It takes a brave artist to blaze their own trail. From her birth-city of Belgrade to the Marz Studios in Texas where she recorded her dazzling new album, Katarina Pejak has walked countless roads and stuck a thousand pins in the map. Now, with Roads That Cross, this award-winning performer unveils a fresh set of songs that follow her muse wherever it leads her. Inspired by blues, jazz, country and rock ‘n’ roll – and shaped by all the cities she’s called home – this is music that crosses borders and brings people together. As producer Mike Zito says: “Katarina is one of a kind…”
Making her debut on the iconic Ruf Records – and taking part in the label’s famous Blues Caravan tour in 2019 – Roads That Cross is the stone-cold classic that Katarina has promised since the start. Rewind to the post-millennium and this upcoming artist was already a little different: a classical piano virtuoso who raided her father’s record collection for Tom Waits, Bessie Smith, Van Morrison and Otis Spann – then challenged herself to write songs that measured up.
Hitting the blues circuit in her late-teens, word of Katarina’s house-rocking musicianship and smoky vocal spread across the Serbian capital like wildfire. But she had bigger plans. In 2011, Katarina followed the call to the birthplace of US roots, winning a scholarship to the famed Berklee College of Music that trained stars from Steve Vai to Quincy Jones. “It was amazing and tough at the same time,” she recalls. “Studying with people like Dave Limina and Pat Pattison really shaped me.”
Katarina soon made her own mark, picked out for Berklee’s prestigious Songwriting Achievement Award and winning critical acclaim in her native Serbia for early releases like Perfume & Luck (2010), First Hand Stories (2012) and Old New Borrowed And Blues (2016). Her material touched on every genre, but the common factor was honesty, which flooded from the speakers and held audiences spellbound as she performed with the A-list and began to be mentioned in the same breath. “I've had the privilege to meet and play with some true blues greats,” she recalls, “like Ronnie Earl, Mike Zito, Anson Funderburgh, Mark Hummel and Ana Popović.”
For now, Katarina has put down roots in Nashville. But Roads That Cross was born in Texas, where she arrived this year armed with a notebook full of new songs, a stellar studio band and the burning desire to make the best album of her career. “A young woman from Serbia,” considers Zito, “surrounded by Americans, in Southeast Texas, takes the reins and leads this band into some of the best songs I’ve heard in a long time. Her voice is subtle and seductive, her piano playing is on fire. She has emotion, passion and a desperate need for the music to be magical.”
Mission accomplished. Listen to Roads That Cross and you’ll be taken on a magic carpet ride of emotion and mood. There’s She’s Coming After You, with its Latin groove, echo-chamber guitars and a lyric about a femme fatale who “looks like the Devil’s daughter/Walks like a baroness”. There’s the choppy reggae-flavoured Down With Me, and the expert jazz of The Harder You Kick, carried by organ and Katarina’s astonishing vocal. The upbeat Cool Drifter combines escapism with a soul edge, while Moonlight Rider will satisfy the blues hardcore, its gritty riffs and dusty groove addressing a lover that she knows will leave. “I didn’t realise until after making the album,” she reflects, “but most of these songs are about good-byes.”
For everyone else, Roads That Cross is the start of a beautiful relationship. Following her meteoric early career, Katarina Pejak stands at a crossroads, ready to step into the fast lane. “She’ll make you think,” concludes Zito. “She’ll make you cry. By the end of this record, she’ll have you in the palm of her hand. For Katarina, this is only the beginning…”