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‘Sometimes he would play forever for me’: Bebel Gilberto on her album celebrating her father Joao

Bebel Gilberto
Bob Wolfensen
Bebel Gilberto

"A tall father casts a long shadow,” and paying tribute to that father is never an easy task. When that father is the legendary father of bossa nova, Joao Gilberto, that task is almost insurmountable. Fortunately, Joao's daughter Bebel Gilberto is a very talented singer who began singing with her father at a very early age. Joao passed four years ago, and that distance has allowed her to be more exacting and more objective in her choices, both musical and in repertoire, for her new album. When asked about her favorite songs associated with her father, her response was instantaneous. And, after living in so many different places, she knows the place she loves to call home. Enjoy this conversation I had with her about the man and about her new album - Joao.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Brian Delp: I was just listening to the new album Joao, which is just an absolute masterpiece. I have to congratulate you The songs are just incredible. What a wonderful testament to the relationship you had with your late father, the legendary Joao Gilberto. You've recently been performing all over the country—from the upper Midwest to the East Coast, from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia to Boston to the Shaolin Center in Rockport, Massachusetts to right here in New York City, at Le Poisson Rouge. What is your favorite song associated with your father that you like to perform?

Bebel Gilberto: I think it's “É Preciso Perdoar” which was my first single. It's my favorite. When I sing that song, I feel exactly what I've been saying. I feel that I did my own version, but it's very inside of his own. It’s a song where the words and the momentum are very actual. It was written by a guy named Carlos Coqueijo, who is an amazing guy. These words are for me very in the moment I'm living now while also having something to do with my dad in a way. So it's very personal and I feel very good playing that song.

For those of you, like me, who don't speak Portuguese, “É Preciso Perdoar” means “One must forgive.” When I read the English translation of the lyrics, it always amazes me that even songs that are about something that is so serious, when you sing them in the Bossa Nova style and in Portuguese, they always sound so upbeat and actually forgiving. So positive.

Oh, I love that. I worked very hard on that translation.

Bebel Gilberto - É Preciso Perdoar (Official Video)

Where were you born? Where are you from?

I was born in Manhattan on the Upper West Side. Then I moved when I was about three years old to Mexico to live with my parents, and we remained there until I was five. From there, I went to Sao Paulo to live with my grandparents on my mother’s side. My grandfather's a famous historian and my grandmother is an incredible and brilliant woman that raised seven kids and also raised me as well. Then when I was eight years old, I moved to Rio to live with my mom. That was very wild and inspiring and crazy and lovely. I managed to move out when I was 14 because I was already living with some friends and when I was 24, I moved back to New York.

I've recently watched some of the videos that I've been able to get. I saw one of you and your father performing together, I think when you were all of 15 years old. But I also saw a video of your parents being interviewed at a house in Weehawken, New Jersey. Is that right? Did you actually live there for a time?

I did, because my dad was like, “I don't want to work, I don't want to pay the rent” and my mother was desperate. So apparently she took a bus to find a place but she missed the stop and she got off and in Hoboken. When she got home, she said, “Joao, we can live in the same house with two floors. You can have your floor all for you so we won't bother you. You won't hear Bebel cry. It’s perfect.” He was just like, “Let's go.” After that we moved to New Jersey.

That's what happens. People move from the city, they come to New Jersey and they say, “Well, this is not so bad.”

Especially for my father who is a very well- known claustrophobic and a person that lives most of the time isolated at his place. So for him it was perfect.

Do you really consider Rio de Janeiro home then? Isn't that where you're most comfortable?

No, I love New York more, because I spent 28 years of my life there. In Rio. I spent literally 17 years during my teenager time. As teenagers, you get very strong attachments and memories, but I became the person I am—practical, professional and happy and a little bit more independent—when I live in New York.

I know that you have been recording since you were almost a teenager. I think your first album came out almost 40 years ago in 1986. Why has it taken so long for you to make an album dedicated to your father's work? Did you want some kind of separation between yourself and his particular legend?

Yes, I think so. The most commercial move will be just to cover his songs. But I am a big composer and I love writing songs. I felt very influenced by his music, but I wanted to create my own music. When I did Agora, my previous album that came out in 2020 during the pandemic, I was already talking about my dad. It was like I was talking to him through the music. It was a natural step to then record a whole album about him. And, yes, because he wasn't around and I wouldn't be so paranoid, worried with his opinion and comparisons and stuff like that.

I recently watched your Tiny Desk Concert that you did for NPR. That was a couple of years ago, really during the height of the pandemic. You were talking about how different a world it had become. Is that reflected in the material that you've chosen for this new album, Joao?

I think the whole recording reflected that time because when we were in Agora for my last album, Thomas Bartlett and I became very good friends. We like to do everything that sometimes make no sense. For instance, we might say, “Okay, you want to have some gin at two o'clock in the afternoon to write a silly song. Let's do that.” You want to interrupt the session because you're not feeling like playing. Or you might want to do three sessions together and not sleep. Let's do that.

For this one, we were extremely more preoccupied, focused, and in a different time of our life after the pandemic. We were healthier, much more into doing it technically more perfectly. So, I think it actually affected the whole process because we were more focused. We were less social because no one really goes out anymore, so that wouldn't interfere with the nights and the mornings after. We want what we were creating to be perfect.

This is a tribute to my dad. Imagine what a responsibility which made us much more focused, sober, and very preoccupied because even though he wasn't around, there's still people around. So far I've been having so many good interviews and so much time talking about how important this is.

And, yes, to answer finally your question, I think it is much easier for me to do the album now that he's not around.

Joao and Bebel Gilberto
c/o the artist
Joao and Bebel Gilberto

I can see that. And I can hear it. It seems like every song that's on here, including my absolute favorite, “Eu Vim da Bahia” has been a favorite of mine since your dad and Stan Getz reunited and recorded it on the Best of Two Worlds when you and I were kids, actually in the mid-70s.

But the album influenced me a lot. I love “Eu Vim da Bahia.” To be honest, it's the song that I didn't even know that I could sing so well. I knew the words by heart. I think it’s because I heard it so many times and I couldn't get tired of it. It's so different from the original, from Gilberto Gil’s version. I'm glad that is your favorite.

Very much so. But also, I like every song on this album. You cover so many wonderful things, including “Adeus America” right from the very start. I understand, because I'm not from New Jersey originally, and there are some times when I just want to pick up and go home, just to reconnect for a while. I understand what that song is all about.

For me, it couldn't be more perfect. Actually, it was a coincidence because when I started recording, I wasn't sure I was really going to move to Rio. And then I got an apartment. It was my first home that I could call my own home. In New York, it's so easy to rent or sublet. It's a different time now, and I am more into being still an American, but it's time to make a change. The samba is calling my name.

And hence, “Adeus America,” yes? Let me ask you about that Tiny Desk Concert that you did for NPR. Was that in your apartment in Rio, or was that a different location? This place you were in, in Rio, you're looking out on Corcovado and the beach and it was just incredible.

It was at Cesio Lima’s house. He's an incredible person. He’s a filmmaker. He's like one of the big sound and lighting persons and has been a friend of mine for like 35 years. I wanted him to film and do the whole production for Tiny Desk because I'm such a big fan. I was thrilled to be invited.

So I was like, “Man, let's do it in your house.” Then in the morning, he called me and said, “We don't have the colors of the sky. But guess what? It's so dramatic because it's all gray.” When I got there, I was like, “It's perfect because it has something to do with the times that we were living.” I'm happy you saw it.

Cover of Bebel Gilberto's album "Joao"

Oh yes, it was wonderful. But then the new album is wonderful as well. I have seen the pictures on your Facebook page. I'm looking at the houses that you're playing to, and all of them seem to be full. I know that when you just played last week at Le Poisson Rouge, it was sold out. And you're going all over and not just promoting this new album, but actually giving the audience exactly what it's all about and what you are all about. That's the feeling that I'm getting.

I do mix it up a little. Of course, I play my first ever composition "Mais Feliz," but it's really more the album of my dad. I have a drummer who is doing a little bit of keyboards, a little bit of drums. And this is all important because it brings the whole music to another level, because I've been playing for so long with just voice and guitar. Even when I was promoting Agora, because everything was so difficult to be back on the road and all that. So, yes, I am very happy that we had all sold-out nights.

We certainly enjoy having you with us here in the WBGO Studios, Bebel.  I already asked you what's your favorite song associated with your father that you like to perform. What's your favorite song associated with him? Period. Your absolute favorite.


Of course. Since we are here on a summer day, that's actually very apropos.

I wanted to record it, but I didn't have the courage. I'm not going to touch it. It's a classical and is the only one. You know what he told me about that song one day? He was always going to call me Isabel. Never Bebel. When he called me, I was like, “No, you must be kidding.” He showed me the original and I noticed the whole reconstruction that he did of that song. sometimes he would play forever for me. Hours and hours and I'll be “Father, can we talk? Let's have some lunch. Let's go out.” What I realized was that he played for three hours, nonstop. Now I know why. I needed to learn all of that.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brian Delp has been a member of WBGO’s on-air team for more than two decades, most-recently as the long-time host of Jazz After Hours. He has emceed at nearly every major jazz venue in the New York City area and hosted a portion of New York City’s City Parks Foundation’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival over several summers.