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Bebel Gilberto on Finally Embracing Bossa Nova

Bebel Gilberto is the daughter of bossa nova pioneer João Gilberto and Brazilian singer Miúcha, but the 43-year-old New Yorker has slowly come into her own over the years, recording albums that fuse classic Brazilian pop styles with thoroughly modern, electronic instrumentation. Her new record, All in One, mixes sumptuous traditional tunes, like a cover of her father’s “Bim Bom,” with inventive takes on tracks such as Stevie Wonder’s “The Real Thing,” which was cut with Amy Winehouse's producer, Mark Ronson. Vulture caught up with Gilberto to talk about her earliest musical memories, performing at Carnegie Hall, and falling in love with her band.

You’ve only released a handful of albums since your career took off in the nineties, but this album was recorded rather quickly. What happened?
I made this album in six months. It was like a premature birth for a baby. I usually like to take at least seven or eight months and not to have pressure, especially when I work with so many producers. But I think with having a new record label [Verve], this baby was meant to be born before the next year.

You started performing as a young child, appearing with your mother and Stan Getz at Carnegie Hall at age 9. What do you remember about that performance?
It was crazy! Mostly because before that I had just been singing inside my home or with my dad in concerts. But since then, performing has been basically all I’ve wanted to do.

Was there always music playing in your household as a child?
I remember music nonstop. I would always hear my father’s guitar and my mother singing along and them singing to each other. I remember them singing songs like “Isaura” about 200 times, and making changes and working on the harmonies with each other. It was so special for me.

What’s the most important lesson your father taught you as a musician?
He taught me to be a perfectionist. But my mother taught me how to lose it. And you can hear it in my music today, I think.

In past interviews, you’ve talked about how you don’t want to be so closely allied with your father and his musical legacy. But on this album, you cover one of his songs, “Bim Bom.” What changed your mind?
Well, I tried to say that I was avoiding doing bossa nova music. The acoustic guitar and the words I sing — the inspiration is bossa nova. There’s a naïveness that bossa nova is only writing love songs and making-baby songs. But there are so many different views in life, and sometimes it’s good to be making music that’s in the present. Brazilian lovers of music — they like the old-school music. “Bim Bom” is an old and rare song. I kind of put my own touch on it. People really react to it and whenever I play, I see heads shaking along. It’s so nice. It proves to me how much people love classic bossa nova.

When you are writing songs, how do you decide to sing in your native Portuguese or in English?
It’s quite weird. It just comes naturally, I can’t describe it. If I push myself to do it one way, it gets mechanic. I have to wait and see what the nature of the song will be. It’s ridiculous to say that, but I’m really spontaneous.

You also cover Stevie Wonder’s “The Real Thing,” which was produced by Mark Ronson. Any special attachment to that song?
That was actually Mark’s idea. I didn’t know the song beforehand and then I found out that Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 recorded that, and we decided to go for it. It only took us one weekend to do.

You performed at the Hiro Ballroom last week. What’s your pre-show warm-up?
I like to get together with my band and practice a song or two. We’ve been very, very together. We’re very Brazilian in that regard. We love and kiss and sing for each other. Ahhh! There’s not a bad vibe. If there is any, we have to resolve it. We have to all be in love.

What about afterward?
We’re going to the bar to celebrate!

Photo: Patrick McMullan