Ana Popovic's Fearless Blues

Never one to play it safe, Ana Popovic’s Trilogy [ArtisteXclusive Records] is far from just a groovy album title.
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Never one to play it safe, Ana Popovic’s Trilogy [ArtisteXclusive Records] is far from just a groovy album title. The Serbian-born blues guitarist actually delivers three different styles (funk, blues, jazz) in three sets, and to do so, she played with three different bands, was guided by three different producers, and recorded in four different studios. Everything was worked out to deliver ultimate authenticity, from the players to the environments, and even her choice of guitars. Perhaps more surprising is her insistence on giving fans a ton of songs to absorb at a time when single downloads appear to be ruling the world of music commerce.

Trilogy is separated into three sides (yes, it really is a triple album)—Morning, Mid-Day, and Midnight—and guest artists include heavies such as Joe Bonamassa, Robert Randolph, Bernard Purdie, and Ivan Neville. “I got the idea about four years ago, when I realized that fans were making their own mix tapes of my blues, rock, R&B, and funk songs,” explains Popovic. “I’ve always tried to be diverse and have fun, but suddenly it was like, ‘Hey, maybe my fans want me to expand stylistically on a single album. Of course, I got crazy and expanded the idea into three completely different recording projects.”

From a commercial standpoint, with artists struggling over whether albums are still relevant or not, you took a stand and said, “Not only am I doing an album, I’m going to make it a triple LP.” Kind of a ballsy thing to do, don’t you think?

I’ve been playing in between “the rules” for 15 years, because the music business is constantly changing. When I started, they said I couldn’t sing in English, but I was all over the television in Serbia singing in English. Then, they said, “You can’t go to the United States. They have plenty of musicians over there. It’s never going to work.”

But it did work. Somehow, playing blues music on the guitar is beyond the rules. Record companies sell us a different story—like, there is no money involved, and nobody’s going to buy the records. But blues fans come out to the shows, and they want to purchase a CD. They also order stuff online. But many musicians are just dropping songs for nothing, and I feel that people’s attention spans are so short that if you don’t make a big bang with something—something really different—then it’s going to be even more difficult to get people’s attention. I thought releasing what are actually three records simultaneously—and with completely different bands and styles—would be a great story, and it would also give people a lot of information. Yes, it’s a gamble, but if I believe in a project, I get 100 percent behind it. Why drop a song tomorrow and have people forget about it. Make an impact. Trust your audience. Give them something it will take time to absorb.

Well, a lot of artists are concerned about doing business in a rapidly changing music landscape. It’s scary out there, and no one wants to make a commercial mistake.

Everyone is trying to track the market, but it’s so difficult to predict. And what happened to being creative and believing in your art? Why chase after trends? Why give away your music?

Who were your main influencers for the three sessions—Morning, Mid-Day, and Midnight—that make up Trilogy?

Morning was comfortable for me. It’s really a dance record if you want to dance, and I love to dance. It also shows my love for the grooves of James Brown, Mandrill, and War, and I mixed things up with some soul and that New Orleans vibe. Mid-Day was kind of inspired by how Stevie Ray Vaughan approached his funk-driven songs. When Stevie did “Superstition,” for example, he didn’t cop Stevie’s vocal performance, or even try to be as funky as he was. He basically made it into a rock guitar song, and united the guitar and horn licks. So for my cover of Rufus’ “You Got the Love,” I was hearing those corny ’70s keyboard parts on guitar. And [Rufus vocalist] Chaka Khan is an incredible performer, but I always heard that song as a rock version. I thought, “I’m just going to step completely away from the Rufus version, and try to do something almost as a Lenny Kravitz song.”

Midnight is a whole other thing, because I love Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, and that old-school jazz playing—the bluesy side of jazz. And for a jazz record like that, I needed a completely different guitar tone, so I used a Gibson for the very first time—an ES-175, which I plugged right into a 1966 blackface Super Reverb. I also used a D’Angelico hollowbody.

What was the gear for Morning and Mid-Day?

I used my ’64 and 1957 Reissue Stratocasters the most, and they are strung with .010 and .011 sets of DR Strings. The amps were a Fender Bassman, the ’66 Super, and a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV—all running at the same time. Then, we’d pick between the tones, or blend them together. My pedals were two Ibanez Tube Screamers, a Boss Chorus, a Line 6 delay, and my Vox “British flag” wah.

As you’re such a Strat person, were there challenges to playing the ES-175?

I had a week to practice with it, and that was good, because I never sit down and play. I’m always standing up and rocking out. It’s a whole different hand position when you sit down, but I wanted to push myself to be comfortable with that, because I really wanted that type of sound. There’s also nothing to cover bad technique—you have to play clean. The rehearsal time was absolutely necessary for the record, and it was worth all of the trouble, because I was blown away by the tone. It was exactly what I was hearing in my head—that old-school Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery sound.

You’re doing elements of rock, jazz, funk, and R&B—all in the space of a single release. Was it fairly easy for you to shift your brain between the different styles?

It all depends on the band. I can absolutely do it, but I can’t do it if the band can’t do it. Do you know what I mean? I take everything from the groove side, and I approach everything from the blues. I’m not trying to copy James Brown, for example. If I do funk, it’s from the bluesy side. If I do jazz, it’s from the bluesy side. So for this record, I needed musicians to be able to back up the different styles. That means you call, say, George Porter Jr. to do a funk record, and you get Bernard Purdie to do his “Purdie Shuffle” for a jazz session. You need masters at what they do. I mean, this record really opened my eyes. I can’t even imagine going back to how I was recording before—which is pick one band of great studio musicians, and expect them to be funky in one song, a little jazzy for another, and then play a really deep shuffle.

So how does playing with someone like Bernard Purdie and his deep shuffle change your playing from a drummer who might just play a really good shuffle?

It’s an unbelievable change—at least for me. Maybe not every guitar player responds to grooves the way that I do. I’m not a safe player. If I play with somebody who is “just trying” to be jazzy, I’m not going to get the support I’m looking for in order for me to play really great jazz. All of my solos come out of the rhythm section, so the groove has to be there.

I’m interested in your comment, “Maybe not every guitar player responds to grooves…” Do you feel that many guitarists aren’t locked in with the bass and drums?

I’ve witnessed this so many times—even with some incredible players. I’m thinking, “How is this even possible? How do you come out with this flashy stuff, but not lock in with the drummer? That’s crazy.” But I guess a lot of guitarists are so focused on what kind of scale they’re going to deliver that they forget about the drummer. I really try to avoid that, because it’s a beginner’s mistake in my opinion. If you can’t get the groove down, then scales can wait.

How do you approach your solos?

I think the opening lick and the last lick are the most important things. In between, you kind of lay down the groove, and you try to surprise people a little bit. For example, I don’t know if the band enjoys it, but I like to play a bit ahead of the beat when I start my licks. I think that kind of wakes up the audience a bit, and perhaps stops them from thinking, “Oh, I’ve heard this before.”

Not to disrespect any blues guitarist, but I think “surprise” is likely key when you’re performing at blues festivals where fans might hear a fair amount of similar licks, turnarounds, and solos.

Absolutely. Yeah. But it also comes back around to commanding the beat. Freddie King and Albert King in their youth were intense. They were in charge. And Stevie Ray Vaughan was so in command of the groove that he didn’t need a drummer or a bass player. If you really want to wake people up, then rule the groove, the chords, and the solos. Intensity is everything.