By Alex Distefano
By Daniel Kohn
By Aimee Murillo
By Nick Schou
By Nate Jackson
By Nate Jackson
By Dave Lieberman
By Daniel Kohn
Three small orange trees grow along the curb in front of her stately mansion in an old-money neighborhood above Los Angeles, and the bright pink that has replaced brassy platinum as her hot new hair color glows all the way down to her scalp. No, Gwen Stefani has not forgotten her roots. But it's going on five years since No Doubt, one of Orange County's most enduring and identifiably local bands, experienced its overnight international sensation. Since then has come the 15 million-selling CD, the sold-out global tour, the fan zines and Web sites and MTV awards, the weekly photographic updates in Rolling Stone on every change of clothes, boyfriend or party itinerary—all of it laced with just enough rags-to-riches pathos and angst to green light an upcoming VH-1 Behind the Music special, which will be synergistically broadcast in April to coincide with the release of the band's new album. By now, Stefani has been a bona fide pop Tinkerbell for so long that it's sometimes hard to believe she was ever that just-a-girl who grew up near Disneyland. Her faithful little doggie—a 15-year-old Lhasa apso named Maggen that is one year older than the band—is still at her side, Toto-and-Dorothy-style. But the Oz they inhabit clearly isn't Anaheim anymore. When No Doubt's tour stopped for two nights at the Pond a couple of years ago, Stefani's parents visited her in a hotel. "Something happens to you when you travel the world and embrace everything," Stefani acknowledges. "Suddenly, you realize that the small, little back yard you came from is such a . . . like . . . Anaheim is such a weird place to come from."
Of course, that seemed to be the point of Tragic Kingdom, the 1995 CD that rewarded No Doubt's eight-year slog through the music business with the many-edged gift of sudden superstardom. The album title was a local cliché, a deft spin on Disneyland's a.k.a. that emphasized the jading toll taken on the real people who live just outside the Happiest Place on Earth. The cover—a collection of photographs, including an Anaheim City Limits sign—drew from the stylized labels that used to adorn orange crates and delivered a powerful visual summary of the hollowness of Orange County's agri-rural values in the face of sprawling post-punk suburban pavement. Beneath a picture of sun-kissed Gwen adorned in a shimmering cheerleader outfit and proudly holding a rotten orange swarming with green flies in her scalding red fingernails were the words "Bought and Sold Out in U.S.A." Beyond the bitterness, however, the music somehow celebrated.
The very-long-awaited new album, Return of Saturn, again drips with disillusionment, although through themes that are at once more universal and more personal. It seems like the obvious, seamless next step for the band—and it's unquestionably the final disconnect with its ska roots. Stefani's powerful voice still leads the way but has occasion to explore more nuance, often bobbing and weaving among expertly layered arrangements of far-flung snippets of '80s and '90s pop. The lyrics are improved, too, although almost relentlessly under the weather. Every song paints the picture of a woman struggling with her own dark introspection, putting on the best possible face while the rest of the world parties by.
Turns out that's the point of Return of Saturn, too. The title references the 29 years it takes Saturn to revolve around the sun and compares it to the amount of time it takes a person to truly begin to understand him- or herself. Stefani was drawn to the metaphor by a long bout of what's-it-all-about, got-to-get-it-together depression that she experienced after she became a star just before turning 30. "I was very excited that I found a title for my disease," Stefani says with a laugh. "It's sick, but it's true." The cover is a sensational collage by the artist LaChappelle, filled with elements—tubes of lipstick, a wedding cake, a dial pack of birth control pills—that signify each of the album's 14 songs, which have titles like "Magic's in the Makeup," "Marry Me," "Six Feet Under" and the first breakout single, already a hit, "Ex-Girlfriend."
"Not to say we're any better than anybody else," says Stefani, "but Tragic Kingdom was all about being an Orange County band—you know, like, screw LA and screw everything else. 'Cause, you know, that's what we were. And we were describing it. But . . . I don't know how to talk about this. . . . I don't think about it too much . . . but we got to go from being kinda like the Orange County garage band to being in India and playing for thousands of people on a handmade stage. And when you realize there's so much more out there—other places, other people, other cultures—well, your eyes get opened."
On most mornings during the past two years, Stefani's eyes have opened in her multimillion-dollar home of gray stone and iron fencing. It's a veritable palace of quaint design and quirky luxury, not unlike the Sleeping Beauty castle, with a modern security system subbing for the drawbridge and moat. She moved in after about three years of nonstop touring in support of Tragic Kingdom—and, factoring in No Doubt's incessant clubbing before that, some 11 years of near-constant performing. The elegant estate is situated in a quiet neighborhood full of them, on a hillside about equidistant between the Greek Theater in grand old Griffith Park and the Figaro Café, the new coffeehouse and bakery in the gentrified funkiness of Los Feliz.