The versatile guitarist and singer/songwriter has been one of the genre’s marquee names for the last decade. Each new full-length (eight to date, including the newly released Trilogy) rockets to the upper reaches of Billboard’s Blues Albums chart. She’s a fixture at the annual Blues Music Awards in Memphis and Joe Bonamassa, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Beth Hart are the lofty company to which she belongs.
Not too shabby for somebody who didn’t even speak English when, as a child growing up in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, her father, also a musician, began exposing her to the mysterious allure of traditional American blues.
I always think about music, including my own, in terms of what time of day it would sound best
“I knew I wanted to play the guitar by the time I was nine, but I was listening to the blues long before that, probably earlier than most American kids,” Popovic says from her Memphis home. “My father listened to Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, B.B. King, Elmore James and Robert Johnson on a daily basis. I was listening to the raw Delta sound at four years old, and it just felt very natural to me.”
With the Yugoslav Wars of the ’90s sending the Balkans into chaos (a topic she explored on 2007’s emotionally intense Still Making History), Popovic’s family sent her to the Netherlands, where her love for music intensified. In her new homeland, she spent roughly a decade honing her blazing fretwork while also exploring funk and soul with the outfit Hush, as well as studying jazz and world music at the Amsterdam Music School.
America, however, always was the end game. After a handful of extended visits in the early ’00s (she also spent considerable time in New Orleans), she settled into Memphis about four years ago and immediately dove into the city’s historic blues and soul scene.
One of the most hotly anticipated blues albums of 2016, Trilogy is an ambitious summation of Popovic’s incredible musical journey thus far. The triple album consists of three parts, each dedicated to a different aspect of her multifaceted artistry: blues, funk and jazz. But that’s not all: Each part also corresponds to a different time of the day (“Morning,” “Mid-Day” and “Midnight”). Thus, Trilogy also serves as the guitarist’s exploration of mood and genre and how she sees their relationship evolving in accordance with our circadian clock.
I like to fuse things at the fringes and borders of styles
“I always think about music, including my own, in terms of what time of day it would sound best,” she explains. “You can love Jimi Hendrix, but if you listen to him early in the morning, it can sound too aggressive. Or, you can love jazz, but if you listen to it in the middle of the day, when you’re full of energy, it doesn’t always work. As a result, I tried very hard to sound different on each part, using different producers, musicians and studios.”
Despite the fact that the star-studded Trilogy breaks down largely along genre lines, Popovic never has been a purist. “I like to fuse things at the fringes and borders of styles,” she says.
“Heaven’s Crying (aka: Song for the Next Generation),” the penultimate track on part three, mutates from a slinky, jazz-informed gait into a syncopated strut anchored by drummer and funk pioneer Bernard Purdie. Six-string hero Bonamassa may be known as a blues player first and foremost, yet he shows an incredible adaptability as he weaves his muscular licks into the slowly burning funk ballad “Train.” Then there’s Al Kapone, the legendary Memphis rapper who has a cameo on “Let’s Do It Again,” an audaciously sexed-up romp also featuring North Mississippi Allstar Cody Dickinson behind the kit.
Popovic acknowledges her penchant for fusion is partly an outgrowth of her global perspective. Her guitar playing in particular feeds off her ability to “inhale each new city’s sights and sounds.” Yet it’s also an expression of something deeper that reaches all the way back to her childhood in Belgrade.
“I listened to all the blues records that the guys liked,” she says. “I also loved the funky music that my mom and aunt enjoyed dancing to — Isaac Hayes and all the classic Stax stuff. We listened to all of it, and I became aware of the similarities and differences between those genres at a really early age.”
As the saying goes: You can take the guitarist out of Serbia, but you can’t take the Serbia out of the guitarist — or something like that.
Upcoming Tour Dates
6/4: Hagerstown, MD, The Western Maryland Blues Fest
6/5: New York, Highline Ballroom
6/6: Teaneck, NJ, Mexicali Live
6/7: Woonsocket, RI, Chan’s
6/8: Shirley, MA, Bull Run
6/9: Fairfield, CT, FTC Stage One
6/10: Portland, ME, One Longfellow Square
6/11: Norfolk, CT, Infinity Music Hall
6/12: Londonberry, NH, Tupelo Music Hall
6/25: Kansas City, MO, Blues Cruise Reunion Party
6/27: Seattle Jazz Alley
6/28: Seattle Jazz Alley
6/29: Vancouver, BC, Coastal Jazz
6/30: Victoria, BC, Victoria Jazz Fest
7/2: White Rock, BC, Blue Frog Studios
7/3: Mount Vernon, WA, Lincoln Theatre
7/14: Gravenhurst, ON, Peter’s Players
7/15: Mont-Tremblant, QC, Mont Tremblant International Blues Festival
7/16: Moscow, ID, Rendezvous in the Park
7/17: Boise, ID, Boise Blues Festival
7/27: Oakland, CA, Yoshi’s
7/28: Oroville, CA, Feather Falls Casino
7/29: Red Bluff, CA, State Theatre
7/30: Reno, NV, Boomtown Blues Festival
7/31: Santa Cruz, CA, Moe’s