeah, this is power. I was empowered by what my passion in life is, which is music. And every sleepless night, every day of doubts that I had, I kind of held onto, well, basically my guitar — guitar and songs and writing and recording and, “What is the next arrangement? What are the horn arrangements going to be? Who’s going to be the drummer?” Those kinds of thoughts. It really distracts you from reality in a way and lets you kind of cruise through the difficult times and end up well on the other side.

Lastly, because it’s so easy to crawl into that hole when things go wrong, what is your advice? 

It really is. People talk about all kinds of issues and mental issues and depression nowadays. It’s very open in the media. It’s not just illness, it can be all of that. I mean, if I could give any advice, literally find that one thing that is truly your passion, not just your work or your hobby. There’s got to be that one hobby that really makes you tickle, something that really makes you happy, and you hold onto that and don’t be afraid to invest in that, and to invest in yourself. And that would be my suggestion.

Photo by Brian Rasic

Ana’s Gear rundown

Amplification

MESA/Boogie amps: Mark 5, Mark 4, California Tweed. Fillmore 50 Fender amps: Bassman, Super Reverb, Deluxe reverb

Guitars

Fender ‘64 all original Sunburst Strat. Fender reissue 57 Fiesta Red, Fender reissue 57 Blond, Fender Custom Shop White, Hamiltone ‘Ana Popovic’ logo electric

Ovation Guitar 12 string, D’Angelico Excel SS jazz guitar, Martin D-28 acoustic Strings

Cables

DR Strings Pure Blues 11-46 Cordial cables

Pedals

Pedalboard: Ana says, “It varies on both sides of the ocean, but the core is this: I use two original 70s Ibanez Tube Screamers, and I pair them. Jim Dunlop pedals: the Wah and Super Badass Distortion, MXR Carbon Copy analog delay pedal. The original BOSS Chorus CE-2.

Power Track Listing
1. Rise Up! (4:45)
2. Power Over Me (3:42)
3. Doin’ This (3:38)
4. Luv’n Touch (4:09)
5. Queen Of The Pack (3:28)
6. Strong Taste (3:35)
7. Recipe Is Romance (4:12)
8. Deep Down (3:52)
9. Ride It (3:51)
10. Flicker & Flame (2:41)
11. Tun My Luck (2:24)

Caroline Paone

Caroline Paone is a freelance writer for several content channels such as SFGate and ClassicRockRevisted. Her work has also appeared in Bass Player, Bass Frontiers and Flair magazines. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineRex

Caroline Paone
Caroline Paone is a freelance writer for several content channels such as SFGate and ClassicRockRevisted. Her work has also appeared in Bass Player, Bass Frontiers and Flair magazines. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineRex
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