Four years ago, when Brazilian singer and songwriter Bebel Gilberto achieved unexpected commercial and critical success with "Tanto Tempo," a pastel-toned, electronica-inflected update of bossa nova, reporters unfailingly brought up her bloodlines. After all, she is the daughter of guitarist and singer Joao Gilberto, one of Brazil's musical treasures and a crucial figure in bossa nova, and Miucha, a well-respected singer with her own solid career, including several albums with the great originator of the bossa nova Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Now she is claiming her own place.
In her recently released, self-titled follow-up to "Tanto Tempo," Gilberto again updates bossa nova but takes a substantially different tack. The producer-intensive studio manipulations of the material on the earlier record give way to the more organic, old-fashioned sound of her live group, actually playing guitars, flutes, keyboards and percussion instruments in the studio.
More important, with this disc Gilberto, who has written several hits for other Brazilian singers, moves away from interpreting bossa nova classics, and writes or co-writes nine of the 12 songs. The results sound both familiar and fresh.
She has said that she decided to call the album "Bebel Gilberto" because "I think it's important to make a statement with my name." And a few weeks ago, in a phone interview from her home in Rio de Janeiro, Gilberto let it be known that she wants to be accepted on her own terms.
"You know, one thing I really, really promised myself is that I'm not going to talk about my father or my mother anymore," Gilberto said politely but firmly after a mere mention of her parents' influence on her music. "You are talking to Bebel, not the daughter of Joao Gilberto and Miucha. [That Bebel] is dead. Now I'm myself." She softened the edge in her tone with a laugh, then continued.
"It's sooo frustrating," she said, the trained former actress feigning despair. "You keep doing things, and people keep comparing you or saying things like, 'Oh, you're doing this because your father this or your mother that.' And I personally think that, of course I have things that make people think of my mother -- because my voice sounds like hers -- or the way I sing recalls my father. But come on, I'm almost 40 years old. It's time to be Bebel, don't you think?"
Born in New York, raised in Rio, Gilberto chose to do the interview in English. On the new album, she moves seemingly without effort between Portuguese and English, from track to track and sometimes within a song.
As a vocal interpreter she can be surprisingly expressive and effective, while staying within the narrow, conversational style of bossa nova singing. Her breathy delivery can suggest intimacy or a tongue-in-cheek sexiness or the telling of a secret. She's a flirt in Caetano Veloso's "Baby," a post-bossa nova hit song for the seminal Brazilian group Os Mutantes, and she charges the hypnotic Carlinhos Brown track "Aganju" with a subtle but dense sensuality.
On her own "O Caminho" ("The Road") -- the one track written solely by her -- she sings in Portuguese ("I no longer wish to follow a single path / So much sorrow, so much pain / Day after day, endlessly") with an undramatic but thoughtful touch.
Given the rules of the pop music business, it would have been understandable if Bebel Gilberto had tried to make a formula of her big hit. To her credit, she didn't. That it worked so well is an added bonus. Now that's a way to make a name for yourself.