Few pop hit makers are hotter these days than Linda Perry, songwriter and producer to the stars, or Pharrell Williams, of N.E.R.D. and the Neptunes. A musician -- especially one making a debut of sorts -- would have to be nuts, or stupid, to turn down contributions either might offer.
Yet as Gwen Stefani put together her first album apart from No Doubt, the alternative-rock band she has fronted for 17 years, she had a vision of the record she’d long wanted to make, and wasn’t about to budge. Not even for the small army of pop and hip-hop luminaries she’d assembled from a fantasy list of collaborators.
Jittery as she was about venturing out of the cozy cocoon of her band, with whom she’s written songs, recorded, toured and lived for half of her life, she was determined that if what she heard from her high-profile new musical partners didn’t match the sound in her head -- ‘80s dance music with a contemporary spin -- it was history.
With great anticipation, the woman her manager refers to as “the chief executive of Gwen” got together with Williams, a two-time Grammy-winning musician and producer. But the first songs they came up with “didn’t have that sparkle,” she says. “It was kind of a disappointment.”
Perry, who has written hits for and with Pink, Courtney Love and Christina Aguilera, didn’t even make Stefani’s list of people she yearned to work with on “Love.Angel.Music.Baby,” due Nov. 23.
“She had come up to me at the Grammys saying, ‘We’ve got to write a song together,’ ” says Stefani, putting her feet up after hours of strenuous posing for a magazine cover. “I’m thinking, ‘You’re not Prince, and you’re not [‘80s and ‘90s heavyweight producers] Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. How are you going to give me my dance record?’ ”
Not until Perry showed up the morning after their first meeting, having worked all night on a track that became the hook for the album’s first single, “What U Waiting 4,” did Stefani realize she’d been selling Perry short. “She didn’t even say anything -- she just pushed ‘Play’ and it went ‘What you waiting ... what you waiting ... what you waiting for?’ It was like she was challenging me.”
On paper, Stefani’s directness can sound like the height of hubris, but face to face it’s clear that ego is the last thing driving the new phase of her career, which in the past two years has seen her launch her L.A.M.B. fashion line, formalizing her status as a font of street-smart couture; embark on her solo career; and land her first big-screen role, as Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming film about Howard Hughes, “The Aviator.”
If that weren’t enough, she and No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young assembled a greatest-hits album, another of rarities, then knocked out a whirlwind tour behind the hits collection.
She also married longtime boyfriend Gavin Rossdale, singer for the British band Bush. Oh, and she just turned 35, a critical number for any woman who, like Stefani, wants children.
“I just kept feeling like the time clock was really loud in my ears,” says the platinum blond singer-songwriter, who has evolved from reluctant rock singer to trend-setting pop-culture beacon.
In fact, the sound of a ticking clock opens “What U Waiting 4,” the new album’s first single.
Once again, Stefani channeled her feelings into music, as she has done from No Doubt’s breakthrough 1996 hit “Don’t Speak,” inspired by her breakup with then-boyfriend Kanal, to the confessional 2000 pop ballad “Simple Kind of Life,” another top 40 single.
“I had this feeling that, shoot, I’ve been doing No Doubt for half my life....I need to try something different for a second. I felt like I really want to do a film, and I really want to do a dance record, and I really want to have a baby before I die ... because I’m going to run out of time.
“That was the motivation,” she says, the clarifying filter. “Time.”
‘The real glamorous girl next door’
Time, in fact, is one of the keys to Stefani’s position as one of the rare females fronting a commercially successful rock band, a woman who has inspired at least as many “Gwennabes” as Madonna sparked “Madonna-bes” in her heyday.
“I was 26 before I got on the radio” with a hit, she says. “I think it was great coming to success gradually,” she adds with an easy laugh. “I feel lucky about that.”
The afternoon is waning after a photo shoot in West Los Angeles that took up much of the day. She’s traded the exotic ensembles for a humble zippered gray sweatshirt, a pair of well-lived-in blue jeans and canvas deck shoes. Her hair, swept up for photos into a sort of Buck Rogers sci-fi-of-the-'30s do, has been hastily combed out and is gathered loosely at the nape of her neck, tied off in a green bandanna that perfectly matches her shoes.
Gwen Stefani, Fashion Model gets to punch out; Gwen Stefani, Fashion Maven never does.
“She’s as glamorous as Madonna ever was, for sure,” says Rose Apodaca Jones, West Coast bureau chief for Women’s Wear Daily. “With Madonna, she was like a god you couldn’t touch, but Gwen has always seemed like somebody you could sit down with and have a drink.”
More than that, she offered a new model of the pop sex symbol: the street-wise good girl. As alluring as Madonna but more wholesome, Stefani demonstrated that a woman could go head to head with the men who usually surround them in executive suites, on stage and in the recording studio without selling her soul, or body, to get there. She personifies the DIY credo of the punk-rock scene that spawned No Doubt, but she substituted a traditional American ethic of enthusiastic hard work and fair play for old-school punk’s “no future” attitude.
And she carries a paid-my-dues resume largely missing from instant stars of the “American Idol” age and artistic sensibility lacking in the Britney Spears and Christina Aguileras of the pop world.
“The reason she resonates so much with a wider audience has a lot to do with her personality,” says Jones. “She does put out style statements that at the outset aren’t exactly mainstream. She made Rasta chic and took it from the domain of hippies and reggae fans and put it in high heels and lip gloss.... And she does it with such a self-effacing, almost humorous approach, she’s like the girl next door, except she’s the real glamorous girl next door.”
When Stefani wanted a distinctive onstage look, her modus operandi went hand in glove with the direction fashion took in the ‘80s and ‘90s, becoming edgier and incorporating elements of underground culture also born of the punk-rock revolution.
She rooted through thrift shops and stitched together her own signature outfits, and even after she could afford to go haute couture, she worked side by side with designers such as Christian Dior’s John Galliano to create new looks, rather than simply placing orders for them.
Stefani may look the part of the ditzy blond sex bomb, but she’s no one’s marionette.
“Whenever you see a female in front of a band or a group, it’s assumed she’s there for eye candy and the band is doing all the work,” says OutKast’s Andre 3000, another of her newfound songwriting partners. “Working with her in the studio, I could tell ... she’s a writer. I was really amazed by her crazy harmonies. I learned so much from her.”
“She has no barriers,” says manager Jim Guerinot, a veteran concert and record company executive turned talent manager and hired by No Doubt in 1998. He came aboard after the band’s 27-month trek around the world and back as 1995’s “Tragic Kingdom” album turned into one of the top sellers of the decade.
“You’re getting the authentic person in every aspect,” he says. “She is so candid about her life. There are things I’ve read in interviews where I go back and say, ‘You’re really leaving yourself exposed.’ Most people aren’t that honest.”
The style she was after
Stefani exudes enthusiasm about “Love.Angel.Music.Baby.” But little hype. The main goal of doing a solo project, she says, was “just to be open” to other creative voices. She gave “strict instructions” to her collaborators about the style she was after -- “early Madonna tracks, early Depeche Mode and Cure ... stuff that was the backdrop to my life when I was in high school” -- but also struggled to check her ego at the studio door.
“It’s really intimidating,” she says. “Everybody I was working with was from outside my world. Like Dr. Dre -- like who said I could work with him? ... You’ve got the whole fan thing going, and then you’ve got your own insecurities.”
Those surfaced when she had trouble getting the sound she wanted. “It’s one thing to be around the friends you’ve known for 17 years and go, ‘You know what? It’s not coming today -- let’s go eat,’ and nobody judges you,” she says. “But to be in a room with all these hotshots is limiting. I was basically drowning in the talent of all these people, and my ego didn’t like it too much.”
Rock critics have rarely shown the enthusiasm for No Doubt that the public has, sometimes chiding Stefani for a thin, Madonna-meets-Betty Boop vocal style or knocking the band for incorporating so many influences that its identity can seem elusive. Still, Rolling Stone gave “Return of Saturn” a four-star (out of five) review, and ranked “Rock Steady” only slightly lower, at 3 1/2 stars.
What caught the attention of record industry bigwig Jimmy Iovine early on was the band’s energy and Stefani’s mix of vulnerability and confidence -- qualities that set No Doubt visually and sonically apart from the male-only bands then dominating the alt-rock scene. In 1991 he signed No Doubt as one of the first acts on his new Interscope Records label.
“She’s a very solid human being,” says Iovine. “It doesn’t matter how much money you wave in front of her -- the only reason she’ll do something is for the quality and the integrity of it. And when somebody is only interested in the quality and integrity of what they do, the money always comes.”
Come it has.
No Doubt has sold nearly 15 million albums in the U.S. since its debut, “No Doubt,” appeared in 1992, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and retailers expect her solo album to be one of the big hits of the year-end album sales race.
Sales of her L.A.M.B. apparel, handbags and accessories are expected to reach $50 million in 2005, according to her management, and she’s at work on her fall 2005 line.
Projects in her bloodline
Stefani’s move into the world of high style is more than a savvy way to diversify her portfolio and capitalize on a fashion sense that has inspired legions of girls and designers to follow her lead.
“My great-grandma would start sewing every New Year’s Day, which was her birthday,” Stefani says. “So everybody in the family would start making pajamas and quilts [for the next Christmas]. She sewed passionately.
“My grandma sewed all my mom’s clothes,” she says. “My mom sewed all of our clothes. For every event that would come up, it would be down to the fabric store. We’d look through the books: Butterick, Simplicity, McCall’s, the whole thing, the buttons, the ticking, the fabrics. With my family there were always all these projects.”
Her father played guitar around their suburban Anaheim home and shot most of No Doubt’s early publicity photos. Her older brother, Eric, a founding member of No Doubt, played keyboards and wrote most of the songs until he left the band just after they’d recorded “Tragic Kingdom.”
“Eric was in some ways the dad, the teacher,” Gwen told The Times in 1996. “He taught me everything I know. It wasn’t a surprise [when he left]. For me, it was terrible, but it opened a lot of creative space for the rest of us.”
The band’s great leap forward was a song Eric had started as a caustic kiss-off to a former lover. Gwen turned it into a first-person reflection over the end of a romance that topped Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart for 16 weeks in 1996.
Family remains the foundation both of who Stefani is and who she still yearns to be. “I’m sure if I went into psychotherapy I could find out something bad about myself,” she says, “but when I really look back, I know how I got as focused as I am now: My parents were totally focused on and committed to us.”
“Focused” and “grounded” are terms Gwen-watchers like to bandy about, attributes that came out on a recent trip to Tokyo to promote “Love.Angel.Music.Baby.” On the morning she was to appear on Japanese television, a 6.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the hotel where she, Rossdale and other members of her party were staying. Stefani barely batted a brown eye.
“We were literally rattled, but not really scared,” she said by phone barely an hour later. “The last time [No Doubt toured Japan] we had a huge one as well.... The buildings here are all on rollers, they’re so incredibly engineered. I wasn’t panicking, I was just thinking, ‘This is so weird how the earth can move.’ ”
Careers too. Stefani has always rolled with hers, rather than collapsing. She became the focal point of No Doubt only after the 1987 suicide of John Spence, with whom she’d shared singing duties in the early days. Despite the cachet of signing with Interscope, their debut album couldn’t crack Billboard’s Top 200 Albums listing. Their first follow-up was rejected by label officials.
Her role in the band suddenly shifted again when Eric left, leaving her as the group’s main songwriter as well as its singer.
Challenging as the lean years were, more stress came with success. Two years touring with “Tragic Kingdom” left No Doubt near burnout. It also saw much of the world going ga-ga for Gwen.
“When it first happened, and we started seeing the different levels of attention focused on different people in the band, it was tough,” Kanal says. “I think it would have damaged lesser relationships, but we already had eight years of struggling, playing in the garage and developing as a true band.
It took 2 1/2 years to follow “Tragic Kingdom” with “Return of Saturn,” and Stefani struggled to find her muse. The group shifted producers, and when it was over, all were ready for a break. Yet they quickly jumped into the “Rock Steady” album, for which the group members reached out to other artists instead of continuing as a self-contained unit, the upshot, says Guerinot, of a hard-won realization: “Continue on a path of resistance, or recognize that the more light that falls on the singer of our band, the more light falls on us.”
Issues that come with celebrity
These days Stefani’s priorities are writ large over her life. L.A.M.B., her clothing line’s name, is an acronym for her mantra, of sorts, the words in her new album’s title: Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Having addressed at least the first and third items on that list, she’ll likely turn to the last.
“To the degree that there’s an ‘if’ about the future of No Doubt,” Guerinot says, “it’s the unknown of having children.... When you don’t know what having kids means because you haven’t done it, you really have no idea what impact it may have on your professional future.”
Last month, when news broke that Rossdale had fathered a 16-year-old girl who knew him as her godfather, Stefani said, “Obviously this is something that happened long before we knew each other.”
The tabloids reported it as a bombshell dropped into their lives. In reality, Stefani knew of Rossdale’s relationship with the girl’s mother when they were younger and that he consented to a DNA test to establish paternity.
To Stefani, such issues that come with celeb- rity are just part of the ongoing process of keep- ing her attention and energy on what truly matters.
“It’s only upsetting when they try to pigeonhole who you are,” she says. “I know what’s real and what’s not real. I don’t really have a lot to hide. Sometimes I feel good, sometimes I feel bad and I’m not scared to say how I feel.
“I’m enjoying the ride. I know it’s not going to last forever,” she says. “I see myself in a magazine and think ‘I really am that girl.’ I couldn’t imagine any other life.”