wen Stefani has been making music since 1987, way back when she was just a teenage mall rat in California who decided to start a ska band, No Doubt, with her brother Eric. Gwen led the group to pop glory and then carved out her own career as a solo artist, selling more than 30 million albums combined. The Grammy winner also branched out into fashion, glamming up wardrobes with her LAMB clothing line. And yet even with her incredible success, Gwen, like all of us, doubts her ability at times. The star recalls that when she began advising singers on The Voice in season seven, “I had to talk about my story and try to convince people how good I am. And I was like, Wait a minute – yeah, I did that, I did that, I did that. Wow! It gave me all this confidence. It helped me write again, helped me recognise my gift.”
That confidence boost kicked off a series of new milestones for Gwen: there’s her third solo album This Is What the Truth Feels Like, her first in a decade, not to mention her first to debut at number one on the Billboard 200. She wrote it in the wake of her divorce from husband Gavin Rossdale, transforming heartbreak into a set of pulsating, dance-your-butt-off pop songs. Armed with those hits, Gwen went out last July on her first major tour in years, with her three boys – Kingston, 10, Zuma, eight and Apollo, two – joining on the road. Meanwhile, she oversaw the expansion of her fashion empire into two new eyewear collections and a line of high-end kids’ clothes. And as the world knows, she also found a new love: country music singer and The Voice coach Blake Shelton. In May, the two performed their country song, ‘Go ahead and break my heart’ – Gwen’s first foray into the genre – prompting fans to beg for an album of duets.
But the best thing about Gwen Stefani is that she does her own thing – always, every year, every decade. She has thumbed her nose at societal restrictions placed on women (lamenting, “I’ve had it up to here!” in the 1995 song ‘Just a girl’). She has championed eccentricity with her let-your-freak-flag-fly fashions. And by writing uncompromising music, including her heartrending new songs, she’s shown us how to summon strength through self-expression. “Sometimes to be woken up again in life, you need to go through some really hard times,” she says. “I feel like I got woken up this year.”
Your new album debuted at number one, your fashion line is expanding and your work on introduced you to a whole new audience and a new love. Are we missing anything?
GWEN I got to go on tour! I never thought that would happen again.
Why not? Goddess
Being a mom – I think I overdid it. The timeline’s crazy: I got pregnant with Kingston, my oldest, on tour for Love. Angel. Music. Baby. I stayed on tour ’til I was four and a half months, gave birth, went into the studio, made The Sweet Escape and went back on tour when he was eight months. When I got home, I got pregnant with Zuma. Went on tour with No Doubt when he was four months and when I got home, I felt bad. There were too many plates spinning.
Then you had your third son, Apollo. How did touring come to feel manageable again?
I needed to tour for my own triumph! To be like Rocky at the top of the steps, like, “I just did three shows in a row. I’m that mentally healthy, physically healthy, strong and I can do it with three boys on a tour bus!” And I did it!
Is life on the road still as fun for you as it was starting out?
Yeah. And it’s amazing with the boys. I thought they’d want to go off and, you know, go to Disney World. But they all wanted to be at the venue, working. Zuma literally worked every night: he had a light, and he walked me on and off the stage, and opened the curtain when I’d run back to change outfits.
Speaking of outfit changes, let’s talk about LAMB. How did you first get into fashion?
It’s in my blood! My mom was always making me clothes. We’d go to the fabric store, pick out patterns and it was a creative process. I heard that word a lot growing up: creative. You should have seen my room. It was a pigsty with a sewing machine. I would get stuff and then I would alter it. My mom would help me. But growing up in Orange County, I didn’t know anything about fashion. I just knew about it through music, how ska bands dressed.
In No Doubt, you had a tomboyish look, and you poked fun at gender restrictions in songs like ‘Just a girl’. It seems like part of the subtext of how you dressed was rejecting how a woman ‘should’ present herself to the world.
People tell me, “You’re such a punk rebel,” but I wasn’t that growing up. I was actually a super-sheltered, conservative girl. Now, there was probably a bit of me that was like, “Why do I have to be like that?” Because when you discover your sexuality – when you’re little – you don’t notice it. Then suddenly you’re walking down the street and you’re whistled at. And you’re like, “Oh, I have this power I didn’t know about.” And you also discover you’re kind of prey, and you’re like, “Wait, that’s confusing”, so I wrote ‘Just a girl’. I think that song is still relevant. There are limits put on women, but why should there be?
Zooming out, when you take stock of the past year, how do you place it within the course of your life?
Mind-blowing. I don’t understand my journey. It’s so crazy. But one thing I learnt is, that’s what life is. We all have to go through hard times. Tragedies. Those are given to us to see what we’re going to do with them. How can we give back? How can we improve when we have these challenges?
In reading what you’ve said about your divorce, you used the word ‘embarrassed’ a lot. Why did shame enter into the equation for you?
I don’t think you’ll talk to one person who didn’t make it in a marriage who’s not going to feel that way. The intention of being married is the vow, right? You want to put everything into it to make it a success. And all I had to look at was the huge success of my parents: they just had their 50th anniversary. I had to work really hard at marriage, like everybody, but ours was extra hard, when you add that we’re from different countries, both are in music, and celebs. [Marriage] was the one thing I didn’t want to fail at. People can say whatever they want about me, and I don’t get too affected. But I didn’t want them to think I was a failure. There’s nothing odd about that.
You’ve referred to that period as several months of hell and torture.
[Laughs] But you know what? I’m in a different place now, that is the past for me. I’m in such a new place. It’s all about the future for me. Not really just the future – but the moment right now.
You’ve said that the process of writing the new album saved your life. How did it save you?
It released me from that feeling of hopelessness. When I was in the studio for This Is What the Truth Feels Like, it was like, I need to be here right now. This is the only place I feel good. It doesn’t matter what comes out of this as far as my career – this isn’t about a hit. It’s about saving my life. And it was interesting, because I know you’re going to ask me about Blake, but finding somebody who was going through the exact same experience?(blake divorced country singer Miranda Lambert in July 2015) That was an inspiration. He was a friend to me when I needed a friend. An unexpected gift. And that became an inspiration in the songwriting.
Your relationship seems like an ‘opposites attract’ situation. You’re pop, he’s country. You have a fashion empire, he has a ranch. It’s like a rom-com premise.
It’s definitely two different cultures. But there are many similarities in things that we love and our morals. It’s really fun when you can learn about so many new things and share those differences.
Do you ever think about your legacy? The mark you’ll leave?
No. When I think of a legacy, I think of the legacy of being a mom. When you’re a parent, you’re just like, “Gosh, I hope they like me when they grow up. I hope that I did a good job. I hope they’re gonna be happy.” The moment you get pregnant, you’re tortured by the fear of not doing it well. But I feel at peace with that right now. I’m trying to be present, not thinking and worrying about the past or the future. That’s such a waste of time, you know?