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.
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.
"Bottom line, the effect of long gaps between releases is usually bad," says Tess Taylor of the National Association of Record Industry Professionals. "Obviously, you want quality control—you don't want to be throwing a new album into the market every six months. But anything in excess of two or three years, given how consumer tastes change, is not good. How can it be good? There were 30,000 albums released in the U.S. last year; that's a lot of other bands competing for the same consumer dollars."
But the flip side of consumer loyalty is quality musical productivity. Big-name acts these days don't exactly keep the kind of pace set by the Beatles, who released five albums during their breakthrough year of 1964. Clearly, it's a different business now—for the artists, for the record company and for the fans.
Pete Howard, publisher and editor of the respected CD-preview magazine Ice, generalizes that there is typically a two-year window of opportunity.
"About a year after a hit album, the window opens," he says. "After about three years, it's getting pretty closed again."
It will be nearly five years between releases for No Doubt if Return of Saturn really does land in record stores on April 11.
"They're at the outer edge," Howard says. "There'll always be a certain segment of the music audience waiting for their next effort, but with each succeeding year, the initial impact has less carry-over. Because of Gwen Stefani's star power—and the fact that she's stayed in the public eye—there is probably a perception that No Doubt has been more active than it has. I would think they are a shoo-in for 2 million. It would have to be a pretty bad record not to."
No Doubt insists that outside pressure, whether artistic or commercial, did not play a major role in the process of creating its new album.
"I would say we had a couple of, um, false starts," says Kanal, putting a delicately diplomatic spin on the band's split with Tragic Kingdom producer Matthew Wilder after seven tracks had been completed and the sudden arrival and departure of Michael Beinhorn, who has produced big-selling albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Hole and Marilyn Manson. One song from their work with Jerry Harrison, formerly of the Talking Heads, eventually made it to the new album. But the sessions didn't become truly productive until Alanis Morissette's producer, Glen Ballard, finally came onboard. Kanal says, "When Glen came into the project, with all his knowledge of producing and arranging, he said, 'Let's pick out the best songs and focus on those.' Together, we took those songs to the next level."
At this level, say Kanal and Stefani, they won't judge the success of the music they have made strictly by units sold, even if the music business does.
"Those are unrealistic expectations, and you do your best to keep them as far away from you as possible," says Kanal. "If our previous success afforded us anything, it was the means to make a record the way we wanted to make it—the financial means and also the opportunity to keep the record company at a distance so we could really be creative for two years. That was important. We've never had that kind of chance before."
Whatever the stresses of this process, says Stefani, they pale in comparison to the days when No Doubt had to squeeze writing and recording and performing amid the responsibilities of school and work and the looming possibility that being a band might someday become impossible. "We used to feel so guilty for putting so much time into the band—like, okay, it's already been nine years, you know?" she says with a laugh, and saying the number aloud seems to amaze her a little. "It was definitely a what-am-I-going-to-be-when-I-grow-up kind of thing. And the success of Tragic Kingdom allowed us to kind of not grow up—or to grow up as songwriters. We didn't have to think, 'Shoot, after I write that song, I better go study so I can make sure I have a future.' It was kinda rad that way."
But while they were confronting the challenges of becoming better songwriters, singers and musicians, weren't the masses of expectant fans lingering somewhere in the backs of their minds?
"No, they weren't—sorry about that," says Stefani, shrugging apologetically. "Kind of in a selfish way, no, we weren't thinking about them."
"We're not really talented enough to manufacture something that would make other people happy," says Kanal. "Whatever comes out, comes out—and then you just hope people relate to it."
No Doubt brought exactly that kind of full-speed-ahead surrender to its comeback show at the House of Blues. Stefani careened onstage like an acid-laced vision of Marilyn Monroe, her neon hair blown up into a helium bouffant, her aerobics-class kicks thrusting from beneath a slitted overcoat trimmed and cuffed in tacky fuzz. Behind her, the pogoing band did their green-and-orange jump suits proud. The crowd, roaring with approval, bounced right along. When Stefani launched into the opening vocals of a song so brand-new it is called "New," the crowd went even wilder. As if to compare responses between new and old, Stefani next fell back on "Sunday Morning" from Tragic Kingdom and followed up by taking another fresh number, "Bathwater," out for a spin.
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?"