International

Stung By Family Tragedy, Bebel Gilberto to Release Her First Album in Six Years

Bebel Gilberto
Luigi & Lango

Bebel Gilberto

The Brazilian bossa nova singer says she was "a little stuck" after her 2014 album Tudo — and then both her parents died.

If Bebel Gilberto’s Agora, her first studio album in six years, feels upbeat, playful and romantic, rather than melancholy or mournful, it’s because much of the music was recorded in 2017 and 2018 — before the Brazilian bossa nova singer faced a series of family crises, including the death of both her parents.

The album, which comes out on August 21, is also the result of the trusting bond she forged with her longtime friend and producer, Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett, whom she gives enormous credit for the free-flowing spirit of  the 11-song Agora, Gilberto tells Billboard from Rio de Janeiro.

The latest release marks a comeback for the 54-year-old Gilberto, who first surged on the scene in 2000 with Tanto Tempo, an electronic-fused bossa nova album that became a club favorite around the world and went on to sell 342,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. She is the daughter of João Gilberto, “the father of bossa nova,” and the singer Miúcha, and the niece of Chico Buarque, another bossa nova legend. Agora is her fifth studio album since Tanto Tempo.

Gilberto says she felt “a little stuck” creatively after her 2014 release, Tudo. That album, released during a year in which Brazil hosted the soccer World Cup, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s World Albums chart, where it spent six weeks. It earned 10,000 equivalent album units in the U.S. -- with 7,000 of that sum in album sales. However, that was down compared to the sales of her previous set, 2009's All In One (17,000).

After parting ways with Sony, a split she says was mutual, she took a break and searched for new inspiration. Then in early 2017, while on a trip alone to Apulia in southern Italy, the melodies and the words started coming to her. “I took a lot of time alone and walking and eating and having some wine, and just looking at the horizon,” she says. “Then I was writing down everything and making notes and recording.”

On a whim, a week after returning from Italy she called Bartlett to catch up. The two had worked together previously on All in One. Bartlett’s producing credits include work with Norah Jones, St. Vincent, Florence + The Machine and a Grammy and Oscar-nominated soundtrack with Sufjan Stevens.

“Until today I don't know why I called him in the first place because we were not really talking for ages,” she says. “But he was like, ‘Okay, come tomorrow.’ And then I was there, and we started working together.”

By late 2017 they had started recording what became an initial collection of about 17 songs. “We were both full of ideas and that was very good for the album because we were never bored,” she says.

With no label deal in place, they took their time. “You get a little desperate as well, but it’s a good feeling,” she says. “There was no commitment, no pressure, nothing. It was pure fun." The first tracks they laid down included romantic songs like “Teletransportador,” a song about wanting to tele-transport a lover to her side. While Gilberto had sung some songs in English on Tudo, Bartlett encouraged her to stick to Portuguese on Agora.

Then in 2018, amid the recording sessions, tragedy struck in waves. Gilberto’s mother was dying of cancer, so in December her daughter moved back to Brazil from New York. “Nine days later she died,” Gilberto says. “It was just a stab around my heart.”

Meanwhile, family squabbles involving her reclusive famous father had escalated. The elder Gilberto was saddled with debt; at one point, in 2011, his landlord, the Countess Georgina Brandolini d’Adda, sued and evicted him from her Rio apartment.

His daughter, Bebel, had gained power of attorney in 2017 in an effort to manage his financial affairs. The Gilberto family was also waging a court battle with Universal Music Group over royalties from some of his albums. In March of 2019 the 87-year-old Gilberto won a judgement from a Rio court, which ordered Universal to return unpaid royalties dating to 1964 (plus penalties) relating to his first three albums, which EMI released, totaling an estimated 173 million reais (about $43 million). Four months later, the famed singer died. (Universal has appealed to Brazil’s Supreme Court and the case is still pending.)

“They were very difficult times for me,” his daughter says. She continued to shuttle between Rio and New York, where she was recording with Bartlett. With the album locked in Gilberto’s mind, Bartlett suggested yet more material, and three additional songs were added to the album in the latter half of 2019: “Cliché,” “Essence” and “Yet Another Love Song.”

Two days before Gilberto’s father died, they finished “Cliché,” a warm and playful song about, literally, clichés, on which Gilberto says she improvised the lyrics. It’s her favorite and she hopes it will be the next single released off the album. “It’s a bit of a joke, but very romantic,” she says. “I know he would have loved it.”

Despite being locked down now in Rio, Gilberto is promoting her album, which was released on London-based [PIAS] Recordings, and is hoping to tour in 2021. On Thursday she released the video for her single, “Na Cara,” featuring samba-songwriter Mart’nália. She also recorded a performance from Rio of “Essence” for Stern Grove Best of the Fest, which will air on Sunday.

Billboard: Why was this collaboration with Thomas Bartlett so successful in your mind?

First of all, we are very good friends. We sometimes will just talk about life and personal things for hours without doing any music. Probably just to have that it's something special. Thomas will invite me to come to his family that I have known for 10 years too, because he cooks for his family every Sunday. And some other artists that he works with will be there, too…I think he never really judged me. And he loved the way I am because I'm not a very normal person. I think that he liked the tweaks of my personality and the way I compose. And sometimes we'll get drunk and sometimes we'll get up at noon and start working immediately. And so everything will fall together with Thomas, and I can't explain. It's kind of magical.

How is the situation there in Brazil with COVID-19 affecting you personally?

I was going to release my album in May, and I had a whole tour scheduled…I was very excited because everything was booked in advance. Most of the shows were already sold out. For me it was so sad because I came here [to Rio] just to spend 15 days to kill saudades (longing) for Rio and to refresh...And I've been here [ever] since. Everything got canceled. I don't go anywhere. I am like totally, totally into the quarantine. Now I got my dog. She's a puppy and she hasn't had the last vaccine yet, so she can't really go out…I am convinced that this was something that needed to happen. And I am [taking] the best positive and mature and conscientious and sober attitude towards all of this fucking mess, because if you don't do that you either call your therapist 10 times a day or you get high all the time. I went to the beach a few times to take a walk. When I see people I basically run away. It's so funny…I've been only two times to the supermarket.