It’s almost been 26 years since Gwen Stefani conquered the industry as part of No Doubt with their acclaimed third studio album, Tragic Kingdom, which subsequently became one of the biggest-selling albums in history. Since then, the icon has cemented her place as one of the most influential acts in pop with a string of timeless anthems such as Let Me Blow Ya Mind (with Eve), What You Waiting For?, Rich Girl, Cool, The Sweet Escape and Hollaback Girl; the latter of which historically became the first single to top one million digital downloads.
Despite her continued success (she just scored two country number ones in the US and won the latest season of The Voice), Gwen is using her new era to remind audiences that she’s still here, and she’s the same old rocker who dominated the radio with 1995’s feminist anthem, Just a Girl. With her infectious new single, Let Me Reintroduce Myself, the Grammy-winner pays homage to her ska roots and playfully toys with the notion of a comeback. Just FYI: this isn’t a comeback. Got it?
For the latest edition of 15 Minutes with an Icon, we spoke with Gwen over Zoom about her long-awaited new era, the impact of her beloved debut solo album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby., and why she feels “honoured” for the decades-long support from the LGBTQ+ community.
Gwen Stefani! It’s bloody lovely to meet you.
It’s lovely to meet you! Where are you at?!
I’m currently in a little place called Devon in the UK. Do you know it?
Is it by the sea?
Oh phew! I was like, ‘I think I know…’ I’m so embarrassed that I don’t know more! I’ve been going to the UK forever but that part of my brain just doesn’t function as well, like… geography. I miss England so much! I really do.
You’d love it here, there’s lots of country-esque landscapes, farms and seas…
Now that I’ve gone country, I’d really love it!
I wanted to say, 'In case you forgot, I did all of this, and here's a little bit more. If you want it, then listen. If you don't, swipe left!'
How are you, the kids, Blake and – most importantly – Betty?
We’re doing pretty good! Everyone’s kind of isolating right now, and it’s kinda interesting. It really messes with your head! I think that there’s been so many blessings that have come out of this pandemic for my family. It’s a really awful thing, but whenever something awful happens, you gotta find the silver lining. It was amazing for us to pause and be together and live the simple kind of life that I always dreamed about, instead of thinking about what comes next, the calendar, or trying to swim or run so fast… I’ve always been so scared that if I stop running, then everything ends! In a pandemic, everyone else has been unable to work and we got the blessing to go on The Voice again, and that was really incredible. To be around live music after so long, and to be around all of this talent, was so great. Then, I got engaged! It was a really incredible year if you summed it up, for us. Now it’s starting to get like, ‘Let’s get on with it! I have new music and I wanna share it! I wanna breathe your air!’
Congratulations on your engagement, as well as your back-to-back country hits with Blake. Of course, you also launched your new era with Let Me Reintroduce Myself, which I’m obsessed with. But Gwen, I have to ask: why did you feel the need to reintroduce yourself? You’re an icon!
[Laughs] That’s a good question! It wasn’t really my idea to reintroduce myself. I had been working with this writer called Luke Niccoli and he goes, ‘You’ve gotta work with my mentor, Ross Golan.’ I’m a collaborator. I’ve written songs, but it’s always traumatic! I can’t just press the button and they come! So, I’m in the Zoom like, ‘Hi… I’m Gwen Stefani. Let me get naked and try to show you that I’m talented!’ I kept thinking he must be like, ‘When you’re this old, why are you even trying to attempt this? What do you even think you can do?’ This is my brain, this is the devil in my brain! Ross is so unbelievably gifted and he was the one who came back to me after the conversation like, ‘Let me reintroduce myself.’ He had this whole way of reminding me that I am still me! I still wanna do stuff and I still have stuff to offer – I’m not dead! I was also revisiting my youth. My son is 14 and he’s discovering himself through music. It reminded me of me when I first got introduced to ska music and Madness, UB40, the stuff that made me a human being. You define yourself with these songs when you’re that age. I wanted to say, ‘In case you forgot, I did all of this, and here’s a little bit more. If you want it, then listen. If you don’t, swipe left!’ I’m good with that because I get it. I don’t go out and buy my favourite artist’s new record, do I?
Honestly Gwen, your music doesn’t age. Love. Angel. Music. Baby is my favourite album of all time and…
What?! You’re lying!
I swear to you, Gwen Stefani, that I am not lying. It’s pop perfection!
Wow. I got shivers! Those words will fuel me in my next writing session, I swear. I’m literally going to memorise those words and let them fight the war of the devil that goes in my brain of insecurity!
You can still feel the impact of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. on pop music today. Looking back at that era, do you remember how you felt?
I do. It’s weird because I have been doing Zoom interviews all morning and the thing about me is I feel so lucky to have conversations like this with people like you Sam. It does help me in my personal life to examine myself. It’s therapy, because you do think back and reflect. During high school, I was really into ska. That, to me, was finding something unusual, weird, different and had this good energy. I went to school and I was the only ska girl, know what I mean? I don’t know why, but I wanted to be different. I didn’t listen to pop music. It wasn’t my thing. Knowing that No Doubt was taking a break, and knowing that there wasn’t going to be a democracy anymore, that it was going to be all me – indulge with yourself Gwen Stefani! – a lightbulb went off. As God does, he said, ‘Go make a record about pop! You weren’t into Prince when Purple Rain came out, but then you realised. You weren’t into Debbie Deb when Debbie Deb came out, but then you realised.’ Tony [Kanal] introduced me to a lot of that music and I love that music just as much. Now I’m not so immature that I can’t admit it, you know? So, I’m going to make my guilty pleasure record! That’s what Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is, and it was also time to push myself, because I had only ever written within my bubble. I didn’t know there were writers to write with. I didn’t know that world because everything that No Doubt had done was so homegrown. We made it up. It was incredibly scary to go in with Linda Perry. She had just written Beautiful for Christina Aguilera and I only knew her as 4 Non Blondes. She was on my label and I had seen her go up the elevator at Interscope. She was a big personality and she said, ‘Gwen, what you waiting for?’ I was like, ‘LIKE A CAT IN HEAT STUCK IN A MOVING CAR!’ It was always there, that record. With music, I always feel like I’m not responsible at all for any of the ideas, including this new song. If I pray, I feel like I receive it and then the real gift is being able to share it. Then, I sit with Sam and he tells me that it’s his favourite record! That’s crazy, I’m sorry! It never gets old!
Did you ever imagine during those sessions that the album would stand the test of time? Even songs that weren’t released such as The Real Thing, Serious and Danger Zone sound like they could be hits today.
Starting to trust you now that you know the titles… You probably have your computer open!
I know the track-list by heart Gwen! Don’t do me like that!
[Laughs] I love those songs so much. I don’t even think that I can understand the impact of the record now. I just know my truth and what I see. That’s one of the reasons why you tour and do live shows because nothing’s real, there’s no realness outside of my parents and Blake and my kids. That’s my real. So, when you tell me that you think that record is great, then it becomes real. When you tour and meet people before the show, like a little nine-year-old girl who’s there with her grandma that’s working my style who says, ‘My grandma showed me your song Hollaback Girl,’ you’re going, ‘What? Is this happening right now?’ It’s so hard to wrap my head around! I never thought I would have any voice in this world or any kind of impact, or even connect with anyone. I was a very passive nobody, so it’s beautiful to hear that, and thank you!
Throughout your career, the LGBTQ+ community has had your back. Looking back, when do you first remember noticing that support?
Very good question. I think about that a lot! I don’t remember a point. I remember the point when females – this is really early on – were on my side, and we were sisters as opposed to a catfight. The girls all of a sudden were my girls. They were me. Like, ‘You’re dressing like me? We’re not a threat to each other?’ I had a relationship with these girls and it was so cool. We’re talking really early, like before we toured. Tragic Kingdom was when things started to reveal itself, the broadness of the audience. Before, it was just our peers, people who were literally our age and listened to the same music. Then Don’t Speak came out and it was like, ‘Whoa, that’s an old person out there!’ The audience started to be broader and you start to notice the different kinds of people out there. To be specific to the question, I feel that love from that community and I feel honoured. Some of the people that I’ve collaborated with in my career, and some of the most talented people with the broadest view, have been in that community. This includes Danilo Dixon, who has been a long-time collaborator in my glam team, and Gregory Alt, who is a make-up artist that I’ve learned so much from. These people have literally been my team. It’s a world that, for me, we come together in the way that we view the world.
I feel that love from that community and I feel honoured. Some of the people that I've collaborated with in my career, and some of the most talented people with the broadest view, have been in that community.
I can imagine with all of your iconic looks that you’ve seen quite a lot of drag queens dressed up as you?
Yes! Adrian, our drummer, dressed in drag in the Bathwater video. He used to love dressing in drag! It makes my heart… I see it all the time online. The makeup is so cool to watch, because I’m such a makeup fanatic. If I wasn’t in music, I would’ve been in makeup, and I was! At the makeup counter, I was the fakest makeup artist – no one taught me anything! I was just there. It’s honestly beautiful to me, to see versions of me through them. What they see in me and the parts of me that are important to them is so inspiring to see.
This new era is all about nostalgia and looking back at your incredible career. So, I’m gonna throw a tough one your way: what would you say is your proudest achievement to date?
I feel proud to have had longevity. I look at all of the people that were so important at a moment in time that have just disappeared. They’re invisible now and you’re like, ‘Where did they go?’ I feel so blessed to have had two number one country songs last year with Blake, to be able to ride his amazing coattails for a second, bounce into another genre and be inspired and welcomed by that community. I can’t believe I keep getting these opportunities. It makes no sense! I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that I pray so hard that God just uses me to do whatever I’m supposed to do in this life. I completely surrender myself to my purpose and I’m trying to find that and exercise whatever that gift is. I’m not good at most things, but there’s a few things I guess I’m good at! So, I’m just gonna focus on trying to contribute. The one thing I’m proud of is recognising that at this point in my life. It took a long time to. I always thought it would be conceited to say that, but it’s not. You’re born you, and whatever you are good at – it doesn’t matter what it is – it’s recognising it, having confidence and producing whatever that is supposed to be.
That was beaut, thanks Gwen. Honestly, I can’t wait for this new album!
I hope I don’t disappoint you!
Let Me Reintroduce Myself is now available on iTunes and streaming services – watch the video here or below.