I’D LOVE to be able to pretend that bossa nova has been a big part of my life for years and years, but the fact is I didn’t really get it – or any of that easy, lounge stuff – until I heard Bebel Gilberto’s major label debut, Tanto Tempo, in 2000. After that, there was no stopping me.
She didn’t play up north until a few years later and I made it my business to sort out a face-to-face interview with her when she finally made it.
She was lovely, the gig was great, the interview was okay.
This is a reworked, slightly longer version of the piece that eventually ended up in the Big Issue in the North. It’s followed by the transcript of a phoner with her I did for City Life a year or so later.
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“I WAS always a traveller,” says Bebel Gilberto, glancing out of a hotel window across the Manchester Ship canal, as she pulls on a lock of jet-black hair. “I started travelling when I was a baby with my parents, because my father was touring, and I have been travelling ever since.”
Over the last few days, Gilbert has been in Spain and Holland playing gigs before coming to the UK for a meeting with the producer of her new album in London and travelling up to Manchester for tonight’s gig.
She is in Manchester as part of a short solo UK tour before she supports Simply Red around Europe.
“Sleeping is a big problem, I have trouble, I guess because of being in so many different places,” she says in charmingly accented English. “But lately I don’t know .. I don’t even want to talk about it because I think my body can hear – and then I’m not going to be able to sleep again. But I’ve had like 11 hours of sleep. So I’m in a very good mood.”
Born in New York and raised in Mexico City, São Paulo and Rio de Janiero, much of the early childhood of the only daughter of Brazilian bossa nova legends João and Miúcha Gilberto was spent touring the world. Her “totally hippy” parents were not exactly what you would call conventional.
A couple of lives dates in Mexico City, en route back to Brazil, for example, turned into a two-year stopover.
“We had a beautiful house with a big peacock walking around in it,” she tells me with a big smile, “but we had no furniture at all. We did have a TV and we all watched Brazil in the 1970 World Cup and it was fantastic.”
Her parents weren’t the only entertainers in the family – her uncle, her mother’s brother, is the poet, playwright and singer Chico Buarque.
But while the songs on her astounding major label debut retain the Zen-like simplicity of her father’s best-loved work, while her honey-toned voice recalls that of her now famously reclusive mother, Bebel Gilberto is more than merely a chip off the old block. However, growing up in a showbiz family – even a globetrotting Brazilian bossa nova hippy family – brings its own problems.
“There’s a good side to it and a bad side to it,” the diminutive singer tells me between sips of camomile tea. “I think the good side is that you are around music all the time and the bad side is that, because they are so in their lives as entertainers, sometimes they forget to be, you know, normal.
“I mean, I love it that my parents were always entertainers but I think it’s important for the discipline of anyone who is growing up to have someone who gives them the strict treatment.”
“But I think you can also learn from people’s lives,” she continues, examining the strap of one of her flip-flops. “You don’t have to blame your parents and say, I cannot have fun, I cannot be like them, and react against them. You don’t have to do that. So it’s okay.”
Gilberto found more stability at her grandparents home when her family finally returned to Brazil, and from the ages of five to eight she lived in the bustling, sprawling cosmopolitan São Paulo – an commercial and industrial metropolis which is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan as well as sizeable Italian and Orthodox Jewish communities.
“I call them the most important times of my life,” she says. “When I got there, I was still speaking Spanish after living in Mexico City. I went to school in the morning and came home at night. I met a lot of normal people, I learned to cook, I learned to sew. It was a good time.
“São Paulo is very .. very .. well, it’s São Paulo,” she shrugs. “Rio is very laid back. It is very beautiful. São Paulo is .. it’s very hard to say São Paulo is beautiful. It is quite horrible.”
Nevertheless, her grandparents had a house with a garden and even a jabuticada tree – something of a rarity, it seems, in the concrete jungle of São Paulo, which is supposedly the most heavily populated city in the southern hemisphere.
“I was very lucky. There is a song called Jabuticada on my next album which talks about the fruit from this tree – which does not grow anywhere else in the world except Brazil. I think it’s very unusual to have a tree that you can sit under in São Paulo but I was lucky, I had that.”
When the family moved to Rio, Gilberto did a little acting, some singing, and even helped create the legendary Circo Voador flying circus on Ipanema beach (“I feel very proud, this is one of the big things I have done in my life”) before returning to New York where, a two-year sojourn in London aside, she has lived ever since.
Around the time she left Brazil, a Serbian ex-pat by the name of Mitar Sobutic aka Rex Illusivii aka Suba arrived in São Paulo from Paris and began to ply his trade as a DJ and producer. Several years later, when Bebel was visiting relatives in São Paulo, one of her friends passed on a demo Suba had made of one of her father’s songs.
“He was obsessed about releasing it,” she remembers. She duly played the track to her father and he gave his consent for its release.
Gilberto and Suba only met, however, when she appeared alongside her father at a date at the Carnegie Hall in New York in 1998 (where she’d made her stage debut alongside her mother and Stan Getz at the age of nine). The extrovert Suba, who also happened to be in New York, popped his head around her dressing room door and introduced himself the immortal line: “Hallo, I am Suba! How are you? I would like to be with you!”
Gilberto pauses and raises her eyebrows.
“So we went to have dinner and he said, look, I would like to take you to Brazil to work with you on some music.
“I immediately said yes, because I didn’t know anyone who would be interested in such a thing with me. It was an investment for him – not only of his time but also financially.”
It was a meeting which led to a unique musical partnership and a breathtakingly accomplished debut album. Combining songs she worked on with Suba and productions with the likes of Amon Tobin and Smoke City, Tanto Tempo has an unashamedly romantic feel to it, with the album’s earthy and organic electronica complementing Gilberto’s wonderfully expressive voice beautifully.
Subtly updating the sound her father helped to create 50 years earlier, Tanto Tempo is nothing short of a modern classic.
“He let me do what I wanted,” says Gilberto with a smile. “But he also told me many things which affect my way of thinking today. And it’s a real pity that he’s not around. It’s one of those things that you can’t control, you know?”
Tragically, Suba died before Tanto Tempo was released – in fact he went back into his burning studio to rescue the master tapes of the album before he was overcome. The sad tale adds a great deal of poignancy to an already melancholy and reflective collection of songs.
Carmen Miranda, actress, singer, businesswoman, mad hatter and Portuguese ‘Brazilian Bombshell’ (you might recognise her as ‘the lady in the tutti-fruiti hat’) is another prodigious talent who died at a relatively young age and Gilberto, who has been managing her own career for the past couple of months, admires the independently-minded Forties and Fifties musical star tremendously.
“She is my dream. I would love to do a musical about her. I did a lot of things inspired by her. I think she’s got everything. I would love to do her in a film piece,” she enthuses.
“Everything she did, she decided to do herself. She had such a big attitude and personality, but she was actually used by Hollywood, she was burned and she was killed. She killed herself, but you know, she was working so hard with like 300 things at the same time and under pressure to be schemey. She died of a heart-attack at the age of like 46. It’s ridiculous.”
Was it easier to avoid the darker side of ‘showbiz’ having grown up in it?
“Yeah, but you can be trapped, anyone can be trapped, by the bad side of entertainment life, do you know what I mean? You have to be aware that sometimes it is very hard to control. You can’t control the music business. Unless you are Madonna. Then you can do anything you want.”
Gilberto’s somewhat unconventional upbringing seems to have produced a balanced, self-assured and resolutely normal individual who feels comfortable wherever she pitches up in the world. Over the years, she has recorded with everyone from Arto Lindsay, Towa Tei and Caetano Veloso to David Byrne, the Thievery Corporation and Kenny G. But she always returns to the music she grew up with.
“Bossa nova is totally poetic,” she tells me. “All the songs I know in bossa nova talk about love, they talk about sensations in poetic images but they are not political. There are a lot of political-minded composers in Brazil, like Hector Mendoza and Chico Buarque, but I have never gone into politics in my lyrics.”
Some of the songs on Tanto Tempo, such as her sublime reworking of João Donato and Gilberto Gil’s Bananeira, or the haunting ballad Mais Feliz, are sung in Portuguese. A few, like the languidly lovely August Day Song and her version of So Nice (Summer Samba), are in English. Either way, the simple, unaffected charm and the casual elegance of songs like Samba E Amor and Alguem transcend mere linguistics. They come from the heart and that’s about as eloquent as it gets.
“I talk a lot about my own experiences,” explains Gilberto, “because I think music soothes you sometimes, when you find something in the words similar to what is happening in your life. So I am more into that. I love politically-minded music which allows them to express themselves – but I am too romantic.”
Let’s hope she stays that way.
* * *
BEBEL GILBERTO, bossa nova siren, Carmen Miranda obsessive and multi-tasking domestic goddess, has just released her second album, a self-titled follow-up to her extraordinary solo debut, Tanto Tempo, and her star is very much in the ascendant.
Today however, she is dog tired, having only just returned from a gruelling 21 date US tour, her biggest to date, a few days ago.
“It was a lot of work,” she sighs as she clatters around the kitchen of her home in New York, preparing lunch. She has a record to promote, so it’s no big deal. She tells me it’s been like this ever since she released Tanto Tempo.
How did the tour of America go?
“You know what? It was very positive and we had a lot of good feedback. It was 21 dates in sequence and it was very interesting to see how much I learned and we got a lot tighter with the band and everything. That was the longest tour I’ve ever done in the US.”
How was it for you, playing that many dates in a row?
She laughs: “I’m so tired. I arrived back on Saturday and I’m so tired. It was a lot of work.”
You enjoy travelling though usually, don’t you?
“Yeah, but if you had some days off in the middle maybe. But days off mean that you pay for everyone to have a day off too.”
The last time we met you said that you thought this album with [producer] Marius de Vries represented a more grown up stage for Bebel Gilberto – did it work out like that?
“I think so. The Bebel that lives inside of me is definitely out there very strongly, and that’s what’s really moving me and getting me excited, with this more personal album.”
There are more English language songs on this album.
“I guess it was a natural result of working with Marius. It wasn’t really me that said, okay, now, this album is going to be more English. This album is just going to be the feelings I have, what I am thinking of. I’ve worked with so many English producers and the fact that I have been more like, how can I say, ordered with my English talking, maybe that’s where I got it from.
“It wasn’t like down and said, okay, this is what I’m gonna do. It was a bit more easy going than that.
“I kind of made people surprised. I always thought that people were going to be even more in love with my album now that it has more English words, but at the same time, I guess people kind of like the Brazilian touch, and even if they don’t know how to understand what I’m talking about, they just get into the mood. And I love that.”
Will she ever do a Portuguese album again?
“Oh yeah. I guess everything is like phases in your life, so yeah, why not?”
Tanto Tempo is supposed to be the highest selling ‘world music’ album since the Buena Vista Social Club – how do you feel about being put into that little box marked world music?
“I don’t ever think about all that, otherwise I would be so paranoid. I don’t know, this person that wrote this, he was doing his job and he did such a good job, I have to say.
“When you look in the music, at an album and ask, what does that mean? What are we getting from this? And for me, it’s totally different. It’s all about the moment. I am very spontaneous. I’m not a person that is … of course I am rational, but not really that much. I try to be.”
“I really am a go-with-the-flow person and I can change everything that I had planned and just tell everyone, I’m gonna do this now like this, this and this and then just go and do the opposite, because I feel that maybe it wouldn’t be right to do it that way. So I wish I had the guts to do an album where I could say, this is going to be a crossover album, but all I can do is music that is faithful to my thoughts and my feelings.”
How did making an album with Marius compare with making an album with Suba?
“You know, they were kind of similar somehow, I don’t know how to say that to you. Marius is an English guy with a very Nordic soul, Suba, by the time I met him, he was almost like a Brazilian guy. He was the most easy-going person in the world, and totally passionate. And Marius is an artist that is very rational.”
Did you feel the pressure of making the difficult second album even if it wasn’t actually your second album?
“It was horrible,” she says with a nervous giggle. “Well, it was not horrible but it was tense. It was very difficult. Until today. I was just checking my emails before you called and a friend, well the husband of a friend of mine, he is Dutch, a wonderful person and he just sent me an email saying how beautiful my new album is and how happy he is for me, and he knew the pressure and everything. And that’s what makes my life, what makes me happy because finally I am getting the recognition and the feedback from everyone.
“It is a melancholic album, and I am a very much melancholic person and doing the album wasn’t easy. Even the fact that I’m doing this work with Marius, Marius is a very difficult person to deal with – and also a wonderful person, don’t get me wrong – but he takes a lot of your energy. It’s totally different to the way I am. It wasn’t so easy to make it but I learned so many things from it that it’s unbelievably good.”
Are people who interview you talking about your dad as much these days?
“I think it’s a little different. People are like, okay, Bebel Gilberto, she’s got her father’s name but I think they understand that I am doing something that is important to me and saying what I want to say.”
[The first interview above was originally published in the Big Issue in the North in July 2003, the second in City Life in September 2004]