It is a rare occurrence when the offspring of a cultural pioneer and superstar can live up to the musical legacy brought before him or her. Children of Bob Dylan and John Lennon, for example, have followed the musical path, but so far, their fathers' contributions are those going the distance. Bebel Gilberto — daughter of Brazilian bossa nova king João Gilberto — on the other hand, has taken the baton from her father and, while running her own course, is taking Brazilian music on a trip worthy of her birthright.
João Gilberto has made an indelible imprint on music history. An obvious highlight is his recording of Antonio Carlos Jobim's “Girl From Ipanema” (with his then-wife, Astrud Gilberto; Jobim; and American saxophonist Stan Getz). Naturally, Bebel Gilberto had an early entry into the music business, recording vocals on albums by her mother, Miúcha, as young as 7 and performing with her mom and Getz at Carnegie Hall at age 9.
But the young Gilberto stepped lightly into the limelight. “I worked a lot with background vocals when I was a little girl and teenager to help [Miúcha] pay the bills,” she says. Gilberto eased into the work with playful instruction from her mother. “It was very natural, like, ‘Do you want to do harmonized vocals? You do this line, and then you can do the third, and then you can do the fifth,” she says. Meanwhile, Gilberto's father helped out with breathing techniques.
The next step for Gilberto was to learn about songwriting. Her mentor as a teenager was Brazilian artist Cazuza, who helped write her first EP, Bebel Gilberto (Warner, 1986). “I think [songwriting] started getting really strong in my heart by the time I was a teenager,” Gilberto says. “I was working with Cazuza, a singer and songwriter who unfortunately died of AIDS in the early '90s. He gave me the courage to become a songwriter.”
But the confidence that she was building didn't immediately result in a career. Instead of rushing out and releasing a full-length album, she moved to New York and worked on songs here and there with Deee-Lite's Towa Tei, Thievery Corporation, Arto Lindsay, David Byrne and Arling & Cameron. It wasn't until 2000 that Gilberto fully embraced recording with her gorgeous debut solo album, Tanto Tempo (Six Degrees). Mixing traditional organic Brazilian instrumentation with more modern electronics, Gilberto — with help from producers Suba (who since passed away), Amon Tobin, João Donato, Mario Caldato Jr. and others — brought a modern angle to Brazilian music. It's what attracted some accomplished producers to help with Gilberto's next project, Bebel Gilberto (Six Degrees, 2004), recorded in Rio, Salvador (in the state of Bahia, Brazil), London and New York.
WOOD AND METAL MIXOLOGY
“Tanto Tempo seemed to me to promise such a smart fusion between modern electronic pop music and a real traditional Brazilian-music sensibility,” says Bebel Gilberto producer Marius de Vries (Madonna, Björk, Annie Lennox). “I think Tanto Tempo is very successful on that front, but it also promised that there was a way of taking that considerably further and exploring the common ground between the two cultures.”
The other lucky collaborators — producer Pascal Gabriel (Kylie Minogue, New Order, Dido, Morcheeba's Skye Edwards), producer Guy Sigsworth (Madonna, Björk, Frou Frou, Lamb) and mixing engineer Andy Bradfield (Everything but the Girl, Craig Armstrong, Beth Orton, violinist Vanessa-Mae) — know a thing or two about fusing the organic with the electronic world.
Most important to de Vries was not letting the electronics force the natural feel of the Brazilian instruments, in this case played by Rio- and Salvador-based musicians such as guitarist Pedro Baby, percussionists Carlinhos Brown and Marcos Suzano and flautist Paulo Levi. “If you take an organic performance and surround it with electronics, it's very tempting to make it more rigid or try to get it to lock in to what the electronics are doing,” de Vries says. “I think that the balance is really using the electronic palette and programmed percussion along with the real stuff but always making absolutely sure that you tried to look after the intention and the instinct of the original performances.”
For the track “Cada Beijo,” produced by Guy Sigsworth, Gilberto took care of the Brazilian balance while Sigsworth put together the bloops and bleeps. “Guy wanted to push the most Brazilian-ness I got inside of me, so he let me work and be very free,” Gilberto says. “He had these two chord changes, which are the basis of ‘Cada Beijo.’ Then, I came out with a melody after he got the chord changes together. And then the only thing that I really wanted to have on the song was the G Flute [played by Levi], which is that flute that has the sounds that are very low. And also, I wanted to have a Brazilian percussionist [Mauro Refosco] because I wanted to have a counterpoint to [Sigsworth's] programming.” Gilberto was also vigilant over the string parts played by the London Session Orchestra; she wrote the melodies for the string parts in “All Around” and then sang them to string writer Chris Elliott.
When working with producer Gabriel on the easy-going and sparse “Ceu Distante” (distant sky), Gilberto made an important stipulation to keep the Brazilian feel that she had in mind. “The original version was quite a bit faster than this one,” Gabriel says. “I had just come out of doing a pop project, and I still had my pop hat on. Bebel said, ‘You know when you're lying back on the grass and looking at the sky? I want it to be like that. I like the chords, but I think the beat is just too poppy for me.’” Gabriel found a way to get the feel that Gilberto wanted, mix the organic and electronic elements and get a reference to the sky within his beats. Gabriel records lots of found sounds using MiniDisc and DAT recorders and then cuts them up with Propellerhead ReCycle. “I basically slowed down some fireworks sounds, and that's what makes the funny, grumbly rhythms over it,” Gabriel says. “For the song that I did with Bebel, it was quite important to have organic sounds that were treated and sounded weird to fit with the whole thing.”
In the end, the varied electronic, organic and orchestral sounds did leave mixing engineer Bradfield scratching his head at points, especially as the orchestral parts came in after most of the record was already finished. But with his SSL G Series desk and a little help from de Vries, the mix came together. “What I did with some of the songs is mix the track up to a stage just prior to the orchestral stuff,” Bradfield says. “[Gilberto and de Vries] went away, recorded the strings, brought them back, and then we drove the mix home. And, sometimes, there would be a thicker section where Marius would be going, ‘Now that we've got the strings in there, I think maybe we don't need the extra vocal harmony.’”
THE MISCHIEVOUS SAINT
“Aganjú,” on Bebel Gilberto, is the type of song that makes you wish you could ditch work and go to the beach. The basis is a loping percussion beat (soon kicking in to an organic house rhythm), a quiet synth arpeggio and Gilberto's lullaby voice singing in Portuguese, along with backup help from her mother, Miúcha. Percussionist/composer Carlinhos Brown wrote the song in honor of a famous Brazilian saint. “The Aganjú is the [African] Yoruba way of saying Xangô, which is a Brazilian saint from Candomblé,” Gilberto says. Candomblé is a religion brought to Brazil by African slaves, and its primary goals are protection, good health and a comfortable lifestyle. But there's a playful side, too. “For guys who don't know exactly how it is, I'll say that it would be our black magic,” she says.
When de Vries met up with Gilberto in Rio, after she recorded with Brown and other musicians in Salvador, he heard the beginning stage of “Aganjú.” That's when he played the occasionally tough role of producer. “It sounded to me like the beginning of a great track, but it sounded like a jam; it just sounded like they were hanging out in the studio and having a lot of fun,” de Vries says. “I said, ‘Bebel, this is great, but to an outside listener who wasn't there, this is actually a little bit boring. It doesn't have a shape at the moment.’ So we asked ourselves, ‘Where are the strong bits? Where can we repeat it? Where does it repeat too much?’ And we pulled and pushed the structure a lot to arrive at the structure we have now.”
The saint himself even seemed to make an appearance during the recording of the song. “There's a moment in ‘Aganjú’ where the lead vocal reprises right at the end, deep in sort of an echo effect,” de Vries says. “It's as if Bebel, in the distance, starts to sing the song again. That happened at the very last moment in the mix because one of the Logic Audio files had become corrupt; it was supposed to be playing a backing vocal there, and it was playing the wrong bit of audio. And [Gilberto] said, ‘What have you done? Who put that there?’ And I said, ‘No, you must have done it.’ And we went back and listened to it again, and we just said, ‘Well, it just sounds like its was supposed to be there.’ It was fantastic. At that point, you just say, ‘Thank you, Aganjú!’ It's one of the few tracks on the album that we felt that Aganjú was a presiding spirit of the record looking after us … and sometimes messing things up a little.”
GELLING LIKE JELL-O
Mixwise, Bradfield generally takes a day per song. When he starts out, he won't touch a dial for the first hour; he just lets it all soak in “to figure out what everything does,” he says. “I'll reference the rough mix to see where it's at, because, especially on some of the very complicated songs, it's good for me to get a handle on what people have been listening to so I don't veer too far into the wrong area.” After having a good listen to the roughs for Bebel Gilberto, Bradfield spoke with de Vries and Gilberto to get a feel for what they wanted out of the mix.
Obviously, a big factor is compression, which is a delicate issue for a dynamic record like this. “It's not the kind of pop record where you would make everything as loud as humanly possible,” Bradfield says. “It's not like we'd use overcompression to make things pump and come smacking at you in the face.” UREI LA-2A and LA-3A compressor/limiters helped Bradfield make the vocals poke out just right.
Bradfield is open to trying more aggressive things, but he's careful about it. “I tend to apply the 10-minute rule,” he says. “If I'm going to do something a bit extreme, I make it extreme and get happy with it, and then I live with it for 10 minutes and go work on something else, like the bass sound, while keeping one ear on the vocal [with the extreme compression]. If you try something, and in 10 minutes, you're going, ‘That's absolute genius,’ you're probably right. But if you find yourself going, ‘God, that's reeeeeally annoying me,’ then it's probably not right! You have to go with your gut instinct because it's usually right — unless you're knackered, in which case, you're usually wrong. And if Marius or Bebel come in, and they absolutely hate it, then it's most definitely wrong!”
As for EQ, Bradfield is a fan of analog: “If you put a vocal through an old Neve module, the EQ is really musical, and if you need to brighten up a vocal a bit to make it stand out without having the vocal insanely loud, things like that are really good,” he says. “While I don't mind digital EQs, they don't have the certain something that some of the analog gear has.” In terms of Bradfield's application of vocal reverb, the mix depends on how much is going on in the track instrumentally. “If the track is very dense and you make the vocal really wet, it makes it sound like it's going away from you,” he says. “But by the same token, there were some tracks where we opted for quite a wet vocal because the track was really sparse, and we made it sound sort of spooky.”
PREDECESSORS AND STRUCTURES
Gilberto wrote three of the 12 songs on Bebel Gilberto, and she co-wrote the remaining nine tracks. Many songwriters begin with a guitar or a piano to find the chords or melodies that might inspire a song. But Gilberto seems to have a direct line to the red phone of the god of songwriting: “I have ideas of melodies, and they just bump my head,” she says. “It's really interesting to see how I get inspired with songs and visions with only a melody, because I don't play piano, my instrument, that well to catch the harmonies. So I don't go to an instrument to catch up with a melody. I will have the melody idea in my head and then go to an instrument.”
But Gilberto chose to start the album with a cover. “Baby” was written by Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso (who Gilberto has worked with) and later covered by the quirky psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes (from São Paulo). “I'm a big fan of Caetano, and I'm a big fan of Os Mutantes,” Gilberto says. “I wanted to cull something from Tropicalia [a Brazilian art and music movement] because at that time, it was something that touched everyone's hearts. I also think that it brings up the kind of sense of humor that I have, that I'm very playful.” But while Gilberto tried to stay true to the original bossa nova version, she also tried to make it suit her style. “When I work with a song, I try not to be so rational; I go with the flow,” she says. “I decided to just do it in my way, and, naturally, it came out my way because I got the sounds very set in my heart, the way that I wanted the music to be. I always have a tendency to search towards the new. I don't think that I want that statement that I am a Brazilian singer who does bossa nova or that I am re-creating bossa nova. I just hate that because I think that [the person] who creates bossa nova is my father, and I wouldn't dare take this road. But in a way, I do have bossa nova pulsing inside of me because that's still from my roots. And when I think about an arrangement, immediately, I think about the bossa nova way of doing it.”
Conflicted though she may be about her relationship with bossa nova, Gilberto is certainly open-minded about music, citing influences as varied as Björk, George Gershwin and Chet Baker. Being a Brazilian expatriate, Gilberto has allowed other worlds to seep into her South American mind-set. “My life is totally twisted and different than all my friends and parts of my family,” she says. “I keep asking myself, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ Because in a way, I wanted to be super-Brazilian and just live in Brazil. But it's okay; it's part of my life, and I think that I wouldn't be able to do Tanto Tempo or Bebel Gilberto if I wasn't living outside of Brazil. That is the effect of Bebel of Brazil.”
GEAR FOR GILBERTO
The Looking Glass Studios, New York
Ilhas Dos Sapos Studio, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
Strongroom Studios, London
AR Studios, Rio de Janeiro
Frou Frou Central, London (Guy Sigsworth for “Cada Beijo”)
Studio Milk, London (Pascal Gabriel for “Ceu Distante”)
MARIUS DE VRIES
Computer, DAW, recording hardware: Apple Mac G4, Emagic Logic Pro 6, Digidesign 888 I/Os (2), ADAT Bridge
Mixer: Mackie 32•8
Samplers: Akai S3200, S6000
Mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects, mics: Avalon VT-737sp mic preamp, Neumann U 87 mics
Synths, modules, plug-ins: ARP 2600 synth; Audio Ease Altiverb plug-in; Bomb Factory plug-ins; Clavia Nord Lead 2 synth; EMS VCS3 synth; Kurzweil K2000 synth; Moog Minimoog synth; Native Instruments Absynth 2, B4, Pro-53 soft synths; Roland JP-8080, JV-1080, MKS80 synths; Sherman Quad Filter synth; SuperCollider audio-synthesis environment; SFX Machine multi-effects plug-in
Computer, DAW, recording hardware: Apple Mac G4, Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mix system (“I prefer 24 Mix to HD,” Gabriel says. “It's a bit more grainy, and I kind of like the dirt of it.”), Emagic Logic 6
Sampler: Emagic ESX24 soft sampler
Mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects, mics: EAR 660 compressor/limiter (“The best limiter in the world,” Gabriel says.), Neumann 1961 UM 57 mic (“The thing is, because all of the mics from that era were handmade, you can get a really beautifully coiled one and one that's not made quite so well,” Gabriel says. “And I just happened to be lucky and fall upon the really brilliant one.”), Neve mic preamp/EQ (custom channel strip)
Mixer: Mackie 32•8
Synths, modules, plug-ins: Emagic EVP88 vintage-piano emulator plug-in, Studio Electronics SE-1 synth
Computer, DAW, recording hardware: Apple Mac G4/dual 1GHz Quicksilver, Dantz Retrospect Backup software, Emagic Logic 6
Mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects, mics: AMS 1580 S delay; Bomb Factory plug-ins; Emagic Epic TDM plug-in collection; Lexicon 480 L digital reverb; SSL G Series compressor; TC Electronic M2000 studio effects processor; UREI LA-2A, LA-3A compressor/limiters; Yamaha ProR3 digital reverb
Mixer: SSL G+ 4000 56-channel
Monitors: KRK 9000Bs, Yamaha NS-10s (“The NS-10s tend to be very middle-y, and the KRKs are softer in the middle,” Bradfield says. “But the bottom end is fantastic, and it's really detailed.”)