Many albums see only the inside of a single studio during their creation, but when it came time to record her third full-length album, Bebel Gilberto instead chose three distinct cities, hoping that each would add subtle local flavor to her effort. Some songs were recorded in a seaside studio in Rio de Janeiro, where lapping waves and hot sand were constant inspiration. Others came out of a small north London studio, where the overcast skies outside were anything but tranquil. Gilberto recorded several other songs in a Brooklyn apartment during a New York City heat wave (with members of the band Brazilian Girls), where she chose to wear a bikini rather than pick up the hum of air conditioning in the microphone. The last song to be added to the album was recorded back in Brazil with the 19-piece Orquestra Imperial. Despite the songs' disparate beginnings, Momento (Six Degrees, 2007) is a testament to the talent of its main act.
Through a fuzzy phone line to Brazil, Gilberto explains, “At the end of the day, I was the unifying element because it was really me who put it all together, especially because I was working with so many different producers. I'm not going to lie to you. If I recorded here in Brazil, that's going to be a totally different vibe than if I'm doing my recording in London at 11 o'clock in the morning looking at gray skies. It was really up to me to choose exactly what sounds would be perfect for a more unifying quality for each track, which was extremely demanding, but at the end, I was really happy with the results.”
BLESSED BRAZILIAN BLOODLINE
Although she prefers not to speak about her family members' careers, Gilberto's musical pedigree is as strong as they come. Her mother is the Brazilian singer Miúcha, whose brother, Chico Buarque de Holanda, was an early star of música popular brasileira. Gilberto's father, João Gilberto, earned the title “O Mito” (the legend) as one of the fathers of the bossa-nova genre, an amalgam of samba and jazz. He and his wife, Astrud, recorded the worldwide hit “The Girl From Ipanema” in 1963, only three years before Gilberto was born.
But don't start making Lisa Marie Presley comparisons. Gilberto made her recording debut at age 7 on one of her mother's albums. She performed at Carnegie Hall with her mother at 9, and she later performed a duet on the same venerated stage with her father. Her first full-length album, Tanto Tempo (Six Degrees, 2000), was nominated for two Latin Grammy Awards, and in 2004, her self-titled follow-up album reached No. 1 on Billboard's World Music Chart and was nominated for a Best World Music Album Grammy.
With a résumé that strong, the pressure each time she steps into the studio is substantial. However, Gilberto's personality is as free-spirited as her music. “I didn't really think about what am I going to want to say on this next album,” she explains in endearingly broken English. “I tried to get away from all these labels. I'd rather just go with the flow than sit down and say, ‘What are my goals?'' I tried to get away from the system and let my creativity fly away.”
A BRIT LEARNS BOSSA
Her organic attitude turned out to be an excellent complement to the precise style of Guy Sigsworth, the Pro Tools devotee with whom she worked in London. Having collaborated with Björk, Madonna and Imogen Heap (as one-half of the ethereal dance band Frou Frou), Sigsworth brought a dance-music sensibility to the studio that helped Momento become more than just a live Brazilian record.
“Bebel obviously comes with a subtle understanding of bossa nova and Brazilian music, which I don't really have,” Sigsworth admits. “I know what I like, but I'm not so honed to the specifics of the bossa-nova style. When she's in the room with her percussionist, and they start saying, “That's an afuche; that's a samba,” I have to admit that I'm kind of slightly faking my knowledge a bit. All I know is, well, that sounds like quite a good rhythm; let's go with that one! In a way, I think my naïveté is probably quite helpful because I don't think she's making records for specific aficionados of that style. She's making records for anybody who happens to like the sound of her voice and her music.”
Sigworth's lesson in Brazilian music continued through the recording sessions. “In a lot of bossa records, you really, really hear the acoustic guitars,” he says. “It's absolutely dominant. They really, really want it very, very loud in the mix. It wouldn't be like in a typical English pop record where it's often rolled off and doesn't have much bass end. Instead, it'd be quite a full-frequency sound coming off. So you have to navigate around that if you want the cool electronic noises that I do to come through.”
Sigsworth was also surprised to learn that the bass in bossa music was fundamentally different than the electronic records he was used to producing, despite the fact that both aim to make people dance. “It's interesting, when you start getting used to Brazilian music, you realize that a lot of tunes don't have a drum kit, as such,” he explains. “It has lot of percussive layers, but it doesn't have backbeats as we'd conventionally understand them in pop-music terms, even though it's very rhythmically driven music. So then how do you apply electronics to it and come up with things that fit against that?”
HE SAID, SHE SAID
Gilberto and Sigsworth's contrasting styles didn't impede their process for writing and recording songs. In some cases, Sigsworth created the starting point for a song, while in other cases, it was Gilberto who had the original idea.
“For instance, on ‘Azul,'' I had the basic strings and the fundamental sounds written as a chord progression before she came in the door,” Sigsworth explains. “I thought this is a great chord progression for her, and then we worked on it together and got the master vocal on it. Then, much later when her band was coming to play on other songs, I got them to play a bit of live guitar and percussion on it. That one felt like they were enhancing something that was already there rather than becoming the backbone of it. Whereas there were other ones, which were very much built off their performances and then me supplementing their essential performances with a bit of electronic stuff in the background.”
Gilberto echoes that sentiment: “We didn't really have a system. I tried to run away from the system, so sometimes I have ideas for him that I would be like, ‘Look, I have this melody.'' ‘Close to You'' is a good example. I had it already written in my head, and I knew exactly what I wanted for that song. I sang for him and worked a little bit on the words, and then he started working in the chord changes. So it was complicated, but when we got it right, it was like, just go with the flow. Sometimes he would have these cuts on the keyboard, and I would just jump on with the melody and the lyrics after listening to these cuts on the keyboard that he put together while thinking about me.”
Their method usually worked, but they did run into problems, particularly with the album's title track, which was initially recorded during a European tour. “‘Momento'' was probably one of the hardest because the original recordings were her and her band jamming in a hotel room,” Sigsworth laments. “Building things around that was pretty tricky because they weren't recorded to studio quality. Then you're trying to put in the kind of noises I do, and so you can imagine that one probably took about as long as all the others put together.”
“Guy always said that it was in a hotel room, but it wasn't,” Gilberto counters playfully. “We were in my percussionist's living room, but his house is underneath a tunnel in Holland. While we were recording, we had some people cooking in the kitchen, so although we were recording with a nice microphone, we were recording straight up in the Pro Tools, and if you listen to ‘Momento'' with the earphones, there are a lot of sounds that we captured from that way.
“There was a time when I wanted to kill [Sigsworth] because I wanted this song to sound totally organic, and he was like, ‘Bebel, this sounds like a demo in a hotel room. I cannot do it.'' But it was really interesting. He totally got uptight, and I was so reluctant to [continue with it].”
Although they disagreed on that point, a deal was struck before the microphones started flying. “She was so attached to the recording,” Sigsworth says. “So I had to work really hard to make sure she was happy, that I was keeping enough of the original feeling that hotel-room jam had but enhancing it in a way that I thought was fit to be on a record — so that people could listen to it who weren't in the hotel room at the time. I listened really hard and tried to identify the structure, which was quite loose when they were jamming it. Then I tried to put more points in the arrangement to help people sense where one section moves to another in a song, because for me that makes it an easier and more understandable listen than the first time through. I was always trying to make things so that they would sound very gentle to her ears. So for instance, I put in some pianos, and I worked really hard to sort of roll off the attack of them so that they were slight and had almost no percussive front end because I could sense that she didn't want anything that was cutting.”
In the end, Gilberto was more than satisfied with Sigsworth's efforts. “I think he worked almost like a magician. We just recorded without any good quality, but it captured the idea that I wanted to have, the Rio music, the craziness of the momento that I was writing [for] the song.”
LOST & FOUND IN TRANSLATION
Momento is split between songs in English and those in Gilberto's native language, Portuguese. The choice between languages was never cerebral, though; instead, Gilberto — you guessed it — goes with the flow and writes in whichever language suits the song. “It's unexpected, really,” she says. “Sometimes you just know it. It's so crazy. For instance, with ‘Momento,'' when I got there, I already said to Guy, ‘There is no way I can sing in English on this song.'' And then ‘Close to You,'' same thing: I started writing the song, and it came out in English. I even remember there was a point where Guy was like, ‘Bebel, this sounds like a rap. I can't believe it, a Brazilian girl has written a rap.'' It was really freedom of any conception, more like, whatever the vibe brings us, we'll just go with the flow.”
Lyrics in Portuguese did present a problem for Sigsworth, however. “Especially when I was doing the vocals, it was hard for Guy to direct me,” Gilberto says. “It was a bit challenging to have the whole of the lyrics on my back without having someone to at least understand a little bit what I was trying to talk about.”
“You get into mixing and you don't know which is the important word to make louder,” Sigsworth adds. “I would ask her to talk me through things and had to rely very much on her to tell me about that. And in fact, riding vocal levels was a very painstaking process 'cause I had to make sure she's completely happy. She felt that on her last album, her vocals had been a bit too heavily squashed. So I thought we won't compress; we'll just ride really softly so that the vocal is always at a good level throughout. I didn't use an automated effect. I did it by hand, which is much slower, but it made her much happier with the result. Funnily enough, we did have a few moments quite late on where she'd say, ‘Oh, no, I sang the wrong lyric then,'' and we had no idea.”
303 MEETS ACOUSTIC
Throughout the recording process, Gilberto and Sigsworth were continually trying to combine the organic with the electronic, layering the instrumental elements of her band with the effects and noises he prefers. Sigsworth often anticipated Gilberto's preferences and countered them in advance to create balance.
“For ‘Close to You,'' she had a melody with some lyrics, so then I was punching up sounds to fit it,” he explains. “Those first thoughts in my imagination were that the song just had the feeling of a beach at night where you can hear the waves lapping. I wanted to create noises that suggested that, so I put in some electric pianos and some soft-focus white noise. It was always trying to get that spray of the sea in a very gentle way into the song.
“Then I played some chords on a Rhodes and got some percussive sounds, which were mostly African udu-type drums but really tuned down an octave so they sounded a bit unusual. I knew that she was bringing in her band to add in a little bit more flavor on top of the percussion, so I didn't over-program it but kept it quite light. Then for bass, I was thinking she'll probably put in a guitar, so I'll put in a 303. There is actually an acid-house synthesizer doing something, vaguely. It's very intermittent and in a soft way, not at all heavy Detroit, but I just thought, ‘Let's go for the opposite 'cause I know what she'll do.'' There's an element where I know naturally the song's going to get pulled that way, so I'm going to pull it the other way in advance.”
Other times, Sigsworth took an organic sound and manipulated it in Pro Tools to achieve his desired effect. “Sometimes I like the things to sound very organic and real, and sometimes I like the listener to know they're not,” he says. “For instance, if you listen to the beginning of ‘Azul,'' I created this part that I knew could be played by two interlocking guitars, but then I actually thought, ‘It's quite interesting to do it in a deliberately artificial way where you just play one chord at a time, chop it in the computer and then stick it together.'' You can hear that it's not really like a player would have played it, but it gives it a special sound as created in its own digital way.”
Although Pro Tools is a bit outside of Gilberto's area of expertise, she still says that she's fascinated by what the technology allowed her to achieve on this album: “I like to mix different instruments and different cultures and different vibes, and I think only with the Pro Tools this could be possible. Since I start working with electronics and people from other musics, I think it's a whole new world. It's like a new Bebel inside of me. It's like you just let the phantoms go away from your head. It's amazing when I see other artists copying Brazilians just because they want to capture the vibe of a Brazilian song. That doesn't mean they're doing a real samba, but I'm fascinated by this mixture, and I just like to take advantage of it. It's like a boat, you know? You just go with the flow.”
A SAMPLING OF SIGSWORTH'S FROU FROU CENTRAL
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Power Mac G5 computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system
Keyboard, software, plug-ins
Celemony Melodyne software
Cycling '74 Pluggo plug-ins
Native Instruments Kontakt, Reaktor software
Roland C-80-AK Digital Harpsichord
Roland TB-303 bass synth
Mics, mic preamps, EQ, compressors
Avalon Vt-737sp preamp/compressor/EQ
Focusrite Liquid Channel preamp/compressor
Neumann U 87 mic
Sony C800G mic
Dynaudio Acoustics AIRs