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Gilberto wavers from the family script

by James Hadfield

Her albums of sultry, sunny bossa nova and pop have beguiled and seduced millions of listeners. But, woken by The Japan Times after a meager few hours’ sleep, Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto is struggling to put on a brave face.

“This is my last day off, and my dear friend Hanna booked this interview for 11 o’clock and she knows I’m not a morning person,” she explains groggily over the phone from Rio de Janeiro.

“I was with my dad until 5 o’clock in the morning. I slept for four hours. My whole family, we are really (huge yawn) into staying up late.”

Gilberto doesn’t talk about her family much these days. It’s a decision she made after a few years of doing press for her debut album, “Tanto Tempo,” released in 2000. That record’s languid blend of bossa nova and electronica was an unexpected crossover success, making her the toast of coffee shops and lounge bars worldwide and eventually selling more than a million copies.

Yet everybody seemed to be more interested in talking about her family. Gilberto’s mother and uncle, Miucha and Chico Buarque, are both famous singers in Brazil. Her father, meanwhile, is none other than Joao Gilberto, the guitarist and singer who together with Antonio Carlos Jobim invented bossa nova, and is revered as a living legend in his native country.

With a pedigree like that, being accepted on her own terms hasn’t been easy. Finding the atmosphere in Rio oppressive, she moved to New York in 1991 at the age of 24, and spent the ensuing years doing odd jobs while working with artists such as David Byrne, Arto Lindsay and Japanese-born DJ Towa Tei (with whom she recorded the dance hit “Technova”).

When she finally released “Tanto Tempo,” aged 34, the surprise wasn’t just how assured it was but that it had taken her so long.

Now 41 and touring her third album, the Grammy-nominated “Momento,” you’d think Gilberto has earned the right to be spared the questions about dad. Still, she’s not above a bit of judicious namedropping herself, as when she first met another well-known celebrity progeny, Sean Lennon.

“We met totally absurdly, in the middle of the street,” she recalls; “and I introduced myself to him. He didn’t really pay attention, and then I said, ‘Look, my father is Joao Gilberto,’ and he started talking to me.” The pair are now good friends, and Gilberto hopes that they can work together at some point in the future. “I love, love, love his music,” she coos.

As for the other musicians who have turned her on recently, she says, “Chet Baker inspires me, as well as Amy Winehouse, as well as Charlotte Gainsbourg, as well as my father.”

That list should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from “Momento.” Though the album still has an undeniably Brazilian lilt to it, “Momento” finds Gilberto peddling a less region-specific brand of smooth, adult pop. The title track and the tranquil “Close to You,” both featuring subtle electronic treatments by Bjork and Madonna collaborator Guy Sigsworth, bear more than a passing resemblance to Sade, another influence she has often mentioned in the past. New York band Brazilian Girls muck in on “Bring Back the Love,” a house track that’s already garnered numerous remixes, while the unorthodox big band Orquesta Imperial provides the backing for “Tranquilo,” a song written by that group’s Alexandre Kassin.

Aside from that and two other cover versions — a slinky rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and an infectious take on her Uncle Chico’s “Caracada” — Gilberto cowrote all of the songs on “Momento.” It is, she says, her most personal record to date — even if she’s coy about the specifics.

“All of [the songs] have a little history behind them,” she says. “People who know me . . . know the situation. And there are some key words that make sense [to them], that I wouldn’t be telling you over the phone. Maybe one day I’ll tell you secrets.”

Either way, touring the album hasn’t been easy. Just 10 days before its release, Gilberto broke her foot when she fell while running for a cab. Undeterred, she rehearsed with her band from a hospital bed, using the Internet telephone service Skype, and played some European dates with her leg in plaster. It was an experience that she’d clearly rather forget.

“I really don’t want to talk any more about that,” she says politely when asked. “It was very difficult, but when I heard that I was nominated for a Grammy (for Best Contemporary World Music Album), I was very, very happy that I’ve done everything I’ve done. Because if I hadn’t performed, I wouldn’t be having what I’m having now: peace of mind, happiness — and also my foot is almost normal.”

Her tour of Japan later this month will, she says, be a “very intimate” affair: just her and two longtime foils, percussionist Mauro Refosco and guitarist Masa Shimizu. “I’m very looking . . . (another enormous yawn) sorry . . . looking forward to it,” she says, collapsing into giggles. “It’s going to be perfect in Japan.”

For now, though, she’s off to enjoy her last day of vacation, taking a boat out into the ocean with an old friend of hers.

It’s an image thoroughly in keeping with an artist whose music implores you to lay back and, in her words, enjoy the “momento.”

Bebel Gilberto plays Jan. 21-23 at Billboard Live Tokyo (¥8,500/¥6,500; tel. [03] 3405-1133); Jan. 25-26 at Billboard Live Osaka (¥8,500/¥6,500; tel. [06] 6342-7722); Jan. 28-29 at Billboard Fukuoka (¥8,500; tel. [092] 715-6666). 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. start (6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Jan. 26). For details, visit billboard-live.com