She’s the rock-chick everyone wants to copy, but offstage No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani is a self-confessed goody two shoes who lived at home till she was 30 and hankers for a station-wagon full of kids.
Gwen Stefani likes to rock out. Dressed in signature fishnet stockings, low slung knickerbockers and push-up bra, she can whoop a crowds into a frenzy and get the most staid of parties started. Pumping the air with a fist and pulling kooky wide-eyed faces, she struts the stage like a rock chick of yore and screams to the crowd, “Are we having fun, y’all”. Which, of coarse, is what being a down ‘n’ dirty rock star is all about.
But behind the onstage antics and belly thrusting attitude, Stefani, front woman of new wave band No Doubt and modern-day fashion plate, adopts a different persona. Rock stars have their incarnations and off-stage alter egos. But none quite like Stefani’s.
At heart, she is just a Catholic girl from the suburbs who greets fans and media with a grin and the feeling that she can’t quite believe her good fortune.
But in a flick of her platinum blonde ponytail she becomes the vampy superstar with attitude to spare. She’s the girl next door and the girl who just wants to have fun. The fashion stuntwoman who, if she wasn’t so busy gracing the Ten Sexiest People on the Planet pages of glossy magazines, would just love to have a station wagon full of kids.
On the eve of the band’s third Australian tour to promote their latest album, Rock Steady, Stefani, 32, is back in London where her fiancé Gavin Rossdale, lead singer of British band Bush, lives After dating for six years- they met when No Doubt was touring as Bush’s opening act late in ’95- Rossdale proposed to Stefani last New Year’s Eve and they are set to marry two weeks after the Aussie tour. For the past couple of years, the [air has split their time between Rossdale’s home in North London and Los Angeles, where Stefani now bases herself.
Chatting by phone, Stefani sounds comfortable with her multiple personas: the rock star with an engagement ring on her finger; the hard-core ska artist who teams with Moby, Philadelphia rapper Eve and Prince on “special projects” in her spare time; the “overnight sensation” who fronts a band that has been making music for close to half of her life. “My life has turned out nothing like I thought it would be,” she says. “Things have kind of eveloped and this is where I am now. It has just been a natural transformation.”
Fifteen years ago No Doubt was a little-known Californian ska band inspired by the romping, stomping beats of the ‘80’s British band Madness. Stefani, who joined the band while still in high school, was the otherwise shy lead vocalist who took on the fist-throwing tomboy role behind the microphone. “I think in the past, as a lead girl of a band, I never really indulged (the sexy) side of me,” she said recently. “I was always getting on stage and getting sweaty, rocking out, you know? My goal was to get up on stage and to not have guys say, ‘Show us your tits’.”
Off stage Stefani was a suburban daddy’s girl- always home for tea, midriff respectably covered and language palatable. “I was a really good girl,” she says, drawing out her vowels West Coast-style. “I was a bit of a goody two shoes, but not in a snobby sort of way,” she says. The eldest daughter of four, Stefani lived at home with her family in the sedate suburbs of Orange County, California, until she was almost 30. Rossdale is her second boyfriend (her first was No Doubt’s bass player Tony Kanal who she went out with for seven years_ and, before she hit the charts in the mid-1990’s, she would go to church every Sunday. “My family is real tight,” she says. “When the band started everyone would come around to our house and mum would drive everyone around. It was kinda like the Stefani’s, we were like The Brady Bunch.”
“I remember when I got my nose pierces (at 25) we were playing at a local show. My mum drove me to the concert- whatever, we’re close it’s not like I’m embarrassed my um drove me to the concert- anyway, she was really bumbed out. She was real embarrassed.”
Apart from the nose ring and some “occasional on-stage cussing”, Stefani has neatly side-stepped the whole roch-‘n’-roll-naughty-girl stuff. She grew up saying no to drugs sex and kept the family name out of the headlines. Which paints a picture fans might find difficult to reconcile with Stefani’s image today. In a music era characterized by pre-pubescent manufactured pop starlets, Gwen Stefani stands out as the rare, hard-core rock chick. She oozes cool- on stage, on the band’s slick film clips and on the red carpet in her couture gowns. Indeed, Stefani is something of a throwback to the ‘80’s when the likes of Pat Bentar and Debbie Harry rocked the charts with tough lyrics and beats and Cyndi Laper and Madonna (not supermodels and actresses) dictated fashion.
Since the release of No Doubt’s break-through album Tragic Kingdom and accompanying single I’m Just a Girl in late 1995, Stefani has become the unofficial face of the band, fronting guitarist Tom Dumont, Adrian Young on drums and Kanal on bass. And she is regarded as responsible for dragging it from underground obscurity and introducing it to a younger, fashion-conscious audience.
Last year American Vogue awarded Stefani the “revolutionary rock style” trophy and she has regularly featured in the “Top Sexiest” and “top Coolest” lists in men’s and teen’s magazines (respectively). If Stefani steps out in a circa-1982 tennis visor or wears a diamante-encrusted G-string above the waistband of her jeans, you can bet millions of teenage girls around the world will follow suit.
In 2000 Stefani collaborated with Moby on the single South Side and last years U2’s Bono invited her to contribute to the all-star tribute What’s Going On, which raised money for the September 11 fund and the AIDS relief effort (the band also opened for U2 last year). But it was last year’s Let Me Blow Ya Mind “duet” with hardcore Philadelphia rapper Eve that finally consolidated Stefani’s status in the celebrity style stakes and No Doubt’s tenure in the charts.
When Rock Steady, the bands fifth album, was released in December, a second generation of fans was ready to embrace its electric sounds in droves. But fame, fortune and several dozen magazine covers aside, Stefani remains true to her ska beginnings, Rock Steady features a distinctive laid-back Coventry/Jamaican sound and in conversation Stefani regularly refers to the band’s “ska ethos”. “John Bradbury, the drummer for The Specials, was at our show the other night,” she tells me. “it was just wild ‘cos that’s definitely the reason why we got the band together, because of that whole movement.”
“The thing is,” she says, “the band was together nine years before we got on the radio. We knew we were never really going to make music that was commercially successful. My older brother Eric (who founded the band in 1987) is a really quirky, creative guy who discovered ska music and we all became attracted to the hyperactivity and energy.
My brother was sort of the leader of the family so the rest of us became obsessed with it.”
In the band’s first year, the original lead singer committed suicide- something the band doesn’t comment on- and Stefani was left behind the mic. Hyper-kinetic live shows and a fun, sun-drenched sound landed them a committed following and soon enough they were doing opening sets for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ziggy Marley, and the Melody Makers and LA new wave band Fishbone. Two rather lackluster albumsinto their career, Eric Stefani left to persue a career in animation (he worked on the Simpsons for some time) and Gwen finally finished high school. “I went to college for a long time because I’m slightly dyslexic. So I did high school all over again.”
Then in late 1995, Tragic Kingdom was released. It sold 16 million copies and introduced the world to No Doubt as if it were an overnight success. “Tragic Kingdom was about my breakup with Tony (Kanal),” Stefani explains. “It was happy music with bumbed-out lyrics.” The first single I’m Just a Girl, explored Stefani’s frustrations with growing up. (Strange that she should base the song on her experiences as a 25-year-old woman, but then it would seem she was a late developer.) “it was about how my dad would no let me out at night to go to Tony’s house. My parents were really strict… I was on a leash, which was great. But at the time it was like ‘come on’, I’m just a girl. It was also sarcastic, like that’s all I am, just a girl.”
Next came Return of Saturn in 2000, which, according to critics, was a self-absorbed flop. Stefani describes it as her “coming of age” project. “I was real depressed, I’d come off tour for two and a half years and I felt like I had become myself. It was a time of reflection,” she says. This time the lyrics tell of Stefani’s bumby relationship with Rossdale, a litany of fear, jealousy and frustration. Stefani speaks of instantly falling for Rossdale, who had previously dated one of the Corr sisters and All Saints’ Natalie Appleton. Distance has tested the relationship and they have split up several times. But, as Stefani has commented in the past, he was the kind of guy who wanted to just get married and have children, like her.
In keeping with the “album-as-autobiography” theme, Rock Steady is an exultant, love drenched work that reads as a base-by–base account of lead-up to Stefani’s engagement to Rossdale. “I threw away my thesaurus and put aside my influences,” she says. “ we weren’t doing it to make a record, but to make music. It was a real ego-free, fun record.” A mixed bag of producers and writers were brought on board, which partly explains the album’s schizoid and multigenered sound- in 50 minutes it swings from dancehall to pop, dabbles in a bit of reggae and is overlaid with a gutsy new wave vibe. The Cars’ Ric Ocasek, Prince, rap produces The Neptunes, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, Nelly Hooper of Massive Attack fame and reggae legends Sly and Robbie all contribute to an album which has more than favorable reviews and sales approaching the 2.5 million mark. In Australia, two singles off the album- Hella Good and Hey Baby- entered the top 10 and album sales have hit gold.
Not too many artists have the luxury of evolving at the same “rock steady” pace that No Doubt’s gradual creep to fame has afforded Stefani. But over the 15 years it has taken her to reach pop stardom, she has been able to slowly, slowly explore her place in the world and take her raunchy, ghetto-fabulous outfits. At 32- about twice the age of some of her contemporaries- she can reveal her midriff without sparking debate about her virginity and can sing about love and relationships with conviction.
“Maybe I’ve lived too long, but some of these younger girls seem like too much too soon,” she said recently. “I love my age right now…As you get older, it’s not that you’re so smart, it’s just that you don’t have to worry about the stuff you used to worry about. And there’s so much to look forward to- I still need to get married, I still want to have a family, major things. I can feel another album coming on.”