A creative renaissance, a joyful reunion, and a journey through grief have shaped Bebel Gilberto's exquisite sixth album.
Produced by longtime musical ally Thomas Bartlett, Agora arrives 20 years after Bebel Gilberto’s world-conquering debut, Tanto Tempo.
This is not a run-of-the-mill story, nor should it be, as it concerns Bebel Gilberto – a true one-off, whose standing as the daughter of the late João Gilberto, father of bossa nova, is actually not what’s most dazzling about her, as a musician and as a person. “Bebel has such a lifeforce,” says her dear friend and collaborator Thomas Bartlett, “there’s just so much joy in her.”
There’s a kind of electrical charge to the seeming contradictions of Gilberto – a woman who alternately channels the depth and worldliness of a torch-singer with the glee and playfulness of a little child. The teaser video for her new album finds Gilberto vamping her way around an outrageously grand hotel, clad in a pink sparkly pantsuit, while scarfing cakes and vacuuming. She is that rare star who simply isn’t like anyone else.
Now located in Rio, having spent nearly three decades in New York, Gilberto happily acknowledges her status as “a baby maker” – her soft, sensual music having soundtracked many a romantic clinch. In this respect, she’s aligned with such soulful greats as Al Green and Sade. But Gilberto’s personal musical obsessions run the gamut from Charlotte Gainsbourg to Billie Eilish (“I can’t believe it! How can young kids do something so cool and timeless? I love it!”).
Thomas Bartlett’s world is similarly, tantalisingly esoteric, his collaborators ranging from David Byrne and St Vincent to Rhye and Eminem. The three-year process of recording Gilberto’s sixth album, Agora, took place at Bartlett’s New York studio, and Bartlett remembers one month in particular where the three artists he was working with were Bebel Gilberto, Yoko Ono, and Broadway star Mandy Patinkin. “Every day I had at least two of them in the studio,” he says, with a laugh, “so that was a particularly intense time of big personalities in my very small room.”
Plainly speaking, Agora is Bebel Gilberto’s best record since her breakthrough debut, the million-selling, era-defining Tanto Tempo (2000) – and it is an album that breathes and sings with the lived experiences of its creator, over the course of the past two decades. Notably, it was completed after the deaths of Gilberto’s best friend, her mother and her father, in the course of 2019. And crucially, it is the product of a renaissance in Gilberto’s creativity, and of Gilberto and Bartlett’s enduring friendship. The album’s Portuguese title, Agora, means now. And it’s taken some getting to.
Gilberto and Bartlett’s story begins in New York, with a dewy young Bartlett playing in Marc Anthony Thompson’s band Chocolate Genius, alongside Mauro Refosco (Forro in the Dark, Atoms for Peace). Impressed by Bartlett’s talents, Refosco called his friend Bebel: “He said, Look, I know a guy that’s gonna blow your mind – he’s amazing!”, says Gilberto. Bartlett remembers their first meeting well: “Bebel just kind of descended and claimed me,” he says, still tickled by the thought. “It was like, ‘You are going to play in my band’ and it never particularly felt like there was a choice.”
The connection was instant, from a musical point of view: “He got it all,” remembers Gilberto; and personally: “She felt like family immediately to me,” says Bartlett. A tour of Brazil followed, including a stay at Caetano Veloso’s home in Rio and a stint at Carlinhos Brown’s favela studio, joined by Seu Jorge.
Inevitably, after years of touring, Gilberto and Bartlett took different paths, Gilberto going on to record 2014’s Tudo, and Bartlett establishing himself as an artist in his own right; his projects include Doveman and the Gloaming, and his inimitable style as a producer has subtly shaped such albums as Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell. The years ticked by.
Then, in 2017, a shift. Gilberto took herself on a solo adventure to Puglia in Italy. Without a record deal or a manager, the trip would prove to be “an opening time” creatively for her, with new melodies for songs pouring into her mind, one after the other. When she returned to New York in September, Gilberto instinctively called Bartlett and the pair reconvened at his studio – and, says Bartlett, “a bunch of years where we didn’t see each other vanished immediately.”
To his surprise, Bartlett found that he was perfectly prepared. He has a longstanding practice of recording sonic sketches in Pro Tools every day, to be revisited at a later time. “And somehow there was a sweet spot from six months earlier,” he says, “where there were all of these tracks that were just made for Bebel – so informed by the kind of harmonic language I’d learned from playing with her.” He played such a track for Gilberto, “and she just lit up and started singing.”
That track would become the song that opens the album, Tao Bom – meaning, so good. With its slinky strings, rich vocal and easy, unhurried beats, Tao Bom is deliciously inviting, Gilberto improvising words to capture the joy of making music together again at last; as she puts it, “So good to spend the time without counting the minutes.” Compositionally, the album is a creative confluence; there are tracks that were born of the singer’s Puglia melodies, and songs that started as Bartlett’s sketches with Gilberto’s vocals.
Both gauzy and lush, Agora has the feel of “a Fantasia of some kind” to Bartlett, and to Gilberto, “a dream within a dream”.
Above all, Agora glows with sheer pleasure – from the fluttery euphoria of Yet Another Love Song to the elegant simplicity of Cliche, where every sung syllable seems suspended in mid-air. Gilberto allowed herself to summon lyrics on the spot (“A lot of personal thoughts are in those words”), which gives the album a genuine intimacy and unmistakable spontaneity.
While there was no pre-planned sonic palette, the pair’s intuitive musical understanding of each other meant that there was a shared vision of the album’s sound. Both gauzy and lush, Agora has the feel of “a Fantasia of some kind” to Bartlett, and to Gilberto, “a dream within a dream”. In this respect, Agora is perfect lockdown listening, albeit unintentionally; its ten tracks invoke the promise of summers to come, of freedom and salty-sweet breezes. Accordingly, you’ll hear old Mellotron and Chamberlin keyboards, but slowed down to half-speed – “there’s this slightly falling-apart, degraded quality, so they feel like a memory,” says Bartlett. “Both of us gravitate towards things that have that quality of nostalgic glamour.”
That the album was nearly three years in the making is in part down to the fact that over the course of 2019, Gilberto experienced loss on a heartbreaking scale, with the deaths of her best friend, in America, followed by her mother and her father in Brazil. “I don’t know how I survived through all this,” she says, quietly. “But I must say that something came out from this which made me stronger. I think at the moment, I have never been so down to earth in my life.”
The pair’s creative reunion proved to be something of a deliverance. “I lost things, but I also got a lot of things,” says Gilberto. Until the recording of Agora, she’d not seen Bartlett working as a producer before. “I was so proud, and even more excited to work with him, because I could tell how good he was at getting the best of anyone – and the best of me,” she says. “He would just let me be me, and I never worked with anyone like this.”
It was in this spirit that Gilberto felt ready to finish the album and move back to Rio. “I finally accepted that I am going on and I’m still Bebel, I’m still playful, but I’m a mid-aged lady,” she says, smiling. “And I am more interested in things that settle inside of my heart and give me goosebumps than just pass through my mind and forget the next day.”
Agora – now – is here at last.
Sophie Harris is an editor and broadcaster with more than ten years’ experience writing for international magazines and broadsheets (The Guardian, MOJO, Rolling Stone, The Times, Time Out), and broadcasting for the BBC World Service and WNYC. In 2009, Sophie moved to New York to help transform the Music section at Time Out New York. She is now based in her home city, London.
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