Katarina Pejak is a blues singer, songwriter and piano player and a Ruf Records recording artist. She is best known for her eclectic musical approach – her style lives on the crossroads of American music genres such as blues, soul, folk and jazz.
Katarina graduated in songwriting from Berklee College Of Music in Boston (class of 2014) where she studied with Dave Limina, Pat Pattison, David Maxwell, Lisa Thorson and many other great American musicians and educators and was given the Songwriting Achievement award. In the summer of 2018, Katarina signed with Ruf Records, a German-based modern blues label, joining a long list of acclaimed blues artists who were on their roster, and her debut album for this label, “Roads That Cross” was voted one of the 2019 favorite blues albums by allmusic.com. Katarina was a part of the Blues Caravan 2019, a Ruf records travelling show and has played over sixty concerts all across Europe. In the summer of 2020, Katarina was nominated for the Independent Blues Awards, put on by Making A Scene in the total of 6 categories.
EARLY LIFE AND INTEREST IN MUSIC
I grew up in Belgrade, Serbia. My early life was greatly impacted by the time I spent with my two grandmothers, as my parents were both active in their respective careers. This was probably what instilled in me a certain love for nostalgia and storytelling. It was a very colorful childhood, as a lot of people and events were occurring in our daily life, as the 1990s were a time of uncertainty and improvisation, but I remember my childhood as a joyful one.
Due to my father’s involvement with the Belgrade blues scene, as a promoter and a blues club manager, musicians were coming over to our home frequently, sometimes with their instruments, which was very seductive to me. We always had music playing and talking about albums and performers was a daily thing. On the other hand, my mother used to do flamenco and I believe that it was her that made me want to become a performer. I guess my profession is a sublimation of these major influences from my childhood.
PATH TO BECOMING BLUES SINGER, SONGWRITER, AND A PIANIST
I was classically trained at piano for ten years: six years of primary music school and four years of high music school, which is an education one gets along with the regular schools. At the time, there were no independent conservatories that taught jazz or pop… However, as a teenager, I was listening to a lot of rock’n’roll and, later, blues, jazz, American folk… It was in high school that I realized that I will never become a classical music performer but that I have another creative outlet that I am more interested in. I also really liked writing, so it all came together.
My first three albums were recorded in Serbia and published by Blues Time Records. The first album was released a little bit before my departure to the United States to study at Berklee, and it was recorded just with piano and vocals in a theater. It was a big turning point for me, and a real beginning in professional music. The second album is a bigger collection of original songs, and it showcases the heavy influence of Berklee and living in Boston, and the third one is a live album recorded while doing a TV broadcast for a national TV network based in Novi Sad, Serbia. My career is a slow path, and it was heavily influenced by being at Berklee, but within the last three or four years, I can say that it accelerated greatly. I was lucky to get to know a lot of great musicians along the way, and to live in several different countries, building a rich experience as a writer and as a person. When the Ruf records deal came, it was at a turning point of deciding whether to stay in Nashville or return to Belgrade, and I decided to become based in Europe again, which was always something my heart was more inclined to do.
THE BERKLEE CONNECTION
Berklee has had a great influence on my life and music in many ways. The sheer amount of work and information first, and then the community, variety… It is not an easy journey but personally I think it is worthwhile for any musician to go through a program like this. For me, the most important way in which Berklee had influenced me was exposing me to so new and unfamiliar kinds of music, cultures and styles of songwriting. It gave me a platform to seek my own style and deliver my music with more conviction.
ASSOCIATION WITH RUF RECORDS
I had recorded and self-published a double single in Nashville, TN that caught the attention of a mutual friend and German/based musician, Tosho Todorovich. It was thanks to him that I was put in touch with Ruf records and I recorded “Roads That Cross” within the same year. It was definitely a milestone, having an international label as a Serbian musician, and the Blues Caravan tour was a big highlight of my career.
INDEPENDENT BLUES AWARD NOMINATIONS
The Independent Blues Awards are put on by a Florida-based blues media outlet that covers the American blues scene very thoroughly. I got nominated on account of the “Roads That Cross” album, that was recorded in Texas and produced by blues star Mike Zito. It was a great experience, being used to academic perfectionism, this was a more live and raw process, which was the demand of the label. That really put me on the spot, it made the immediate performance really important. After the process, I felt like a better musician.
THE EP RELEASE IN NOVEMBER 2020
These are four songs written over the course of the past two years, and they never seemed to fit into the blues mold. When covid and confinement became a part of our lives, as difficult as it is, it also made me feel liberated to come out with music that feels more true and personal. The production is also very intimate, as was the goal. I also feel very thankful to have collaborated with great people on this, such as Romain Guillot who had a key role in making this happen, Ana Protulipac, my musical collaborator and friend, as well as the team at Digimedia that took care of the post production, and Dana Colley, saxophonist of “Morphine”, an iconic underground band formerly based in Boston.
I started teaching when I was in my late teens, just because family friends had young daughters who wanted to learn how to play piano. It seemed like a fun enough thing to do to earn pocket money, however I realized in the process that it is incredibly rewarding. Until last year, it was never my only job, but it has always been a constant and important part of my musical journey, because teaching is also a learning experience for the person who teaches. I’ve been a piano instructor and a songwriting mentor and panelist. I have always come out of these experiences with some realizations about myself.
MUSIC AS A CAREER – MESSAGE TO KIDS AND PARENTS
I think the subject of career choices is getting more and more complex as the world is changing rapidly. The covid crisis had a big negative impact on the world of arts, while, on the other hand, it exposed the importance of art in our lives. A life without a pursuit of beauty, meaning, depth… seems a bit blank. That said, I think the pursuit of music as a career is more than legitimate. However, it requires a lot of soul-searching and a lot of work. On the other hand, there are many ways to have a fruitful life through music, not just what the pop industry presents through mainstream outlets. To a parent, I would say that if that is what their child desires, there are ways of educating yourself and your child about what it takes to become, firstly, a good musician, an artist, and secondly, how to make a living in music. It is not an easy path, but it is a very fulfilling one, and isn’t that the goal, to live fully?
DREAM AS A MUSICIAN
My wish is to always come closer to my own truth as a writer, not to fall in the trap of cliches or easy fixes. My goal is to keep progressing, with my content but also with the production value. Ultimately, I would like my music to reach its audience, anybody anywhere who might be moved by it.
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Author: The feature was authored by Dr. Debashish Sengupta, Asia Editor at Future of Earth.