Blueswoman Ana Popovic is a badass.
In the male-dominated world of blues, the Serbian born and raised Ana Popovic continues to prove her mettle and might with killer guitar chops and well-crafted songwriting. Co-produced with longtime B.B. King drummer Tony Coleman, her upcoming sixth album Can You Stand the Heat still showcases Popovic’s ardent love for the blues but lends a vibe reminiscent of Albert King and Albert Collins.
“We opened up some shows for B.B. and Tony and I started talking about music and came up with this idea to record groovy music,” noted Popovic. “We wanted to put a lot of soul, a lot of funk and a lot of groove back into the blues like Albert King or Albert Collins used to do, and mix it with a jam band concept like WAR.”
In pursuit of that old-school funk, Popovic and family relocated to Memphis to record the album at Ardent Studios and to chase the unique music aura that exists in the city’s longstanding juke joints.
“It’s not the prettiest place, but it’s got soul. That’s for sure,” Popovic said of Memphis. “People play here like you never hear people play anymore. You go to some of the juke joints and it’s like you are back in the day, 50 years ago in this hot, southern juke joint. Everybody dances to extremely groovy funk, but like old fashioned funk. You really don’t find this anywhere else. It’s a very soulful, groovy city, but you have got to know the right places/ the right people and then you are really in for something special.”
The album’s title track spawned from those hot, oppressive summer days last August when Popovic said the only relief was heading out in the evening to dance at the juke joints. But Can You Stand the Heat is a double entendre. This album features Popovic leading a crack band of Memphis’ finest players including the aforementioned Coleman on drums, John Williams on bass (Al Green), Harold Smith on rhythm guitar (B.B. King All Star Band), The Bo-Keys on horns, and a guest appearance by Lucky Peterson on “Hot Southern Night.”
“These are amazing cats — Tony having played with B.B. King for so long and John with Al Green — and now they are going to play with a Serbian guitarist,” said Popovic. “So, it’s more like can I stand the heat of playing with them? And I’d better because there’s only one chance.”
Fortunately, intimidation has never been part of Popovic’s makeup. She grew up listening to her father’s collection of blues and soul records and eventually picked up his guitar at age 15. When she first started taking rock guitar lessons in Belgrade, she was the only female in a class of about 40 students.
“Most of us didn’t have electric guitars so we would bring Spanish acoustic guitars and learn to play the famous riffs by bands like Deep Purple, The Who, Led Zeppelin,” recalled Popovic.
Although the blues lover struggled a bit to learn some of those riffs, she never considered quitting.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these boys are getting it so easy.’ It just took me more time, and I still think I’m not the fastest learner. What kept me going was I really had the vision,” she said. “I didn’t talk about it, but sometimes you just feel you can see things happen. Blues was really a part of my vision and I knew it wasn’t something that would happen overnight.”
And while the boys may have learned faster, it was Popovic who was chosen by that instructor to attend a local jazz class. She soon formed her own band, Hush, playing a hundred shows annually and regularly making appearances on Yugoslavian television. With the end of Communism, her band could also travel to play blues festivals in Greece and Hungary. In 1999, she decided to move to Holland to attend the Utrecht Conservatory where she studied jazz and world music.
“I never graduated actually because I had to move on and do shows,” said Popovic. “I already had a new band and a booking agent, so I decided to dedicate time to my career.”
Those classes, much like her early rock lessons, did aid Popovic in further developing her own unique style of blues, though.
“I would work in parts of what I was learning from those classes into my style of blues, but I’ve always felt it was important not to copy anybody,” she explained. “You can be influenced and chase after certain aspects of what other artists do, but you’ve really got to write your own stuff so that you can create your own identity as a guitar player.”
That’s exactly what she’s done on her latest effort. Included in its 14 tracks, is an interesting soul-funk take on the Rolling Stones rocker “Rain Fell Down,” a sweltering cover of Albert King’s blues classic “Can’t You See What You’re Doing to Me” with updated lyrics and a new twist on Robert Palmer’s “Every Kind of People.” Popovic has made these songs her own, alongside original tracks such as “Mo’ Better Love” and “Blues For Mrs. Pauline.”
The latter is a slow burning blues cut with lyrics inspired by the true story of the outrage Coleman’s grandmother felt when she discovered that a neighbor was taking advantage of her grandson and putting him to work without paying him for his labor.
“I just loved it when Tony shared this story with me because now that I have kids, I could totally put myself in her skin,” said Popovic. “I spent a lot of time working on this one. It’s a slow blues so it’s a very limited form of writing so you’d better make it really interesting. I tried to really write in a matter that these blues giants like Albert King and Albert Collins did and really tell an interesting story.”
The follow-up to 2011’s Unconditional, which was nominated for two Blues Music Awards,also includes two instrumental tracks. “Tribe” follows in the fashion of a WAR jam band and includes a healthy dose of Popovic’s slide guitar prowess, while “Ana’s Shuffle” marks her first signature shuffle.
“It’s a fired up, all guitar straight up from beginning to end blues shuffle, sort of in a Stevie Ray Vaughan style,” noted Popovic.
SRV, Bukka White, Elmore James, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Robber Ford, John Scofield, Sonny Landredth, Duane Allman, ZZ Top … The list goes on and on for Popovic’s guitar heroes, and for different reasons. One of her most influential heroes is Jimi Hendrix, for as much as what he could do with his instrument as how he did it.
“I admire Hendrix for all of his energy and fabulous songwriting and musicianship, but when I’m on stage, I really like to picture him and that energy he had going with his three-piece,” said Popovic. “It seemed like their own inner circle of energy and magical creation. That’s what I’m after every single night that I perform. It’s just about that energy where whatever you feel inside your body can come out through your instrument. You have to be really connected to your band. Every single drum beat they play goes straight to my heart. Those are moments where you just don’t do the gig – you feel it completely. It’s amazing when it happens, and it’s really why I’m doing this. It’s just always a search for that magic.”
With a slew of upcoming tour dates in support of the new album, including an appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that will debut the nine-piece Ana Popovic’s Mo’ Better Love band, she’ll have plenty of opportunities to chase that magic.
Can You Stand the Heat drops April 16. Pre-order here.