On a fall Friday, Gwen Stefani is coming to the end of a busy week and headed into a busy weekend. “I have three boys,” she says. “Two of them are teenagers. They have their own schedule; I have Blake’s schedule.” That would be her husband of two years, country singer Blake Shelton. “I have to coordinate with their dad” — that would be her ex-husband, rock singer Gavin Rossdale — “and then I have ‘The Voice.’” That would be the NBC singing competition which last season — its 23rd, and Shelton’s final year as a coach — occupied not one but two slots in the top 20 of Neilsen’s rankings of the 2022-2023 TV season. “Plus,” she adds, “I’m making a record.”
Stefani had spent the previous three days on the set of “The Voice,” where she recently returned for a seventh time as a coach, and in three days she’d be marking her 54th birthday in Hawaii (although the trip there was for a concert, not to celebrate). That would come a day early, on Sunday, after a football game in which her two oldest sons — Kingston, 17, and Zuma, 15 — were both playing. “They’re at the same school,” she says. “It’s really tiny. They barely have enough people to even have a football team, but they’re on it together.” She says this brightly and a little breathlessly, which is something of a default mode for her in conversation, and then she added something likely to get an eye roll from most teenage football players: “It’s really cute.” After the football game on Sunday she was having a joint party with her 14-year-old niece, with whom she shares a birthday. “My whole family’s coming over,” she explains. “My mom’s making me lasagna.”
Superstars, concerts and TV tapings aside, Stefani almost sounds like your average overscheduled mom of three. But that is to downplay — drastically — her many triumphs across more than 30 years of shifting popular taste and business transitions in the music industry. Her many accomplishments include a 10-million-selling diamond album (No Doubt’s 1995 “Tragic Kingdom”), the first download to sell a million copies in the U.S. (“Hollaback Girl,” a No. 1 single from her first solo album, 2004’s “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.”), and the first No. 1 album in the streaming era (her third solo outing, 2016’s “This Is What the Truth Feels Like”). Well before Rihanna launched Fenty or Louis Vuitton tapped Pharrell as a creative director, Stefani had her own fashion line, L.A.M.B., which ran from head to toe (glasses to shoes) and included a fragrance — one of the fashion world’s most profitable brand extensions.
“She’s shown over three decades that she has a really good instinct for how to survive as a female artist in a very difficult business that gives women, for the most part, very little reverential praise,” says Shirley Manson, who became friends with Stefani in the alt-rock heyday of the ‘90s. “People were excited by Gwen right from the start — but I don’t think anybody really knew just how far she was going to run.”
Lasagna at home may seem like a modest birthday celebration for an international superstar of this stature. But then both Stefani’s life and career — which will be celebrated on October 19th, when she receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — have been something of a family affair. In July, Stefani shared news of the upcoming honor by posting a picture of herself at age five or so on Instagram: “Who’s gonna tell her she’s receiving a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star?!” read the caption. “This feels like a dream.”
There is something of a backstory to the brand extension in her explanation of that photo. “My mom made that outfit that I’m wearing in that picture,” she says of the coveralls and ruffled shirt. “My mom made a lot of my clothes; her mom made all of her clothes. So that got me into making clothes.”
Her mom also made the outfit that Stefani wore one of her very first times onstage: a mid-’80s talent show at her high school in Anaheim, Calif., where she sang — at her older brother Eric’s urging — a 1979 song by the British ska-revival band the Selecter, “On My Radio.” “My favorite movie at the time was ‘The Sound of Music,’” Stefani remembers. “There’s a dress that Maria wears when she goes to meet the children for the first time. It’s the only dress she has, and she walks in and they’re like, ‘That’s the ugliest dress I’ve ever seen.’ So me and my mom recreated that dress.”
Though Stefani remembered being unsure if she could even sing, and held the lyrics to “On My Radio” in her hands, that high school talent show was a pivotal moment. “That’s what got the fire going,” she says now. No Doubt began in 1986, when she was 17. Eric — two years Gwen’s senior — played keyboards and wrote songs. Tony Kanal — who would become Gwen’s first serious boyfriend — joined on bass after seeing them play, and by 1989 so had guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young. Inspired by the above-mentioned wave of British ska bands — also including the Specials, Madness and the (English) Beat — as well as California groups influenced by that scene (particularly Fishbone), No Doubt carved out a place in the Southern California scene. “From the very first show we ever did we always had a cool audience, at that garage level,” she says. “We were, like, famous, but in a small pond.”
Though she’s had a tendency to see herself as “lazy-ish,” looking back helps Stefani to realize how hard she and No Doubt had worked from the very start, especially compared to the instant recognition artists can suddenly find today after just one TikTok hit. “We had time to marinate and get good,” Stefani says of those early days. “Every Thursday and Sunday, ‘Dad, can I have five dollars? I need to rent a microphone.’ And we would go to the rehearsal space, and for five hours we would be in there. If we messed up, we would start from the beginning of the song again. We would film our rehearsals and watch them back. Nobody was telling us how to do it.” They were building their skill set, their sound, their world. “It was like playing Barbies really hard.”
The intense work ethic — and the recognition it would bring — was in stark contrast to her life in high school, where she struggled. “I don’t think people really know this about me, because I didn’t know, but I had dyslexia growing up,” she says. It was only in helping her own children with their dyslexia that she recognized her own. “I had a learning challenge in school; l hid myself in so many ways. I don’t know how I even got through school — I barely graduated. I tried as hard as I could, but I learned differently. It took me extra work just to learn what everyone else was learning easily.”
The result of this struggle, though, was a “superpower” she learned to draw on as a songwriter. “That’s what made me able to problem-solve,” she says. “When we write music, there’s no mold. There’s no one telling you to spell it like this or to put a paragraph here. You just say what you think, whatever you feel, and all of a sudden it’s in a song. It speaks back to you, it feels you, and it’s the greatest thing.”
Stefani’s songwriting superpower was what drove No Doubt’s breakthrough, “Tragic Kingdom,” a second album that found the band growing well beyond its ska roots. After nine years and two albums, Stefani’s brother Eric had left to pursue a career as an animator on “The Simpsons,” and she and Kanal had split up. “It was a really hard time for me,” Stefani remembers. “These were like the only people I’d hung out with — my brother and my boyfriend — and they both quit me! So all of a sudden, I started writing these songs, one after another.” She poured her frustration into “Just a Girl” (“living in captivity”), and her heartbreak into “Don’t Speak” and “Spiderwebs,” three songs that came to dominate the airwaves in the middle of the ‘90s. They were remarkable for both their confessions and their catchiness, managing to bridge the emotional tumult of early ‘90s grunge with the pop uplift that would come to dominate by the end of the decade.
“She was alternative, but she had this huge pop streak in everything she did,” Manson says, “which of course led to mass appeal.” As Manson notes, Stefani was early to a mix of athletic sexiness and Hollywood glamor, long before Katy Perry was a skateboarding pin-up girl. “She’s influenced generation after generation of young women. ‘I’m Just a Girl’ is a fucking major feminist anthem that wave after wave of women can relate to, to this day. You wouldn’t have a Taylor Swift without a Gwen Stefani. She is an incredible songwriter.”
Stefani was 17 when No Doubt began and 26 when “Just A Girl” made her a worldwide star. “I was such a late bloomer in so many different ways,” she says. “I lived with my parents until I was 26. It was a very conservative family — I was just super naive.” Her breakthrough songs were created in what she described as “my own bubble. It was so pure. I never in my wildest dreams thought anyone would hear the music.”
But before long, that bubble had become a snow globe, with the world peering in — and shaking things up. Success and fame made it harder for Stefani to tap her songwriting superpower. “Once that happens, you’ll never be able to have that magic again,” she says. “Because when you write after that, you’re trying to please people.” It was five years before the next No Doubt album, 2000’s “Return of Saturn,” which yielded no new classics, though 2001’s “Rock Steady” included the Billboard Hot 100 No. 3 hit “Underneath It All,” produced by reggae pioneers Sly and Robbie and written from a journal entry about Stefani’s boyfriend Gavin Rossdale — frontman for the British band Bush, whom she would marry a year later. Stefani’s 2001 duet on Eve track “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” (produced by Dr. Dre and Scott Storch) went even further, reaching No. 2.
Yet it was in the solo albums that followed — “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” in 2004 and “The Sweet Escape” in 2006 — that Stefani found a way to balance people-pleasing and wanting to share her story. “That’s when all the rest of the songs came,” when she felt “completely free from anybody telling me who to be, how to be.” She tapped into the music she grew up with, “influences that were there through high school,” like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and — on “Hollaback Girl” — the sound of a marching band. “I wanted to make a fun record that represented that guilty-pleasure music I loved,” she recalls.
To do it she drew on a dream-team of producers that included Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Andre 3000. “It was the first time I got to collaborate outside of the band and work with some incredible songwriters,” she says. Among them was Linda Perry, who co-wrote the album’s first single, “What You Waiting For?” Stefani continues, “I just didn’t even know that that world existed. ‘Oh, there’s professional songwriters that know how to write songs? That’s all they do?’ I was such a homegirl, in the sense that I only worked with the people I knew in my life.”
“What You Waiting For?,” which calls back to ‘80s dance rock, came from a challenge by Perry, who put the question to Stefani in an early meeting. With its “tick tock” refrain, it came to embody the impatience of her Interscope label boss, Jimmy Iovine, for her to begin her solo career, and her own questions about starting a family. “Look at your watch now,” she sings on the chorus, “You’re still a super-hot female.” The last single from “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” came out at the end of January of 2006; four months later, Kingston was born.
“That time period was probably my most creative,” Stefani remembers. “I was in the middle of having babies and making albums and touring the world — and just being so free. I felt like I could do anything.” After “The Sweet Escape” followed in late 2006, Stefani would not make another album for 10 years.
Needless to say, 2016’s “This Is What the Truth Feels Like” emerged into a very different world. Her marriage with Rossdale had fallen apart and she had finished her first season as a coach on “The Voice,” where she met Blake Shelton, who’d divorced from fellow country star Miranda Lambert the previous year. “We wrote a song together probably the first month we started talking or hanging out,” she says. “It was when we were like, ‘This is not gonna happen. What are we doing? We’re insane. We’re both broken. We’ve got to figure our lives out.’ He wrote this verse and sent it to me: ‘Help me finish this song.’ I wrote a verse and sent it back to him. We were just basically texting at that point. We wrote this song, and I went in and sang on it.” That was “Go Ahead and Break My Heart,” a top 20 country hit which would appear on Shelton’s 2016 album, “If I’m Honest.”
Shelton is the subject of Stefani’s most recent song, “True Babe,” which finds her turning her confessional lyric writing into a blissed-out love jones: “I wanna fly to your shows / Wanna wake up in your clothes / Come get you tipsy at 6:30.” Stefani began writing songs again during the pandemic, collaborating over Zoom and going into the studio when everyone was still wearing masks. She estimates she has a cache of 30 songs, although no specific plans for them at the moment.
“Of course I want to share them,” she says, “And I do — with my hairdresser, with my friends, I sent one to my sister in law,” she laughs. “‘Oh my god! I wrote a song!’ It never gets old.” But recently she’s tapped into a sound that’s a blend of ‘70s singer-songwriter merged with ‘80s yacht rock. “I have about seven songs that I’m kind of obsessed with,” she says. “Those are the ones I’m excited about putting out.”
But for the moment, it will have to wait. “Every time I look at my schedule it’s like, ‘How?’” There are a football games, birthday lasagnas, concerts to play and time with the man she describes as “the greatest guy on Earth.” But she finds energy and perspective in looking back at how far she’s come. “I’ve had kind of a rough week,” she concludes. “I needed this!”