By Alex Distefano
By Daniel Kohn
By Aimee Murillo
By Nick Schou
By Nate Jackson
By Nate Jackson
By Dave Lieberman
By Daniel Kohn
Then, while catching her breath and making a little small talk after about 20 minutes of unrestrained emotion, Stefani suddenly asked the audience a remarkable, revelatory question: "Do you mind if we play new songs for you? We've been gone for a year and a half, trying to make a really good record for you. If we play a couple more of them, would you mind very much?"
The crowd gushed its okay.
A few months later, when Stefani is reminded of this—the night the star asked the audience for permission to perform—she responds with an embarrassed squeal. "I guess I didn't really think of how that sounded," she says. But as she mulls it over, Stefani concludes she is comfortable with her request. "I just know that as a fan, I like to hear the songs I like to hear, and sometimes it can be disappointing to hear new songs. Sometimes it can be exciting, but at the same time, it always takes a while. I felt real excited about my new songs, but I didn't want to force them on anybody, you know what I mean?"
And, come to think of it, we might.
So, how does it feel to live a dream?
Stefani twists her face into something approaching disgust when presented with the question.
"How weird!" she scoffs. "Because it wasn't even a dream."
Sensing her answer didn't take, she looks to Kanal for backup.
"We were too conservative, too cautious, to even expect it," he affirms.
"To even dream it," Stefani chips in. "At this level? No way!"
Her vehemence begins to ignite Kanal's laughter.
"He's laughing because it's a joke!" Stefani says, starting to break up a bit herself. "I mean, we fooled everyone."
As an example, Stefani cites the success of "Ex-Girlfriend," the lead song from Return of Saturn, which raced straight into heavy rotation when it was released to radio on Jan. 19.
"That was the very last song we wrote for this record, totally last minute, after we thought we were done, because somebody thought we needed one more upbeat song," says Stefani, who acknowledges with irony that the song is an autobiographical account of a rough spot in her bumpy relationship with her longtime boyfriend, Gavin Rossdale of Bush. "And it ends up being the first single."
And suddenly the distinction she's making becomes clearer: it's not that No Doubt hasn't worked incredibly hard for its success, but that the band has never known exactly which work—if any—was going to be rewarded.
"We're not rock stars," Stefani says. "The thing that happened to us is we were in this band with our friends and we made this record. It was something we couldn't help doing—being friends, making this record—because it was a passion. And thank God this step, this big success, didn't come for nine years, whatever the reason. It's kept our feet on the ground in a lot of ways. We know how easy it can come and how easy it can go."
Of course, that's life. But coming to the realization that the highs and lows of our existence aren't necessarily tied to a formula of cause and effect was unsettling for Stefani when she found herself at the top. She sank into a suffocating depression.
"I definitely needed some oxygen the past couple of years," Stefani says weakly. "It's been a hard time for me, on a personal note. I don't know if it was just the timing of my life or the comedown after the tour or the fact that none of this matches what I grew up expecting to be. I assumed I'd be married with children by now. I'm not, and there are no immediate plans for that because I'm committed to this band right now, so it definitely was confusing, you know? Like, which Gwen is the real Gwen? Why is suddenly everything that I thought was going to be my life now becoming the complicated things in my life? How did I get to this point?"
Stefani laughs self-consciously.
"But I feel so much lighter now. I think it was a transitional phase. I feel I've kind of come out the other side, thank God," she continues. "Because I never really was the depressive type. I was always more like the happy-go-lucky and passive type, where everything kind of bounced off me. And when I got depressed, I got scared that this was going to be me—like, I finally grew up, and this is who I am now! Oh, no! But I don't feel like that anymore."
With recording finally wrapped up on Return of Saturn, preparations are underway to promote the album. The band just finished 10 days of interviews with the international media. The first tour, a three-week swing through 10 U.S. cities, begins March 24 in Chicago and visits the Universal Amphitheater on April 14. And as she lingers a few weeks between accomplishment and anticipation, Stefani says she is happy.
"This time is a magic time because the record hasn't come out yet, but we have fulfilled our goal of finishing it and everybody feels so proud of what we did," she says. "We don't know what could happen. Like, it could fail or it could do well or people could just slice it up or they could love it. So this is our time right now to just go, 'Wow!' You know what I mean?"