The Serbian-born guitarist recorded in New Orleans and Memphis to see what they had to offer.
[Serbian blues guitarist Ana Popovic has spent much of her professional life connecting to the places and people who were distant legends during her formative years in Europe. She lived and recorded in New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville. She has jammed with Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal. She recorded and plays with Tony Coleman, drummer for B.B. King, and her current bassist, John Williams, played with Al Green. Recently I interviewed Popovic about this exploration of her long-distance roots via email; here are the results.]
Most of the album is produced by you and Tony Coleman, but the last two tracks are marked "bonus tracks" and are produced by you and Tommy Sims. What's behind the use of two producers and separating their tracks as you do?
When I met with Tony Coleman, we decided we should go for the sound of Albert King, Albert Collins mixed with WAR and Mandrill '70s jam bands. It's blues, but it's funky and soulful. We were never going for a modern funk record. Even when we would play shuffles or slow blues, we wanted people to not be able to sit still or stop shaking their heads.
Sometimes in the blues circuit nowadays you ask yourself, Where's the groove? Blues is based on an African-American music form - it’s got to be groovy. Albert King’s horn and bass sections would really set the tone for the blues with a tiny touch of funk, Old-school funk and soul. If he were alive nowadays, he would be extremely hip.
Parallel with recording in Memphis, I would go to Nashville and work the demos with Tommy Sims. Most of the songs were re-done by the Memphis band, except one of the two bonus tracks that I couldn't resist putting on a record. They fit perfectly, and both have deep and important messages. They are probably going to be redone in the future as full-on takes with the band. However, Tommy's voice is so deep that right away it felt like a perfect closure of the record and a promise for more in the future.
What inspired you to cover the Rolling Stones' "Rain Fell Down," and what influenced your thinking about how to arrange it?
For this record, I picked the songs that inspired me to get into the southern, soulful and funky groove. When I choose songs, the lyrics play an equally important part if not more important than the music. For me to be excited about the song, it has to have just the right lyrics. Modern enough, mainstream enough, therefore not necessarily blues. Even Albert King's 'Can't you see what you're doing to me' has a good dose of mainstream in it as far as the lyrics go. If they are sung with the right conviction, they are modern. In ‘Rain Fell Down,’ the passion just pours out, and it could be easily put in that southern greasy funky groove (versus the pop that the Stones had going). It was an easy choice.
What can you tell us about being onstage jamming with Buddy Guy, Robert Randolph, Taj Mahal and John Lee Hooker Jr.?
Back when I was 13, I asked Buddy for his autograph when he was in Belgrade. Now many years later, I'm jamming with him! It's an incredible and indescribable honor. The same goes for Taj. He’s one of my biggest influences. What can you play when you’re up there with those guys? They have already played everything that has been needed to be played.
I feel that when you play with Taj and Buddy you need to play with respect. You should still keep your sound and style recognizable, but without overplaying. Put everything you have into those two rounds. It's like that fabulous session of Stevie Ray and Albert King where Stevie just plays with respect to the legend. Robert Randolph is a master in what he does and John Lee is a fabulous entertainer. However, Taj and Buddy are the reason we do what we do today.
You moved to Memphis to record an album the year after you moved to New Orleans to record an album. What did these cities mean to you growing up? How did the reality of living and recording in them compare to the way you imagined them?
Both cities were hit by tragedies that not many European cities could ever imagine. Memphis still has a large shadow of a not-so-bright past over them, and NOLA has been struck by a disaster that probably not many cities could overcome as fast as NOLA did.
Talking about NOLA (still one of my favorite cities to be in), I was very inspired by the will of its people who were able to move on and celebrate life as it is. Coming from Serbia where a different sort of tragedy happened, I could recognize that part. You want put those memories behind and enjoy life everyday.
I feel Memphis is still trying to find its identity. Yes, people know what Beale Street is, and downtown has a lot of music-related museums where everyone is trying to push you into the rib joint. But by living on Mud Island, a fairly safe, white neighborhood five minutes from downtown, I realize my neighbors have no clue what Memphis is. I am lucky to have a bit of both worlds. When you know where to go, nightlife in Memphis is a very cool, groovy music scene. People play like nowhere else in the world. You get into some juke joints and it's like you're 50 years back in time. The grooviest cats ever. Memphis is not particularly pretty, but it's got soul!
What are your memories of living and recording in New Orleans?
If NOLA was more central for my tours, that's where I would probably end up staying. If the school systems were a little bit better, I would live there with my family. I'm not much of the suburban type; I think if you live in NOLA, then live in NOLA. As far as the people, they are the warmest and kindest I have ever experienced. They are positive and friendly whether you're in a park with your kids or at the awards show. Right away, you can get tickets to this and tickets to that, the food is amazing, the streets are kind of European, and weather is great. The best part is that they celebrate their musicians more than most cities. You're actually taken very seriously as a musician. That is beautiful to see, whereas in some places in Europe, people ask: "Oh, you're a musician, but what's your real job?"
What can you tell us about working with Jon Cleary?
Jon is a fabulous musician, and the nicest person to work with. He helped me write the music for 'Summer Rain,' which is one of my favorite songs on Unconditional.
How were you first exposed to the blues?
Through my father's collection of blues, soul, and rock. I probably listened to blues before a lot of American kids did. I was probably 2-3 years old and I was singing Elmore James. Blues music was very natural for me. Ever since I can remember, blues music was played in my home. My father would gather us around guitar and encourage us to sing everything from Delta blues, Chicago blues, Texas blues, to west coast stuff. American soul. We loved the 'Stax' sound. We had many choices, everything from Isaac Hayes to Robert Johnson, All three Kings, Albert Collins, Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Victoria Spivey, to Allman Bros Band, Ray Cooder, Stevie Ray and Hendrix.
What did music mean to you, growing up under Milosovic? What did the blues represent?
It represented freedom. It was an escape from everyday political chaos. Your home was like an oasis. The first big summertime festival that I attended in Belgrade at age 13 had BB King, Buddy Guy, and an Alligator Records reunion with Koko Taylor and Kenny Neal. I will never forget seeing these people live. They existed! It was magical. Before that, blues was solely reserved for my home. I remember Buddy came into the audience and let people strum and play his guitar. He was the only artist I ever asked for an autograph, and I'll never forget that.
I always felt that I belonged more to America than Serbia. It is amazing how close I was. When I first came to the US and played for an American audience, it felt like home. The American mentality, language, music, and response to my music felt and still feels real and very familiar.
Ana Popovic and Mo' Better Love plays Jazz Fest in the Blues Tent today at 4 p.m.