There is not a big blues scene in Serbia. Small clubs pop up in Belgrade, then they close and others open, but there isn’t a lot of demand for the style in the country. So when Serbian guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Ana Popovic started her musical career playing the blues, she had her work cut out for her.
Her first band spent four years performing blues music that most audience members likely weren’t familiar with. Popovic learned a lot from those early gigs. As she puts it, she got to “experience what it is to entertain the audience.”
“You need to entertain them with songs that are nicely played,” she says. “They don’t know they are listening to blues, but if it’s catchy and a nice stage performance, then they stay.”
While blues may not be big in Serbia, at large, it was a fixture in Popovic’s childhood. Her father, a guitarist with a deep appreciation for the art form, exposed her to Elmore James, Albert King, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ronnie Earl, Jimmy Reed and many more blues artists. He also taught her the art and joy of the jam, as every week he would get together with friends to play and improvise blues tunes.
“I was really drawn to the blues,” says Popovic, who listened to the music even as her friends were listening to Serbian and pop music. “In the household, my sister, who grew up on the same sounds of Elmore James and B.B. King, never really went for it—she liked different music. To me, blues was always a mesmerizing musical form and something that was really close to my home. It was just a musical home.”
Popovic couldn’t wait to get her hands on an electric guitar of her own. She tried playing the keyboards, and started playing guitar on a Spanish classical guitar with plastic strings, but those instruments “didn’t do it” for her—she wanted an electric guitar.
Once she got an electric guitar of her own, she didn’t put it down. She started playing with her dad’s friends and worked to get good enough to solo during the weekly jams. She would sit in the family’s music room, which they called the Blue Room, and play along to recordings of legendary blues artists.
“Just one song after another,” she says. “I wouldn’t stop until I got the solo down, until I learned every phrase. And not just the phrase, but also the feeling behind the phrase—the way it’s played and the texture of the phrase. I would go pretty deep. That’s how I would practice, then I would showcase it at our jams later that week.”
Popovic left Serbia to pursue a career playing blues in the States by way of the Netherlands. Now based in Los Angeles, she has firmly established herself as a favorite among blues fans. Her latest offering, 2016’s self-released Trilogy, is a triple-album that showcases the breadth of Popovic’s talent. The first disc, Morning, is funk and soul, the second, Midday, is rock and blues, and the third, Midnight, is a jazz record.
“I was trying to not sound like one artist,” says Popovic of the project. “I wanted people to hear all different sides of me and my music. I wanted people to listen to my music from early in the morning to late in the night and not feel like they’re listening to the same record.”
When Trilogy was released, it made it into the Billboard top 10, alongside names like Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt. The success of the album reflects the loyal fanbase Popovic has built, the quality of her music and a determination that Popovic can trace back to those early days listening to the blues and dreaming of playing the electric guitar—before she was ever allowed to touch one.
“There were a lot of electric guitars in my home when I was a kid, but I couldn’t really pick them up,” she says. “My dad was protective of his guitars. Two little girls wanting to play around his guitars was a no-go. Maybe that helped, that it was kind of a forbidden territory,” she adds with a laugh, “but electric guitar was, right away, my interest.”
Ana Popovic will perform at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 9 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $20/adv, $25/door. 479-1854.