• Brazilian singer-songwriter Bebel Gilberto plays an acoustic show at The Iron Horse in Northampton on Saturday. Photo by Janaina Tschape

  • Bebel Gilberto, whose sunny, electronic bossa nova albums have been nominated for several Grammys, has a new live EP on which she’s backed just by acoustic guitar. —

Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2017

Over the last two decades, Bebel Gilberto has made a name for herself as a stylish singer-songwriter and interpreter of Brazilian music, blending a classic bossa nova sound with modern, electronic pop music. Her Grammy-nominated albums have made her one of the top-selling Brazilian artists in the United States.

She has drawn on an international upbringing and some rich musical roots to do that. Born and raised partly in New York City, she grew up primarily in Rio de Janeiro and has also lived in Mexico and London. Her father is João Gilberto, considered the principle creator of bossa nova, and her mother is the acclaimed Brazilian singer Miúcha.

And Gilberto, who comes to The Iron Horse in Northampton on Saturday, has reached back to those roots with her latest recording, an EP of live versions of some of her hits, such as “Bananeira” and “So Nice,” this time relying just on her breezy, lilting vocals and the plucked chords of a nylon-string acoustic guitar.

“Bebel Gilberto: Live at the Belly Up,” released this fall, includes seven tracks recorded last summer at the Belly Up, a club north of San Diego. Along with six reworked songs of her own, the EP also offers Gilberto’s take on the Radiohead song “Creep.”

“I wanted to do something that was really intimate, really personal — just me and a guitar and the audience,” Gilberto said during a recent phone call from New York, which is now her home. “The idea is to bring some warm music to wintertime.”

She notes that performing this kind of stripped-down music — at The Iron Horse she’ll be singing numerous other songs from her career, in addition to the tracks from the EP — takes her back in a way to her youth, when she grew up singing to her father’s acoustic guitar playing.

“The guitar is very much a part of my memories,” she said.

In fact, she recorded a song by her father, “Bim Bom,” on her 2009 album “All in One,” and she said in an interview at the time that though she was interested in cultivating her own sound, audiences appreciated the older bossa nova sound, too: “Whenever I play [“Bim Bom”], I see heads shaking along. It’s so nice.” 

A late start, but a successful one

Though she began singing as a child — at age nine, she performed in Carnegie Hall alongside her mother and jazz legend Stan Getz — Gilberto did not release her first full album until 2000, when she was 33.

But that record, “Tanto Tempo” (which means “so much time”), built a template for her sound: electronic bossa nova that can include tape loops, muted percussion, woodwinds and keyboards and Gilberto’s soft vocals, with occasional uptempo numbers like “Close Your Eyes” that add brass and drums.

She sings and writes in both Portuguese and in English (and occasionally in French), and she has covered songs by Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Cole Porter and other English-language artists.

Though lyrically she veers more to sunny love songs — “Someone to hold me tight / That would be very nice / Someone to love me right / That would be very nice” — she was also drawn to “Creep,” a darker tune whose narrator struggles with an unrequited love because of his personal demons: “But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here?”

“I just like the emotion in that song, the intensity,” said Gilberto. “It really spoke to me, and I wanted to do my own version of it.”

She notes that she has recorded a number of songs over the years, like “Every Day You’ve Been Away” and “Words,” that are built around just vocals and guitar, and in some cases a few other muted instruments. In that sense, she added, performing live with just a guitarist is not that big a stretch.

“I think it’s a way of really making contact with the audience when you do these songs in such an up-close and simple way,” she said.

Along with “Creep,” her live EP includes songs from throughout her career, including the title song from her 2007 album “Momento” and “So Nice” and “Bananeira” from “Tanto Tempo.” The last song has been slowed down a bit from the original recording, but on the EP, Gilberto coaxes the audience to clap along to what’s still a catchy beat.

And “Preciso Dizer que Te Amo” (“To Say I Love You”), which closes the EP, is a tune Gilberto originally wrote and recorded in the 1990s with fellow Brazilian singer Cazuza, a close friend of hers until his death from AIDS-related causes in 1990. It’s a slow, almost stately number with gently plucked chords.

This acoustic side of Gilberto is not necessarily one she’ll stick to. She said she’s currently working on a new recording project “that’s much more electronic, very different … each [album] is different in its own way. But I hope people will enjoy hearing this [acoustic] side of me.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Bebel Gilberto, with guitarist Bernardo Bosisio, plays The Iron Horse on Saturday at 7 p.m. For tickets and additional information, visit iheg.com. Bebel Gilberto’s website is bebelgilberto.com.