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Mahindra Blues Festival: The Ana Popovic Interview

In the first of our series of interviews with the stars scheduled to play this year’s Mahindra Blues Fest, we talk to Serbian blueswoman Ana Popovic.

Shawn Fernandes Feb 07, 2012
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The second edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival is just around the corner and we can’t wait to catch legends like Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Robert Randolph, John Lee Hooker, Jr. and Robert Randolph play alongside our local blues heroes Soulmate, Blackstratblues and Overdrive Trio.

ROLLING STONE INDIA caught up with Serbian blueswoman Ana Popovic who’s also part of the bill and will be perfoming in India for the first time. She’s ready and rarin’ to blow away Indian audiences. Read on for the full interview:

The blues aren’t normally associated with continental Europe. How does a guitar player from Belgrade, Serbia get into the blues?

I’ve listened to blues music ever since I was born.. My father has a great collection of blues music, and listened to it on a daily basis. I remember listening to Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, BB King, Taj  Mahal, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King and many more when I was just 3-4 years old. It always felt very natural to me. We never listened to any Serbian music at home; it was always American roots music. In my very early years my father would get us around and play guitar and encourage us to sing. I used to sing Howlin’ Wolf way before I knew what I was singing about.
You tend to know what American blues singers are singing about most of the time, but as an artist who grew up during a tumultuous time in Europe, what are your lyrical themes about?

I like to put my music in modern times, and even if I play blues-influenced music I don’t want to copy what the greats did back in the day, but rather place modern subjects in the blues. Everything from talking about friendships, love, time, inspiration, feeling strong, not giving up, dedication to something. I hope to inspire people, especially people who grew up in difficult times and in developing countries. My music is sometimes very personal and almost autobiographical, but sometimes a complete opposite: I love getting into a song like I’m getting into somebody’s else’s skin or somebody else’s shoes. In my songs I can be who ever I want to be, almost like in a theatre play and I love that part about songwriting. In those kinds of songs, like ”˜Unconditional’ and ”˜Count Me In’, even my guitar playing is different. It’s like I’m somebody else and not myself. Lyrics always play a very important part in my music

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Ana Popovic

Growing up, what were your influences as a guitar player and how have they inspired the music you make today?

I never wanted to copy anybody, and always, since the beginning, have dreamed about creating a special sound and style. That’s why even in the early days I would simply work with records of different guitar players, and keep changing the record. I used to play a lot with records of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Ronny Earl, Elmore James, Roy Rodgers, BB King, Albert King, Sonny Landreth etc. The moment that I started using only one guitar player’s licks I would change the record and play alongside someone else. I liked people outside of the blues too: John Scofield, Kevin Eubanks, George Benson, but also piano players like Keith Jarrett. As a guitar player sometimes is inspirational to get licks from say a sax player or a piano player. That way you work on your phrasing and it becomes fresh and different from other guitar players.
You’ve been nominated at the W.C Handy Awards; you’ve toured and played alongside legends like Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Jonny Lang, Solomon Burke and Bernard Allison. How important is it for a blues musician from outside the traditional home of the blues to successfully break into the US scene and find acceptance there?

It is of a primal importance. To me, it was the biggest challenge. I grew up listening to the people that inspired me, but as well, created the style I play. They have set the roles and to me, over there in the US, that’s where it counts. You can play great blues in Europe all your life, but you may never be ‘discovered’. Once you step in another country people probably have never heard of you. As a blues musician you have to make a name in the US. You have to play over there, see if you can ”˜stand the heat’. For me it’s still a part of the learning process. I’m always recording in the US, lots of times with US musicians and producers, US studios, US vocal coaches, etc. I still want to be better, want to be inspired, want to test how far I’ve come and the way to do it is to be where the real action is.
What’s it like being one of the few women blues guitarists? Do you feel the need to prove yourself more in a male dominated music scene? Or have you noticed it’s more of an advantage?
I think there is both of that present; however, I was always trying not to take advantage of either one, and try to be taken as an individual with a specific, style, sound, regardless of being a woman or man.
I think the most difficult part was to try to build your image as someone who does not want to be placed in a category – that’s the hardest part when you’re growing as a musician in blues. People want to put a stamp on you, saying this is Chicago blues, this is Texas blues. I wanted to be different and make music that’s personal, but at the same time traceable. For someone who really knows the style – he should be able to recognize where every note I play comes from.

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This is your first time performing in India. What kind of reaction are you expecting and what part are you looking forward to most?

Definitely the musical part is what I’m looking for the most. I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing some of the local talent. India has such rich music history and background and it’s influenced many musical styles. Hopefully I’ll attend some jam sessions, and not just blues jam sessions.

From us, the audience can expect a powerful show, based on the blues but crossing the edge as well. I will be playing songs off of my latest record Unconditional ”“ it’s a more roots blues orientated CD and has been called one of top 10 blues CDs by Amazon, Guitar World Magazine and USA Today.  There will also be a selection of songs from my live CD Live at Trasimeno Lake as well as from Blind Love and Still Making History. It’s going be a powerful set, lots of guitars and inspiring blues lyrics especially for the people who, like I, come from countries not directly affiliated with blues music. My music is always influenced by different musical styles: rock and soul, fusion and jazz but with its base and foundation is always in blues.

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