Even before she could speak a word of English, Ana Popovic was fluent in the language of blues. Growing up in Belgrade, Serbia, she was surrounded by the music of the great American blues artists – everyone from Albert Collins to Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughn to Robert Johnson.
“I listened to blues ever since I was 2 or 3 years old,” Popovic said from her home in Memphis, Tenn. “Blues was the only thing in my home, thanks to my dad. We had a huge collection of vinyl, everything from Delta blues to Chicago blues and Texas blues.”
Encouraged by her father’s fondness for the genre, Popovic began playing blues guitar in her teens, and was writing and performing her own material by the time she was 20. Performing with a band called Hush, Popovic toured Europe, eventually moving to the Netherlands to study jazz guitar at the Utrecht School of the Arts. Popovic formed her own band in 1999 and has since put out six solo studio albums; her latest, “Can You Stand the Heat,” was released last year.
In terms of musical influences, Popovic says she culls from everyone who inspires her. There are no regional or stylistic boundaries: She’ll cover such expected artists as Howlin’ Wolf, but don’t be surprised if you hear her own bluesy rendition of a Jimi Hendrix or Steely Dan tune. “I’m from Europe, so I have an excuse to be versatile,” she said. “If you’re born in Chicago, everyone expects you to be a ‘Chicago guitar player.’ I really want to touch on all different type of blues.”
And you can hear hints of jazz, funk and R&B, too: For every song that showcases Popovic’s guitar work, there’s another that’s alive with horn licks and soulful backup singers.
But as vivacious as the music is, Popovic says the lyrics come first; she won’t start working on riffs or melodies until the words are just right.
“It’s hard writing a song that’s not in your language, and I’m very demanding about the lyrics,” she said. “I really wanted to get deep with the lyrics from the very start. They’re a really important part to me, as important as the music. Maybe even more.
“And I think if you write a good sentence or a good line, you should feel it pulsating, and it should already have a rhythm to it,” she added.
Popovic says that “Can You Stand the Heat” represents her at her freest: Not only is she more comfortable writing in English now, but she’s less inhibited musically, eager to break through the conventions of the blues genre and to move listeners with her songwriting.
“I feel like there’s a huge progression with every record, as far as me being free to explore whatever I feel at the moment,” Popovic said.
“You only put out a handful of records in a decade, so you might as well write something that can inspire people.”