She makes a dramatic first impression. Her signature smile enhances her Brazilian inflections as she excuses herself to the dining table to finish off her dinner of mahi-mahi.
It's two hours before a June 12 CD-release party celebrating her eponymous second album, and Gilberto must condense her preparation time if she's going to be ready. Having spent two extra hours lingering with an old friend on South Beach, the ebullient singer is running late. Her brown hair is pulled back tight. She wears no makeup and moves about the room in a simple strapless dress, throwing its hem this way and that as she fastidiously prepares for the night. There's something graceful about her movements. One senses she can make the most chaotic situation copacetic by virtue of an infectious persona and an assertive edge.
When at last Gilberto settles into a comfy chair for a conversation, she remarks on the use of the word "diva." "I think being a diva is a good thing," she says, choosing her words slowly and speaking with an authority befitting that of a ballet teacher or a theater director. "It means you're an artist, a person who knows what she wants."
Gilberto is not consciously referring to herself. Her manner is humorous and earthy, with a hint of coyness that complements her big smile and doe-brown eyes. Still, according to her definition of a diva as a unique, uncompromising, and creative soul, the term may just apply to her, too.
Since her 2000 debut, Tanto Tempo, Gilberto has helped forge a modern Brazilian style along with contemporary singers Cibelle, Maria Rita, and Fernanda Porto, as well as groups such as Bossacucanova and Zuco 103, injecting electronic soundscapes into her country's labyrinthine palette. Yet she is not content to cast herself in the role of nouveau bossa nova girl, or keeper of the flame for her legendary father, singer-guitarist Joáo Gilberto. She aspires to more.
"I try to follow the directions of my own steps, which in this case is being really, really different," says Gilberto. "What I want to do is open a flag and say, 'Listen, this is Brazilian music -- pay attention to it!' I'm more into that than just saying, 'Okay, I am the new bossa.'
"I find it very, very pretentious," she adds knowingly. "And being my father's daughter, I wouldn't dare to be that."
As Gilberto's hands settle like birds onto her lap, she smoothes her skirt and talks about her second outing, Bebel Gilberto. She describes the project as a more personal artistic statement than Tanto Tempo; thus its eponymous, declarative title. She co-wrote nine of the new album's twelve songs and assisted with the arrangements and production. Adding to the intimacy, her mother Miúcha contributed vocals to one track, "Aganjú."
"I wrote the songs with the necessity of telling more about my soul," says Gilberto. "I want to explain all the things I think about and say, 'This is what I have in mind, this is what I want.'"
Heavyweight producer and percussionist Carlinhos Brown (Tribalistas, Caetano Veloso) and Marius de Vries (Madonna, Björk, U2) helped lend Bebel Gilberto a Euro-Brazilian chillout vibe that is acoustic and electronic, yet soulful in its simplicity. Instead of the vocal melisma so often heard in contemporary music, Gilberto entices the listener with a deep, natural sound that eschews vibrato and emotional exaggerations. "It's the singing of the heart," she explains. "Sometimes my sensuality comes across, but normally I'm actually very playful. I don't take myself so seriously."
Some of her fans may find Bebel Gilberto in the international section of the music store. But Gilberto says that she considers her music to be pop, albeit the cooler, breezier kind epitomized by Everything But the Girl, Sade, Seal, and Thievery Corporation. A long-time resident of New York City who has collaborated with David Byrne and Arto Lindsay, she regularly explores new styles, and professes to have picked up various ideas for her new album during the Winter Music Conference, an event she has attended for the past three years. Her earlier triumphs include "Technova," a 1995 dance hit she authored with Dee-Lite producer Towa Tei, and a 2000 track with Thievery Corporation, "Só Com Você." Gilberto says, "I don't get it when people say my music is not pop."
Nevertheless Gilberto's Brazilian roots inevitably rise to the surface. She credits the wealth of lessons she unknowingly had as a child hanging around her father Joáo's clique. But she is passionately committed to stepping out on her own.
"Whichever way my father's music is characterized, it has nothing to do with what I'm doing," Gilberto insists. "But what I think is in common between the two of us is that we are making Brazilian music. Next most important is that we make [all kinds of] Brazilian music [that can be] well known as Brazilian music, not just bossa nova or 'The Girl From Ipanema.' Brazilian music is everything."