Bebel Gilberto: She can blame it on the bossa nova

Her father penned the classic 'Girl from Ipanema' and is still musical royalty in Brazil, so it's not surprising that Bebel Gilberto is a star. But why did it take so long? She talks to Glyn Brown
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About 10 years ago, I remember seeing the acclaimed Brazilian samba singer Marisa Monte at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Willowy in cutaway trews, she was seductive but languidly distant and, although it was very nice for the chaps, whose tongues were dragging along the carpet, the event itself was actually pretty dull.

Her fellow Brazilian Bebel Gilberto is not like this. On record Gilberto's sound may be hypnotic, laid-back, liquid bossa nova; live, onstage or off, she's a far sparkier kettle of electric eels. We meet in a tropically warm Amsterdam on the first day of her European tour, and from the start there's a whirlwind quality to things. At around 4ft 10in she makes Kylie look tall, but her face is more animated than Sandra Bernhard's - she grimaces, bares her teeth, winces, yelps, rolls her eyes or closes them in bliss.

She has a good deal to say, in a Portuguese-inflected New York accent, and tends to think aloud. At a canalside Thai restaurant she orders quite a bit, and then worries about her weight. "Honey, I put on three kilos!" Confidently: "But I can deal with it. Last year, I was so fat. It was Armando's fault." Armando's the chap she has just split up with.

"He was all the time, 'Hey, have some popcorn!' He made me huge." She sips water in a businesslike manner. "Well, that's over now." And businesslike is what she is. At 37, fame and success - her debut album Tanto Tempo has sold close to a million copies and is Bill Clinton's favourite record ever - have come to Gilberto comparatively late, and she's not about to let them go.

A taskmaster and perfectionist, at the sweltering soundcheck she forces her band to repeat and repeat certain phrases and is still not entirely happy. Who knows why? The gig itself, at the packed Paradiso, goes so well that there are five encores. The temperature must be close to a hundred but Gilberto, streaming with sweat, continues to purr and growl, swivel her hips, leap and cavort. One minute she's crooning alone, then it's hot-blooded Rio carnival time; there are even a couple of full-blown rock-outs.

And still, when she staggers - quite literally - backstage before the first encore, she's worrying. "How was it? Was it OK? It wasn't right." Er, yes it was. "No, but you see, there were cues we miss..." Meanwhile, the crowd out front bay like hounds.

Bebel Gilberto is the daughter of Joao Gilberto, the co-creator of bossa nova and the man responsible for the sexy, sand-dusted 1964 classic "The Girl from Ipanema". In his heyday, Joao was a wild man, dragging Bebel and her mother, the singer Miucha, all over South America, prone to getting his slumbering little daughter out of bed to sing for visiting friends. During our interview before the gig, I had asked Bebel if that wasn't irresponsible.

Deep breath. "I sometimes regret when you say such a thing in an interview... But I agree with you, it's very irresponsible. My father, though - he was wild in not a terrible way. He's creative." This is certainly Joao's reputation, at least in Brazil, where at 73 he is musical royalty, reverently known as O Mito - the legend - and way beyond censure.

The more Bebel talks, however, the odder he sounds. "He's a person that does music all the time. Super-disciplined. Watch out a lot about his food."

He is careful about what he eats?

"Oh! So much. And tease everyone, controlling everyone's weight." Even yours? "Oh yes, if I go there he'll say (assumes judgmental tone, strokes chin), " 'You put some weight on.' Or, 'Oh, you're thin now, you look great.' He patrols everything; your teeth, your way of smiling." No wonder she's turned out anxious. "He is a very sensitive person." Clears her throat. "This is, like, a genius." She looks at the carpet. "But certainly irresponsible."

Quite. When Bebel was nine, Joao pulled out of a show at Carnegie Hall in New York on what seems to have been a whim, leaving Miucha in the lurch and suggesting that Bebel go on with her. Nervous, Bebel was nevertheless a show-off even then. "I remember, during the gig, that I would blink a little bit."

And she blinks, winsome as a cartoon chipmunk. What's that about? "I think I was trying to be charmous. Be cute. My mother said, 'You gotta be charmous!' And so..." self-mocking, sidelong wink, "... I was."

Bebel's worldwide fame has, naturally, put her father's nose right out of joint. They're not speaking. "But," she laughs gamely, "I am a big forgiver, you know? I have been already trying to call him, I'm totally ready with the white flag."

It was Joao's long shadow that prompted Gilberto, at 24, to move from Brazil to New York, where she was born. She started afresh, living in Alphabet City on money from various odd jobs. Gradually, she began to work on songs.

In 1998 she signed to the Belgian label Crammed Discs, who put her in a studio with the classically-trained Croatian musician and producer Mitar Subotic, or Suba. He added cool electronic cadences to her voice, taking her sound into realms unknown to bossa nova. In late 1999, as he was finishing the Tanto Tempo album, Suba died in a fire at his studio/apartment. It's said the caretaker broke down the door to extricate him, but Suba returned to salvage back-up discs. Says Gilberto: "He was everything for me - big brother, uncle, platonic boyfriend, everything."

Solace was found in hard work, perfecting a sound that's so relaxed it's practically horizontal. If there's a lonesome quality to the voice, it doesn't reflect Gilberto, who enjoys her own company and has no time for media matchmaking. Photographed recently for Vogue with Justin Timberlake, she was asked whether there was any spark between them, a question she dismissed by saying that he could be her son. Reminded of this she hoots, then worries. "Do you think that was bad, for me to say that?" Certainly not: why pretend to be a moron? "No! No..."

Her gaze wanders doubtfully around the room. "It's funny; after that I even look at a picture of him. I'm not attracted to this type at all, but I was, like, 'Wow, he's becoming really a sexy boy' - that's his goal, isn't it?" She shakes her head. "It doesn't get me." Did she really say she'd prefer Jools Holland? She roars again. "I said I'd rather go out with Jools Holland because that's more interesting. Of course, I'm not saying I would like to go out with him, I'm comparing, and that's what I'm looking for. A man. Who can make me laugh."

Which wouldn't be difficult if you could get her away from her job. What, for example, is her continuing therapy about? "My work. I wish I could talk about my parents, but for two years I talk about how difficult the music business is; to entertain, and deal with agent, management, lawyer, accountant. To wake up thinking about the lights of my show, the set list, whether everyone is in a good mood. Why didn't anyone tell me about all this? That it's so difficult?"

Well, they probably did, but if you're a worrier there's nowt you can do but fret. Though latterly there's been something to take her mind off it all somewhat, since she's become a patron of the Action for Brazil's Children Trust. Apparently Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, once notorious and now reformed, established the charity at the behest of his Brazilian wife; its centrepiece is Casa Jimmy, a home for Rio de Janeiro's many abandoned babies.

Children of her own are high on Gilberto's wish list but, despite her complaints about the music business, not quite at the top of it. Once her forthcoming album is complete she's ready to tour non-stop next year, she says. Meanwhile, she's in the middle of playing her first UK shows since sales went supernova. "And I can't wait. When I come to London, I always love the politeness." What? "And singing or speaking in English - aaah, it's just the sexiest, like wearing high heels."

At which point the word "overworking" does in fact come to mind.

'Tanto Tempo' is out now on EastWest records; Bebel Gilberto plays Liverpool Docks, Liverpool (0870 400 0688; on 28 July