Bebel Gilberto on her father, bossa nova legend João: ‘He loved me, but not my music’

Bebel Gilberto's new album, Agora, will be released on August 21 - Heidi Solander
Bebel Gilberto's new album, Agora, will be released on August 21 - Heidi Solander

From the window of her apartment in Rio de Janeiro, Bebel Gilberto can see the beach. Over Zoom, the Brazilian singer tells me that, while she dreams of “walking across the sand very early in the morning when it’s empty, then stealing a newspaper to read in the breeze”, she is too scared to leave her home. The coronavirus death toll in Brazil has passed 90,000, making it the pandemic’s second hardest-hit country after the United States.

“Back in March,” says Gilberto, “the sun was shining straight into my home. So I made an imaginary beach. I spread a towel across my dining room table, put on a bikini and some sun cream and drank iced ginger tea looking out at the beautiful mountains. But now it is winter here. And it is darker.”

Darkness also finds its way into Gilberto’s gorgeous new album Agora (Now). Produced by her old friend Thomas Bartlett (Sufjan Stevens, St Vincent), on the surface it’s a sensuous, tropical treat layered with sexuality and silliness – but there’s a bedrock of melancholy.

That sorrow has its roots in grief: in cruelly quick succession, Gilberto lost both her mother – singer and composer Miucha, who died in December 2018 – and, last July, her father, bossa nova legend João Gilberto. “It was all very hard at the end,” she says. “My mother was full of cancer and I was with her all the time. My uncle took me out for dinner because I was finding it all so painful. We had one bottle of wine, then another and so we overslept. When we woke the next morning she was gone. I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

The death of her father, a famously eccentric and reclusive character, brought its own complications. “He had dementia,” says Gilberto, “and there were financial problems.” (Lawyers for her father, who lost his home in 2017, say he was owed millions in unpaid royalties.) Born in 1931, João Gilberto was the son of a wealthy merchant who didn’t approve of his child’s musical ambitions. By his late teens he was struggling with his mental health and self-medicating with marijuana. In the early 1950s he was admitted to a sanatorium, where it is said that he once gazed abstractedly out of the window before telling one of the doctors to “look at the wind depilating the trees”. “But trees have no hair, João,” the doctor replied. To which the patient responded, “There are people who have no poetry” – before walking out of the door.

In 1959, Bebel Gilberto’s father released Chega de Saudade (No More Sorrow), widely credited as the first bossa nova (“new style”) album. On it, she says, “he did things with a guitar nobody had done before”, such as replacing samba percussion with offbeat guitar-picking figures called violão gago or “stammering guitar” and singing in a quiet, almost conversational voice.

“After he died,” Gilberto says, “I was nominated to represent his estate and I refused. I’m not very materialistic. I just wanted my dad to have a decent life. I was his daughter and we had a deep and eternal love. Now, I want to honour his memory through his music and prove he taught me something by making my own.”

Born in 1966 – two years after her father recorded The Girl from Ipanema with his first wife, Astrud – Isabel “Bebel” Gilberto had a childhood full of music. She likes to say her “incredibly disciplined” father “taught me to be a perfectionist” while her mother “taught me how to lose it”.

“When I was a little girl,” she recalls, “my dad would come into my bedroom at night to wake me up to come and sing to his friends. As a kid, you don’t really care that those friends are famous musicians. I sang to Chick Corea and Stan Getz, but often I just wanted to go back to bed!”

The family moved to Mexico for a couple of years when Bebel was four years old. Three years later, her parents divorced and she returned with her mother to Brazil while her father moved to New York. She also began her singing career, making her recording debut on her mother’s first solo album, Miúcha & Antônio Carlos Jobim in 1977. Her first public performance came that same year at Carnegie Hall alongside her mother and Getz.

She was, she says now, “a rebel child… my friends said I was more like the child of Keith Richards than a formal musician like my father. It didn’t help that I went to 11 different schools. It was so unsettled. After repeating the same grade three times I left school at 14. I’m not proud of that now, but it happened.”

Gilberto worked with producer Thomas Bartlett for her latest album - Paddy Davis
Gilberto worked with producer Thomas Bartlett for her latest album - Paddy Davis

Inspired by pop and rock as much as by her parents’ Latin jazz, Bebel released her first solo album in 1986 and moved to New York in 1991. “I didn’t speak very good English then,” she laughs, and credits famous friends such as David Byrne and Arto Lindsay for “introducing me to all the right people”.

It was her second album, 2001’s Tanto Tempo (So Much Time), that launched her into the mainstream. She tells me that her father “didn’t love” her cool, electronic updating of bossa nova. But the critics (and famous fan Bill Clinton) sure did, swooning over its silken Spanish guitar, echoing sax and hip-hop inflected drums.

On successive recordings – notably 2004’s Bebel Gilberto and 2014’s Tudo – Gilberto has continued to break from tradition, blending acoustic and electronic sounds; while in concert, she often throws in unexpected reworkings of rock songs such as Radiohead’s Creep and Neil Young’s Harvest Moon

The songs on Agora came to Gilberto, she says, while “on holiday in Puglia, where I fell in love with the food, the wine and architecture. It felt like I walked around the whole heel of the boot of Italy as these melodies came into my head. I bought a really good bottle of wine and took it back to Thomas Bartlett in New York along with the ideas.” She attributes the subtle, new kick and snap in her vocals to her decision “to improvise more than I have done before; I was feeling spontaneous and free”.

The lyrics – in a mixture of English and Portuguese – are all about love. But Gilberto has said that her own romantic life has been limited to “eating hors d’oeuvres at the banquet of love”. Today she adds that “it’s not easy to fit another person into my crazy life”, before admitting that some of the songs were inspired by an unrequited crush. “I didn’t even kiss him but I got the music from my feelings. So much of romance is just dreaming about something. The fantasy! The fun!”

Her sense of fun comes to blissful, bamboozling life in the video for the album’s lead single Deixa (Leave). Dressed in a glittering pink Valentino suit, Gilberto dances around a Los Angeles hotel, eating enormous pastries, crawling across a polished dining table and sipping champagne by a roaring fire.

Bebel and João Gilberto perform together in 1998; the latter passed away one year ago - Jack Vartoogian/Getty
Bebel and João Gilberto perform together in 1998; the latter passed away one year ago - Jack Vartoogian/Getty

“It’s important for people to see an older woman having that much fun. Although – shhhh! – I might be one of those women who doesn’t realise she got older!”

As a lifelong feminist, Gilberto has been angered by the overt sexism of the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro. The far-Right politician famously said: “I had four sons, but then I had a moment of weakness, and the fifth was a girl.”

“I would like to remind our president every morning that he wouldn’t be here without a woman, without his mother,” says Gilberto. “Women are magical.”

She hopes that “the terrible way Bolsanaro has handled the pandemic” (he initially dismissed Covid-19 as “a little flu” and most recently removed his face mask in public after testing positive for the virus) might wake people up. “Because, if we don’t, we’re gonna die, die, die.” She throws up her palms.

“All I can do is speak out, right? And give people my music.” She smiles. “I hope I’ve made a record that will soothe and inspire people through this terrible, terrible time. I hope it helps people to close their eyes and feel the deep peace of their own imaginary beaches.”

Agora will be released by PIAS on August 21