In the fall of 2020, Ana Popovic thought the time might have come to set aside her music career after more than two decades of touring and recording. Most of the world was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Popovic had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, the same disease that took her mother’s life three years earlier.
At that time, Popovic had already started writing material for a new project with her bass player, Buthel. She called him to warn that she was thinking about retiring.
“I said, ‘I’m thinking maybe this is it,’” Popovic recalled during a recent phone interview with Blues Rock Review. “‘Maybe I should just stop right here, take some time off, go back to Europe.’”
Buthel quickly talked her out of it with what Popovic described as an “empowering speech.” He urged her to focus on writing, and they resumed working that same day.
The project they agreed to pursue eventually became Power, out May 5 on ArtisteXclusive Records. “There was no record without [Buthel],” Popovic said. She credits him with pitching the album title, which came from one of Power’s songs, “Power Over Me.” But the title felt apt to Popovic for deeper reasons.
“Power really is the sum of what this record meant to me,” she said. “The moment he said it, I was like, ‘That’s it.’”
The album’s 11 tracks dip into gospel, soul, funk, blues and rock, reflecting the creativity and experimentation that sprouted from pandemic lockdowns and opportunities for the band to record together in cities like Dallas, Texas; Detroit, Michigan; and Los Angeles, California.
The music feels deeply personal, but its harmonies and driving rhythms also portray togetherness and collaboration. The album artwork, the idea for which Popovic said she’s had “for a long time,” further drives home that sense of unity by showing a Black hand clasping a white hand over a red backdrop.
Popovic said she wanted a “timeless” cover. “A strong cover is going to speak for itself without me necessarily putting the title on it,” she said. “I wanted people to associate two hands holding, Black and white, with power, you know—that image that’s going to bring the world to a better place.”
Creating Power became the positive distraction Popovic needed as she forged her battle with cancer. She kept her fight private until recently, only telling a small circle of family and friends in the early days so that she could focus her energy on her health and on the music that kept her going.
“In the toughest times of my last two years, it was giving me the fuel to go on, and the power and inspiration,” Popovic said.
The songs became “a motor for positivity” as Popovic took long walks through her neighborhood while listening to demos, thinking through what to keep and what to change. “It was just so empowering, you know, so wonderful to get lost in the project like that, and just be creative and set my mind away from the reality,” she said. “The moment I felt that energy, I was like, you know, I’m not gonna rush this project at all.”
Popovic recalled writing material in the hospital and on planes as she traveled between her home in Los Angeles and Amsterdam, where she underwent chemotherapy. The pandemic backdrop of Power’s creation meant a lot of the collaboration between Popovic and her bandmates happened over Zoom. It also meant they weren’t recording everything together—some bits and pieces of songs, such as keyboards and horns, were recorded in home studios when each musician had the time and felt inspired, though the background vocals and rhythm sections were recorded when the band could be together.
“The parts that I got from my band members are spot-on, and partly, maybe, because they were doing that in the convenience of their home studios,” Popovic said. Though adapting their recording process was a necessity during the pandemic, Popovic said it’s a strategy she intends to carry forward for future projects.
Popovic co-produced earlier albums, but she said Power marks her “first real production job” because she was so active in overseeing all of the album’s moving parts. “This is the first time that I went into that process with, just re-recording demos and having fun with songs that were unfinished,” Popovic said. She was searching for the version of each song that was “as close to perfection” as possible. “That was just giving me so much joy, and power, and a way to keep going in my struggles.”
One of Popovic’s favorite songs on Power is “Doin’ This,” a track with a tempo change—“I love songs with tempo changes when it’s done smoothly,” she said—and gospel elements. Popovic said she and Buthel began writing it either the day she received her cancer diagnosis or the day after.
“We were just talking about how much joy we have in doing what we’re doing now,” Popovic said. They merged two song ideas into one for “Doin’ This” and “we never looked back,” she said. The song quickly became a crowd favorite as Popovic and her band began playing it on the road.
“The song is, like, made for live,” Popovic said. “Right now, we’re ending the show with that song, and people just go berserk.”
Another favorite of Popovic’s is “Rise Up!,” a track featuring lyrics by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Tia Sillers and Mark Selby. It’s the only song on Power that Popovic didn’t write.
“The lyrics were speaking to me,” she said, but she wanted new music to accompany them. She sat down with Buthel, a vocal arranger and her drummer, Jerry Kelley. “Buthel came up with this amazing bassline, which is my favorite on the record, and Jerry was playing those drums, so demanding and so in your face. And we came up with some of the lines and started playing. Then I thought, ‘Man, this is just like an anthem.’”
In addition to her personal struggles, Popovic said she was thinking a lot while making Power about social and cultural issues, such as homelessness, women’s rights and racism. “I listen to Albert King, I listen to Albert Collins, to Freddie King—you know, these people had hard times back in the day. They had to perform in a club but get in through a service door because they couldn’t get in through the front door. I mean, you have to think about these things if you’re a blues lover,” she said.
“I thought that, if this is going to be my last record for any reason, if I’m going to retire or not do music, let me just put, first and foremost, my standpoint on things about this life we have. And that is that we still have miles to go,” she said.
The reception to the album’s message appears positive. Popovic and her band are playing more songs from Power than they typically would while rolling out a new album on tour.
“I think we play at least eight [new songs] every night. We kind of just ditched the old material. We’re like, ‘Let’s play the new songs!’ Turns out they’re made for live, like they couldn’t be better as far as the arrangements and the vocal arrangements and the horn arrangements. They really get people going,” she said, adding she has “never seen a response like that” to new material.
Reflecting on Power days before its release, Popovic said the creative process behind the album was “directly connected to the process of healing” for her—and she hopes it’ll give something positive to her audiences, too.
“I hope they’re gonna actually find some of the songs really inspiring, and moving, and empowering,” she said