We’ve Got A File On You: Gwen Stefani

Jamie Nelson

We’ve Got A File On You: Gwen Stefani

Jamie Nelson

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Gwen Stefani has been an icon for a long time. From No Doubt’s early ska days to their big hits in the second half of the ’90s to her solo pop crossover in the ’00s, Stefani soundtracked a whole lot of different eras, and always seemed to have a creative outfit along the way. After a little more than two decades building her name in music and fashion, she became famous in a whole other way: As a coach on The Voice, Stefani became completely ubiquitous TV-household-name famous, a level of celebrity even beyond pop stardom. She didn’t stop making music during that time — her post-divorce/new love album This Is What The Truth Feels Like dropped in 2016, and she made a Christmas album the following year — but her recording career began to feel almost secondary. Through much of the ’10s, people got to know Gwen Stefani as a TV personality on a show families gathered to watch together across America. That’s a whole different kind of icon.

Now, she’s entering a new era. Starting with the pointedly but playfully titled “Let Me Reintroduce Myself” back in December, Stefani’s been gearing up for a new album — one that’s going to be all about her returning to music, and what her sound is now, and how that interacts with her legacy and her longtime fans. Yesterday, she shared another new single called “Slow Clap.” It’s an infectious one, and it’ll get stuck in your head very easily.

On the occasion of her new single, we caught up with Stefani, calling over Zoom from her home in California. She offered some more details about her headspace and ambitions going into this new album, but we also managed to talk about some of the many, many endeavors that have filled Stefani’s career — from high-profile collabs, to forays into acting, to how The Voice changed her, and more.

“Slow Clap” (2021)

GWEN STEFANI: I guess to talk about this song I have to talk about writing for this record, because I wasn’t planning to. When you get to be my age and have this wake of work behind you and you are a mother to three boys and you’re in a pandemic…

You know, the last record I did was a Christmas record, which was probably one of my favorite records I’ve ever done. Writing Christmas music, there was something so freeing to it. You’re writing for a period of time that’s hopefully going to be the memories to people’s families growing up. It’s a different thing, and I really enjoyed it. This record, it was like, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to do a record.” And why would I? If I did, what kind of music would I do? I’ve had so many genres I’ve bounced in and out of — I just had two country hits with a country guy, what the hell am I doing these days? I was all over the map. I was feeling a lot of insecurities about it to be honest. I don’t go and buy the new record of the band I liked in high school. I don’t. I listen to the one I liked in high school. So why would someone want to buy a new Gwen Stefani album? That’s just how I was feeling. But at the same time, I had written one song, and if it’s good you know it’s good. It’s addictive, you want to share it. By just doing that one session — right before the pandemic — I thought I needed to do some more songs.

I had this idea I would go back and do reggae music again because I was thinking so much about it. My son is 14 and he’s discovering it. I remember that age where you’re like, “I’m into ska, that’s who I am, I’m not like everyone else at this high school.” Once I told the people I was starting to collaborate with that that was the direction, it was sort of a wildfire. Everyone was so into it. The songs were coming out so easily. For me one of the worst things ever is trying to be vulnerable. Like, I don’t know how to write songs. I don’t know how I’ve ever written one song. And now I’m going to go in with someone I don’t know — in a Zoom — and I’m gonna be like, “My kid’s in the next room,” and I’m going to try and write a song in the next three hours? It’s scary. But that’s how it started.

I had just written “Let Me Reintroduce Myself” with this writer, Luke Niccoli, and he said I should work with his mentor Ross Golan. One of my favorite things about my success is getting to meet people like him, who are so talented. When we were going in to write the second song, I was in Oklahoma. I was going to meet with the label, which is always really fun. [Laughs] I’ve been with them for so long, but so long that nobody I got signed to is there anymore. It’s just all these people like, who are all these people. I was feeling like, “Oh no, we have to have this Zoom with Gwen Stefani now and we have to indulge her even though we know nobody cares.” But to my surprise they were very loving and supportive and kind of clapped me back, like, “We love this song, let’s see what else you got.”

The intention of this whole album was to write music that was nostalgic to the people who actually did follow me all these years, that they could listen to it and it’d be new but it’d be familiar. I thought about them. If they didn’t listen to it, why else would I do it? So I’m doing it for them, too, you know what I mean? But yeah, I feel like that song is fun, uptempo, not serious but it has serious things in it. It’s all about saying, “Are you rooting for me like I’m rooting for you?” I’m really happy I got to write this song with Ross. The fact that the label wants to put out such a weird song, I’m clapping for them. [Laughs]

Before you got to that idea of making something longtime fans would connect to in that nostalgic way, you were saying there was a moment of “What would a new Gwen Stefani album even sound like?” Obviously you’ve spent all these years on The Voice, and in different eras you’ve engaged with different pop sounds of their time. Did you ever think about how you could put your spin on any contemporary trends?

STEFANI: For sure. We went really far into that actually. When I first started thinking about doing music, it was right around the time the riots were happening. When I discovered ska music, in the late ’70s it was all about unity and anti-racism, good skinheads and bad skinheads. We thought at 17, 18 — not that we were going to save the world, but we were kids, we didn’t know — but we were trying to imitate this other generation and they were so vocal about their message. We heard that.

I started investigating all these different documentaries about ska. It was a full circle moment for me, and I thought that ska and reggae music is a place where you can have fun. No matter where you go in the world they’ll play reggae. You can be spiritual and emotional and political all in this genre. It just felt like the right place for me to be. All these ideas… it reveals itself. In eight weeks, I think we wrote most of the record. Twenty-five songs or something.

Guesting On Dua Lipa’s Club Nostalgia Mark Ronson Remix Of “Physical” (2020)

I’m curious about how this came about, but I’m also curious based on how you’re talking about going into the new album: Dua Lipa is of this new generation. Are there other younger pop stars you look at and get inspired by?

STEFANI: That’s a good question. I’m at a really weird place in my life because of the different roles that I play. We all play different roles through our lifetime. You get to a place where you’re sort of out of touch a bit because… you are a mom, and you’re on a TV show, and you’re not touring, and you’re older. To have Dua Lipa even know who I am and want me to be a part of that was super flattering. When she asked me it was during that summer when that big song was out that the whole world was listening to — including Blake Shelton! Dancing around the backyard. We were all listening to that song. So it was really exciting, and it’s always flattering when someone wants to work with you. She’s such a good singer. It’s super rare — I’m just going to be honest — that I’m impressed by somebody. I can’t help it. I’m stuck up, and I like what I like. At the same time, on something like The Voice, people come through with this talent where you’re like, “Why did anyone even let me be onstage? How is it fair I have any success, I am so not talented compared to these people.”

I feel like I’m learning indie music through my son. He already went through “I’m into Green Day,” and I was like, “I toured with all those bands.” It was weird to see him discover music, and they discover it in such a different way now. You start to feel like that old “back in my day” person. We didn’t have access to people we liked. We didn’t have conversations with Prince. I mean, I did. [Laughs] But the people we loved were untouchable. Now you can write to these bands and have this different access.

To answer your question, the record I bought that would be the newest, youngest person, would be a Post Malone record. I listen to all of his records. Then it feels weird because it’s like, “OK, wait, I’m his mom.” I’m not ashamed of my age — you know, I hate getting older. But we’re all in the same boat and we all have to go through these feelings. I’m just trying to be real about this. You get to a certain point where you’re judging because you already lived through this, like, “OK, you’re doing that.” It’s like they’re your kids, so you see the flaws, you know what I’m saying?

Prince’s “So Far, So Pleased” (1999)

It’s funny you mentioned Prince — this was one of your earlier collaborations. In this late ’90s/early ’00s moment, you were starting to appear on tracks with other people more, and then, boom, it’s Prince.

STEFANI: There’s nothing better. As far as blow-your-mind talent. He’s not even human.

So I’ve heard. When Prince passed, people had so many bizarre and hilarious, or surprisingly heart-warming, stories about him. Do you have a particular memory you return to?

STEFANI: I was in London. They said, “The Arist…” The Artist. At that time you didn’t say Prince. “The Artist wants to speak with you.” Basically, Tony [Kanal] — my best friend at the time, my former boyfriend, my bandmate — worshipped him. That was his guy. The fact that Prince would even know who I am and would want to speak with me was terrifying and crazy. In high school I was ska, I wasn’t a huge Prince fan. It wasn’t until afterwards that I rediscovered all the dance music and popular music that was happening in the backdrop of my life. But yeah, he called me on the phone. His voice was exactly Prince. He was very quiet. “I want to talk to you, I want you to be on my song, ‘So Far, So Pleased.'” It was like a deal: “In return I’ll help you with your song.”

We had this song we’d been working on called “Waiting Room.” The way that No Doubt would write is I would write it and they’d have the chords and we’d never get anywhere, and everything took us so long because we never knew what we were doing. Sometimes we’d just get stuck. That was during the Rock Steady album, and we were actually in a good flow in that time period, and working outside of the band — like working with Ric Ocasek or Sly & Robbie. I said [to Prince], “I have this song I can’t finish called ‘Waiting Room.'” He said to send it to him. When I landed in Minneapolis, I’m walking through the airport and his people come to get us and this guy’s like, “The Artist wants to speak to you.” He hands over his cellphone, and Prince says, “I had to rewrite your song.” I was like, “OK, great.” Just dying to hear what it was.

He literally used the lyric “waiting room” and that was it pretty much, and rewrote it. It’s on Rock Steady. But it’s so cool and it’s so masterful, and the vocal melody is so complex and out of my league. I had to listen with headphones and memorize what he was doing to record it. Being in the studio with him and having him feed you a million harmonies and be locked away in this booth. And just be terrified. He’s so nice, but he’s royalty. You just can’t wrap your head around it. It was quite an experience. I’m talking about it, but it doesn’t seem real at all that I got to know him.

Guesting On Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” With Dr. Dre Producing (2001), The Trio Reuniting For “Rich Girl” (2004)

What was it like the first time you got together with Eve and Dr. Dre?

STEFANI: I was so naive during that time period. They had reached out to me. The story goes: Eve says she asked for me to be on it, which I can’t believe. I know for sure Dre wasn’t trying to find me. We were the second band signed to Interscope Records, but Jimmy Iovine never knew what to do with me. It was way before I would consider doing a solo record, but he’d always be trying to put people together. And usually it’d be a culture clash, he always wanted to do that. He was always trying to push people, and scare people. “He said, she said,” but maybe he said, “You should put Gwen on this song.” I said yes immediately. The chorus was ridiculously perfect for me.

When I went into the studio to work with Dre, it was so intimidating. The whole time he was like, “You gotta be behind the beat, you’re ahead of the beat.” I didn’t really know what I was doing wrong. I went home and cried afterward. It was so much pressure. But I learned a lot. Ultimately, Dre has always been so kind to me. He’s such an amazing talent. Then we did get to work together again, and it was his idea to do “Rich Girl.” I was like, “That’s weird, I’m already rich. I’m not hip-hop, I can’t talk about money.”

I was on the treadmill in London. I had this idea, that I’d just talk about everything I wish would come true for me that actually did. I’d never imagine I’d have these things, because I’m just that girl from Anaheim. I showed him my first verses and he was into it. I sat with Eve and watched her write her parts. She wrote her rap right in front of me. It blew my mind. Oh — blow my mind. [Laughs] It really was a life-changing experience, because I got to bounce in a different genre. To be so accepted in such a pure way — I can’t believe it. I got to be on the BET Awards with Eve on a Dre-produced song and walk down the hallway and have Whitney Houston open the door to her dressing room and pull me in to give me a hug. Like, who does that happen to? Not me!

Well, it did.

STEFANI: It did! It did! It happened to me. Put that in the article.

SNL “Space Pants” Skit With Peter Dinklage (2016)

How did they pitch this sketch to you?

STEFANI: That was a really intense day for me. That was when my life had exploded, and there was a lot of drama. Stuff was going on that day that nobody wants to go through ever in their life, let alone then be on live TV and being pitched a space pants skit. But they were all in my dressing room making this stuff up as they went. I’m sure they had nuggets of ideas, but they were writing it, rewriting it. It seemed funny on paper, but I’m not an actress. I’m not good at ad-libbing, and I’m not good at memorizing. Sometimes for me it’s just about convincing myself I’m going to do it. The first run-through we did, I did it perfect. It’s scary. Unless you’re a performer, it’s hard to understand. But the second time was the live one, I think I messed up a little bit. What’s crazy is people know that skit. I feel like people reference it. Think about how many famous Saturday Night Live skits there are?

“Trapped In A Box” Video (1992)

This is an early video, made with almost no budget. As we were talking about your new music and you revisiting these ska documentaries, I was thinking about these earlier days.

STEFANI: That video, like you said, was completely no budget. There was a director. But I remember having the idea for the video and being very clear. That was the Beacon Street house, that was the house that my dad grew up in, and my grandparents. When they passed, my brother moved out of our house and he lived there, and I still lived with my parents. That was the band house, Adrian [Young] and Tom [Dumont] wound up living there with him. We made our own studio — like an 8-track recorder Interscope gave us. We ended up doing the video there. It was this song [my brother] Eric wrote, and it was all about TV and how it sucks you in and takes over your life.

We were just going to make use of what we had, which was this house. We invited a bunch of fans to come and be in the video. My idea was, “Oh, I’ll be walking down the hallway and everyone will be hanging out like they were out all night at a party.” They were fans, but at the time we were playing for our peers, so they were all our age. So I pointed like, “You guys are gonna make out when I come by the camera.” One funny thing is that couple ended up getting pregnant. I don’t think it was on set. They were really young. I always think about that. Was that my fault? I don’t know them anymore, but hi you guys if you read this article.

It was just really a homemade thing. I think it was clever. All the bands we love, like Madness, would talk about their culture. You’d know about Camden Town. We’d be so fascinated. We kind of did that in that video. That was our place, those were our fans, those were our outfits. We had the other scene where we were shooting inside that white room. That dress, my mom helped me make that.

Appearing On House Of Style (1996), “Let Me Reintroduce Myself” (2021)

Over the course of your career, there’s been a lot of different famous outfits, different fashion eras. I found this video where you’re on House Of Style, which I figure is one of the earlier times you were interviewed about fashion. But then your other new song, “Let Me Reintroduce Myself,” really plays with all these looks from across the years. How did fashion and music intertwine for you as your career went on?

STEFANI: I think the fashion part of it was just as important as the music for me. It was when I finally figured out, “Oh my gosh, I can write songs,” that I was actually a human being. Before that I was this passive person with zero idea what I was going to do. I didn’t have any big dreams or hopes. Lived at my parents’ until I was 26. Just naive. I think because I have dyslexia, it made me delayed in terms of wanting to venture out, even though I was going to college. I was just sort of late to the game of life, you know? When I did that House Of Style interview, you can see how young and sheltered and vulnerable I was.

All the things I did were very intuitive. My mom used to sew, her mom used to sew. Sewing was in our family. I like to be creative in that way, and I was anti-fashion. “These magazines, you can’t get these clothes, and those models are so skinny.” My mom would be like, “OK, you can get your school clothes, go to the mall.” And I’d say, “I don’t want to go to the mall, I want to go to the thrift store and I can buy way more and I don’t like those mall clothes.” If we had a No Doubt concert that came up, that meant I could get an outfit. And I’d daydream in class and I’d get in my car and go to all the thrift stores and get whatever I’d get for cheap. I was so good at being able to find what I needed to find. And it’d always be unique to me. Nobody showed me what I liked. I didn’t have a stylist. It was just a natural thing that came to me.

It’s funny when I look back at the outfits and the makeup and people are like, “Are you embarrassed by that?” I’m always like, “No, because I know exactly how that came to be.” It was pure me. The only reason it stands the test of time and people dress up like me for Halloween in those outfits is because you couldn’t think them up. They weren’t planned, it was just how I dressed every day.

“It’s My Life” Video (2003), The Aviator (2004)

In a video for the cover of “It’s My Life” you have this ’30s movie starlet thing going on. Then you actually portrayed one of them, Jean Harlow, in The Aviator.

STEFANI: These interviews are so weird, because normal people don’t just talk about their stuff all the time. You’re bringing stuff up like, “Oh my God, that happened.” The “It’s My Life” video, that was with David LaChapelle, and he had this idea that — it seemed like a theme with all the No Doubt videos, that we’re against each other, because we kind of always were put against each other. In this particular video, I kill them. [Laughs] It’s the only cover we’d ever done, I love to play it live. It was such foreshadowing that I was about to do a solo record. The styling in that video… I was always obsessed with anything that was vintage old movies. I would religiously watch Turner Classic Films and all that stuff. I always loved starlets and old lingerie.

When I came home from the Tragic Kindgom tour, I got an agent to try out acting. I started reading tons of scripts and stuff. I actually tried out for Girl, Interrupted and Mr. And Mrs. Smith. I had multiple readings for that. Brad Pitt… didn’t pick me. [Laughs] When you have an agent, they get you stuff: “They want you to come try out for The Aviator.” I was like, “Oh that’s perfect, I worshipped those girls.” I went to this casting call that was at the bungalows at, I wanna say, the Beverly Hills Hotel or something. I didn’t really do a lot of tryouts at this point, but I was trying out for Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. I remember getting there and being, of course, nervous. It was a casting call, and you’d see these girls walking through the yard dressed up as that time period. They had gone all the way. This is a totally unknown world to me.

I remember them calling me in and it was those two and I just read my lines to them — I can’t believe I did that. I would die if I had do that now. They were both super them, like characters of themselves. I mean, my part — I have three lines. But I flew to Montreal. I met Kate Beckinsale. Leo, he ran lines with me in his room. It’s so different when you work with these big movie stylists. The stylist, she was really famous, and she said to me, “Don’t you go losing any weight, these girls weren’t skinny.” She was very bullying about it. Like, “OK, I won’t, nobody’s ever told me not to lose weight, awesome!” You know the amazing part? They had recreated the entire Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Canada. That was a set. And it felt so real when we were going through the crowd.

The Voice (2014-2020)

I feel like I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about this a bit more, since it’s now such a big part of your career. Now that you’re putting out this album on the other side of this TV era, I’m curious if you learned certain lessons about yourself being a coach on The Voice and then going back to your own music. Obviously with everything we’re talking about today, there have been some wild opportunities in your life. But the arc from Anaheim ska-punk filming a video in your grandparents’ old house to being a household name on The Voice is probably one of the crazier arcs within your story.

STEFANI: I was super naive when I said I’d do it. I don’t think I’d even watched the show. My parents had watched it. I had literally just given birth. Five weeks out of having this baby. My lawyer, my mom and dad, my niece, they were over to see the baby. I got the call. Basically, Irving Azoff — who was not my manager at the time, but I’d known him and his wife for 14 years — his wife called me and said “Christina [Aguilera]’s pregnant, do you think you’d want to do The Voice?” I hung up and said, “I just got the craziest call.” My parents were huge fans and were like, “Oh my God!” It was a hard period in my life before that. A lot of stuff had gone down. I had done that record with No Doubt, which was really hard. I had been really depleted in a lot of ways. To do [The Voice], I just never thought I could, but I was going to go for it.

You ask me how it helped me? I learned so much on that show. I think it was the perfect time for me to play the role as mentor or coach. It helped me with my confidence, and also took away some of my confidence. It was so intimidating to watch these unbelievably gifted, regular people that just one after another were coming through and going through unbelievable pressure, just to get onstage and do a blind audition. Then everything that comes after that — I could’ve never done it. I could never sing like that. You start to judge yourself: “I’m not very good, how did I make it, how did they let me out of my mom’s house?” All these insecurities.

But at the same time you’re pitching yourself. I’m not a competitive person, so I was uncomfortable. Adam Levine sitting there going, “I do this and I do that.” It was awkward. I didn’t know how to pitch myself. You start to think about it. “Look all the stuff I did, shit, that’s a lot of stuff!” Yeah, I wanna work with a little girl, I can show you what I did, I already lived your dream, let’s go! It was very inspiring, not to mention being around so much music. You’re watching all these different kind of singers interpret all these different songs in genres you normally wouldn’t listen to. Being around that energy was super inspiring.

When I went back that first season, I was nursing a baby. I was old; I had that baby at 44. It was a lot. By the end of that season, it was December, and February was when everything went down in my personal life. My life was over. It was crazy, between the first two seasons I did that show — and of course, when that happens, whenever anything goes wrong, that’s when the songs start coming. I’m not the writer who just writes all year long. I don’t write until I have to, until it’s time. Anyways, it was a perfect thing for me, and I think it was great for whoever followed me or didn’t follow me on my journey. To be able to get on TV in front of a new audience and tell my story and play the role of the coach — it was just a beautiful new chapter. I think on both sides. Some people could get to know me. You know me through the songs. But this is me, here, as a person. It was a great thing for me. Not to mention, meeting Blake. [Laughs]

Return Of Saturn Turning 20 Last Year, Rock Steady Turning 20 This Year

As you mentioned, that last non-Christmas solo album came out of tumultuous times in those early Voice days. Now you’re gearing up for a new one while there are some big anniversaries — Return Of Saturn turned 20 last year, and Rock Steady turns 20 this year. It seems like it must be a weird time to look back on. Rock Steady has all these songs I remember hearing all the time when I was young and first noticing music, but it’s also towards the end of the band in that initial era.

STEFANI: I’m not a real anniversary celebrator. I don’t know why. Some people are really nostalgic about that stuff and I guess I’m not. But it’s weird you bring this up, because it was more intense than I thought. Watching everyone post everything, and I was in the middle of a writing period… When the Tragic Kingdom 25th anniversary happened, it made me feel so proud of the work, but it also makes me feel sad. It triggers me. I’d get teary right now. When you said Return To Saturn, that word is a trigger. I had such bad stuff happening to me during that time period. It’s all in the records. There’s so many words in those records telling where I was at. Trapped. I can’t listen to those records. Even Tragic Kingdom. That was horrible. My boyfriend, my best friend, didn’t want to be my best friend. My brother didn’t want to be in a band with me. What was I going to do? I lived at my parents’ house.

Now, Rock Steady, that was a different story. That was freedom. That was, OK, everyone agrees we’re going to work outside the band. We’re going to work with our heroes. We’re going to go out dancing all night long. We didn’t have kids yet. It was self-indulgence. We were working with the coolest producers. It was our time, and it was a great memory. But then going into the solo records, it was a different kind of freedom. There was no voting, no family, no democracy, no compromising. It was all indulgence. I could indulge not just my cheesy side but all the music that was the backdrop to my life. I could make music that was guilty pleasure. There were no rules, and I got to be the most creative I’ve probably been in my life, because I got to create a world and I had endless ideas and energy.

But yeah, being nostalgic about those anniversaries… life starts to go really fast. All those insecurities I talked about in the beginning of this interview, you know everyone goes through it. I don’t want to have to excuse myself for getting older, you know what I mean? [Laughs] You can only be new one time. It’s a journey. And I always try to enjoy the process. I’m old enough to know the process is everything. There is no prize; the prize is the journey. That’s why when I was making the new record, it feels like I did the thing. I’m still writing. I’m trying to get more in case there might be one more. Jimmy always told me, “Until the last minute, keep writing.”

I wrote five songs last week. None of them have that thing. They have a lot of great things. But it’s weird how certain art has something. Sometimes it just happens and you don’t know why it was flowing that way and why it resonates with other people. It’s out of your hands. And I love when it’s out of my hands. That’s why I did another record. I love that feeling. That’s the blood I tasted, of success. I never want that to end, but I know it’s going to. So I’m really aware and I’m really grateful. Talking about being nostalgic, I just want to be in-the-moment nostalgic. This is happening right now.

Jamie Nelson

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