By Alex Distefano
By Daniel Kohn
By Aimee Murillo
By Nick Schou
By Nate Jackson
By Nate Jackson
By Dave Lieberman
By Daniel Kohn
On this morning, Stefani is sitting demurely against the arm of an antique couch that is situated in the center of a dark parlor located just off a high-ceilinged foyer that feels so medieval it ought to be lit with torches. She's wearing white wedgie shoes, tight blue jeans, and a loose and shoulder-baring blue-cotton blouse. Her hair is pulled back into a pink ponytail. Her makeup is perfect. "I got out of the bathtub 15 minutes ago," she says, chuckling, "so I think I did all right." She looks pretty. Tony Kanal, her long-ago beau and still the No Doubt bassist, is at her side, sniffling through a bout with the flu. Next room over, her sister and her publicist are laughing in the kitchen. Out back, some guys have just shown up to clean the pool.
"We were so fulfilled coming off that world tour," Stefani recalls, steering the conversation back toward the subject kind of wistfully. She is squinting out the window into the glaring gray of a barely overcast morning, which lights the burgundy-toned room like a TV with the sound down. It's a strangely meditative ambiance, lush and gloomy and campy all at once, and it seems to involuntarily channel brighter memories. "I remember a show in Spain, far into the tour, where we were at this low point with all of us just not getting along," Stefani says, getting more energetic, "and we played for just the most fantastic, passionate crowd you could ever hope for, full of little girls dressed up like me, where all these Spanish-speaking people knew every word to every one of our songs. It was like this big slap in the face, like 'Oh, my God! We've affected some people around the world!' It makes you have this totally grateful and rewarding feeling."
Stefani pauses for a moment, and when she resumes, she's speaking quietly again. "We've gotten to be so many things," she says, smiling warmly, talking almost absently. "You know what I mean?"
And, of course, we don't.
The swollen, burning, trademarked sacred heart that dominates the décor at the House of Blues was a pretty apt symbol for the vulnerability that No Doubt was feeling when the group bounded onstage at the sweaty Sunset Strip club—packed shoulder-to-shoulder and chest-to-back—for a hastily arranged show on Oct. 6, 1999. Their new album was very late, and the concert was part of a minitour of small West Coast venues that marked the end of an 18-month performing hiatus.
"It was very difficult to go out there after such a long time," recalls Stefani. "I looked out at the crowd and thought, 'What am I doing here?'"
Questions about No Doubt's pace and direction had been swirling for a while. For the first time in a career that spanned 14 years and three albums, millions of people were anxiously awaiting the band's new music. And waiting and waiting. Meanwhile, there were rumors that work on the CD wasn't going well. Hoping to facilitate the creative process, the band had been practically living together in a rented home in the Hollywood Hills and according to various reports had composed between 30 and 50 songs. Nonetheless, they had mowed through more than a half-dozen release dates, three big-name producers and at least two album titles. And the essence of the project was still unclear.
"It was really hard for us, a time when we had to prove to ourselves that we could sort of grow up as songwriters —that we could really improve our craft," Stefani recalls. "Because it's not like, 'Uh, excuse me, I'm going to go write a song.' Especially for me and Tony because it's harder for me to write on bass than with chords, where it's a little more apparent what melody to pick. It got intense. Tony would be like, 'Come on, Gwen! Come on! Come on!' And I'm practically crying, 'I don't know! Nothing's coming out! I'm crap! Everything's crap!'"
Stefani shakes her head and then smiles. "And the next thing you know, we wrote 'Six Feet Under.'" She turns to Kanal, who is sitting quietly next to her on the couch, and rouses him from his flu-medication funk. "Remember when we wrote that? It was just a nightmare! And then it ended up being a pretty cool song."
Kanal stirs to life as he remembers that instance—and more. "We would go into the studio, record a bunch of stuff, then kind of look at ourselves after the whole recording situation and say, 'Damn, this is just not ready yet.' We need to go back and write more songs,'" Kanal says. "We discovered we needed to have an abundance of songs to pick from. Every time we thought we were done, we would listen to the music we just recorded and say, 'You know what? We need maybe one more song.'"
Sometimes it wasn't only members of the band who were saying it. The record company apparently rejected a few versions of the album that the band considered complete. Meanwhile, people in the industry were speculating about what the long downtime might do to No Doubt's marketability, wondering whether the band's fan base might disintegrate.