RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Singer Bebel Gilberto never found the chance to slip a pair of headphones onto the ears of her dad, Brazilian music legend João Gilberto, to play the song she wrote for him. The track is named, appropriately, “O Que Não Foi Dito,” (“What Hasn’t Been Said”).
When Bebel set out to record her new album “Agora” (“Now”), a process that took a whopping three years, she was working to secure power of attorney for her infirm father in Rio de Janeiro, while absorbing what she says were inaccurate press reports about her motives.
She has since suffered a barrage of heartbreaks. First, her best friend had a fatal heart attack as she spoke with him by phone. Then her mother, a famous singer whose stage name was Miúcha, succumbed to lung cancer. The final blow came last year with the death of her 88-year-old father, who invented the rhythm that came to be known as bossa nova and made him a national treasure.
“That’s why it (the album) took so long,” she said in a video call from Rio. “It was my escape. Thank God I had that. If I didn’t have that, I would be dead.”
Most of the 11 songs were recorded before her parents passed, but the album is being released at a moment when the whole world is coping with pandemic grief, and Bebel said she hopes it will be a palliative. Songs range from languid and loungey to defiant — set to subdued electronic beats and the tinkling of piano keys. She often swings and riffs, toying with the tempo. The title track offers siren whispers that echo as though beckoning from within a well.
Bebel, who was born in New York and spent most of her young life on the road with her father, living among other places in Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, New York and Mexico City, has charted an international career.
She recorded “Agora,” her first album in six years, for PIAS Recordings in New York with her friend Thomas Bartlett, who has produced acts such as St. Vincent, Norah Jones and Florence + the Machine. The song “Tão Bom” (“So Good”), a dreamscape of strings, is about reconnecting with Bartlett after years apart.
She wrote “O Que Não Foi Dito” for her father at the end of 2017, when she was about to receive power of attorney. She had been shuttling back and forth to Brazil to appear before a judge and trying, with limited success, to convey to interested parties that the move had nothing to do with money, and instead ensuring a means to pay her father’s basic bills.
“I was just trying to organize his life so he could have better living, because he was abandoned,” she said. João famously became reclusive in his final years.
The song features a somber, shifting bed beneath a plea she be allowed to provide care. She sings that she’ll have to try to teach him in this half of life, a reversal of roles from their first act when he knew how to do everything.
The most valuable thing Bebel says she learned from her father was the way he used vocal dynamics. João, who came of age in an era of syrupy-voiced crooners, went against the grain and sang quietly — often with little more than a whisper. He was a critic of vibrato and exuberance, Bebel said, adding that he would have enjoyed listening to the 18-year-old Billie Eilish.
Bebel recalled an instance, four years ago, when she was about to leave for Rio’s airport to fly home to New York. Guitar in hand, João implored his daughter to stay, saying there was something very important he needed to share. It wasn’t a grim medical diagnosis, a long-harbored confession nor a change to his will. Rather, it was a discovery, which he demonstrated: an even softer delivery to two verses of the bossa nova classic “Wave”:
“The first time, it was the city/The second, the pier and eternity…”
Bebel said she was moved to see that, even years after vanishing from the scene, her dad was still improving upon songs he’d sung for decades. Gratitude washed over her for having stayed.
Last year she moved back to Rio, where she’s close to family. Late afternoon sunlight fills her living room, with a view of the Dois Irmaos mountains that tower over the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon. She has a puppy she refers to as her “daughter” — a brown Shih Tzu that resembles an Ewok.
“I’m really in very good spirits, everyone has been telling me this,” she said. “And I’ve been happy about it. My zen came.”