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Gwen Stefani performs at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York (Getty Images)
Gwen Stefani has a question for me.
We’re sitting underneath the stage at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. It’s the exact same stage where, in 24 hours, she’ll perform a one-night-only set of her solo hits. Onstage Saturday night she’ll rock some classic Gwen Stefani looks: crop tops and a tartan plaid outfit with slits in the thighs. But for our interview, Stefani has a completely average gray throw blanket draped across herself; the way she’s wearing it, it may as well be a fur. The weather in New York has gone quickly from comfortable to chilly and the quintessential California girl is feeling it. No matter, though, Gwen Stefani is ready for her closeup.
“How did you get your job?” Stefani asks. I tell a completely boring story that involves journalism school and more than a couple lucky breaks. “It’s so insane,” she gushes. “Do you know how many people want to be a journalist?”
All I can manage is to blink. “Well,” I stammer finally, “probably far less than the number of people who want to be rock stars.”
It’s not clear that Gwen Stefani is completely aware of how impressive she is.
Gwen Stefani never left (Getty Images)
Earlier this month — Oct. 10 — was the 20th anniversary of Tragic Kingdom, the album that shot No Doubt, with Gwen Stefani at front, to international fame. Now she’s preparing to release a new solo album, a follow-up to 2006’s The Sweet Escape.
“What’s so cool about right now is that I feel, like, weirdly with Tragic Kingdom, I feel like I’m almost in the exact same place that I was,” she says. “I have an album that documents where I’m at and it’s so pure and it’s so real and it’s so… not about anybody else.”
Stefani, 46, is juxtaposing, obliquely, her impending divorce from Gavin Rossdale, her husband of 13 years, and her breakup with Tony Kanal, her No Doubt bandmate, which inspired a good chunk of Tragic Kingdom. Years before there was Taylor Swift, there was Gwen Stefani, writing bitterly honest songs about the dissolution of a relationship and making her ex and bassist play them night after night. Now that’s a rock star.
When I ask Stefani if she’ll play any new material at the show, she’s less forthcoming. But, on Saturday night, she proved she’s willing as ever to express herself in song, debuting her new single, “Used to Love You,” about Rossdale. “I don’t know why I cried, but it I think it’s ‘cause I remembered for the first time, since I hated you, that I used to love you,” she wails on the ballad.
Stefani did promise the first single would be released officially “very, very, very soon.” The full album? “I don’t really know. Probably… I’m thinking next year.”
Don’t mistake uncertainty for apathy.
Stefani already threw out an earlier album because, in her words, “it didn’t feel genuine.” Now, she says, she’s writing a song every time she goes to the studio.
“I was doing a lot of like excuses in my mind like I always do, like, 'Oh writing is so scary, and you don’t know what you’re doing, and I can’t write.’ Like all the stuff that I always do,” Stefani says, echoing her debut solo single “What You Waiting for?,” for which she was nominated for a Grammy. “And then I just was kind of, like, I got to a point where I had to go through all these things to be to the point where I was like, 'F–k that, I have a gift, I’m going to use it, I’m going to do this, like, stop. You need to go write a record.’”
While she’s been away from recording for a couple years, Stefani has certainly been busy. There are her three sons with Rossdale: Kingston, Zuma, and Apollo, all under 10. There’s The Voice, where she serves as a judge. There’s L.A.M.B., her clothing line named for her first solo album. And, of course, there’s No Doubt, who performed at a couple music festivals this year. “It was weekends of No Doubt, like, weekdays: mom. And then I’m gonna fly out and pretend like I’m in high school again. It was so fun.”
But Stefani says she’s never in her life had recording sessions as fruitful as the ones she’s doing now.
“We wrote a song and it was like, 'Holy s–t.’ Not just a song but, for me, outside of other people hearing it, for me it’s a masterpiece,” she says. “It has everything I love, I don’t care if you don’t like it, it’s what I love. So then it was like one after another and within eight weeks we had a whole record.”
Gwen Stefani snaps a selfie with a fan onstage at the Hammerstein Ballroom (Getty Images)
Stefani refers to her career as a “phenomenon,” but she herself is one as well. The bombshell from Orange County, California, who started singing with her brother’s ska band in high school, and went on to launch the third-wave ska revival in the United States. Stefani was charting feminist anthems on the Billboard Hot 100 — consider 1995’s “Just a Girl” — before it was A Thing. At one point while we’re together, someone comes up and places a space heater next to her chair. “This is what’s so great about being me right now,” she jokes. “This is when I know I made it.”
So Gwen Stefani does know how far she’s come.
It’s been a while since she’s released any solo material, but it’s clear that she’s as in love with music as ever.
“I can’t believe I get to do music, like there’s nothing else in this world,” she says. “Just listening to it is a blessing, but to be able to write it and share it and have people support me and relate to me… It makes me feel so comforted.”