Bebel Gilberto doesn't have to try to be sexy. It's not her fault she's hotter than São Paulo in the summertime, or that mainstream American rags have gushed with orgasmic praise about her latest, self-titled album ("The summer's sexiest CD," raved Glamour) and fallen all over themselves coining bad puns ("She's the bossa," joked Entertainment Weekly) to describe it. And for some strange reason, Rolling Stone compared her to the questionably talented Lisa Marie Presley, although Bebel probably has more in common with Norah Jones.
Like Jones, Gilberto comes from a famous musical family. Her father, João Gilberto, was a seminal figure in the Brazilian bossa nova movement of the '50s and '60s, and her equally legendary stepmom Astrud lent her breathy, whisper-like vocals to the Stan Getz classic "Girl from Ipanema." But while she represents a rich musical legacy, Bebel definitely has her own thing going on. Four years ago, her debut album Tanto Tempo (on SF indie label Six Degrees) quickly became a phenomenon, ultimately selling more than a million copies. With production by Thievery Corporation and the late producer and musician Suba, Tanto offered up a tantalizing fusion of cool downtempo electronica and neo-Brazilica, appealing to fans of both world and dance music.
The formula worked wonders. But on Bebel Gilberto, the singer changed up her style, expanding out of her comfortable hipster niche with an almost completely different sound -- moving beyond high-tech gimmickry and into classic romantic diva territory. The electronic elements so prominent on Tanto Tempo have been shifted to the background, replaced with sparse acoustic textures that showcase Gilberto's beautiful voice even more hauntingly. And while Brazilian rhythms are still a big part of her musical persona, she has broadened her palette to include pop flourishes as well as torchy balladry.
Over the phone from a hotel in Minneapolis, the singer describes the result as a more "mature" effort. One of the biggest changes evident on Bebel Gilberto is the fact that she wrote the majority of the songs herself, making the record more of an extension of her personality than a preassembled package. "I managed to spread more of my ideas, to show what I had in mind, to show what is happening to my heart while I'm putting ideas together," she says, struggling a bit to articulate her inner thoughts in a nonnative tongue.
Some of those thoughts invariably get lost in the process of translation. But while her spoken English sounds fragmented at times, Gilberto emotes with perfect clarity in her music. Only five of Bebel's twelve songs are sung in English, yet somehow it's easy to understand the feeling behind Portuguese-language tunes like "Aganju" and "O Caminho," even if you don't understand the words. And her cover of the Caetano Veloso classic "Baby," interpolated from Os Mutantes' English version, is literally the best of both worlds. It's time to learn now what I know/And what I don't know, she sings -- lyrics that resonate with universal meaning in any language.
Gilberto politely rebuts the Presley analogy, adding that regardless of Lisa Marie's talent level, "people are prejudiced against her, just because she's Elvis Presley's daughter." She's also a little piqued by Western journalists who keep trying to forecast her as the future of bossa nova: "It's a kind of responsibility that I don't want to carry at all. I think sometimes people get the wrong opinion of me, and it's really disturbing." She isn't trying to take credit for what her father did, she adds -- she'd rather be known for her own music than for her family name.
Yet she doesn't seem too miffed at being likened to Ms. Jones. "Norah Jones is a genius," Gilberto says. "It's a different story. I appreciate her and I love her music. I love her voice, but I'm not crazy about folk music at all." Bebel further admits she found Jones' debut more interesting than her sophomore effort, but still, "If anyone compares me to her, I have to say that I'm thrilled." Nevertheless, Gilberto thinks Jones' latest album sounds like a continuation of her first -- a trap she tried to avoid on Bebel Gilberto. "I didn't want to have that. My album created such a buzz, with the electronic and bossa, that I didn't want to have that label on me." Moreover, she isn't the same person she was four years ago. "I've been creating new stories in my life. To tell you the truth, I don't plan anything. I'm totally a go-with-the flow person. And I have to say that, little by little, I learned in life, you've got to follow your heart."
Gilberto's heart took her to recording studios in New York, London, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro this time around, which resulted in a mixed bag of experiences.
She had the most fun recording in Bahia, because she got to work with her good friend, enigmatic multi-instrumentalist Carlinhos Brown, at his home studio, which afforded her more freedom and control over the artistic process. She relates that making the song "Jabuticaba," which Brown coproduced, was a fairly intense experience: "We recorded basically 24 hours nonstop. We went out, we had breakfast together, we rested for a little bit, and then we came back and finished the song."
Despite her success, Gilberto doesn't consider herself a pop star, even though the majority of her new album was produced by Marius deVries, known for his work with Björk and Madonna. That's heady company for any young artist, but Gilberto hasn't lost sight of what matters most to her: the music. "I don't want to be so successful that you don't have control," she says, adding that she would rather be consistent with every release than sell five million copies of one album.
"I would like to keep it cool and quiet," she purrs. Again, she's not really trying to sound seductive -- it just comes naturally to her.
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