Photograph by Domen & Van de Velde

From the Magazine

Gwen’s Sweet Escape

She finally got her simple kind of life, but her ambition won’t quit. On the eve of No Doubt’s Coachella reunion, Gwen Stefani reflects on creative risks, balancing music and motherhood, and writing songs with husband Blake Shelton.

Written by Nolan Feeney
Photographs by Domen & Van De Velde
Styled by Jan-Michael Quammie

Gwen Stefani cannot help herself. It just pours out of her. We’ve been talking for maybe 30 seconds when her eyes go glassy and something catches in her voice. “Why am I getting emotional?” she wonders. We’re sitting in a beige lounge on the set of a photo shoot in Culver City, California, in February, and I have not asked her a single question yet. But I have referenced songwriting, and simply thinking about the act can almost move her to tears.

“It’s like drugs. I mean, if I did drugs and they were really great or something — I don’t,” she says, looking like the coolest mom in the pickup lane in a rainbow-sherbet Dsquared2 track jacket, ripped R13 jeans, and hot pink rain boots. She is partially de-glammed, and her hair is pulled back into a tight, spiky pony; up close, when she tilts her head in deep thought, it is striking how much she looks like the version of herself from posters that covered teenagers’ walls in the late ’90s. “But I’m saying: You want it so bad, you can’t stop once you know that feeling.”

All these years later, she’s still in awe of how writing a song conjures something out of nothing, how you can build yourself a time machine with just some words and melodies. “It’s such a miracle,” she says. It is also such torture: There’s the dread that creeps in as she drives to the studio, the awkwardness of new collaborators, the pain of hitting your head against the wall trying to come up with something. Even when it does work, Stefani, who grew up Catholic and has been more public about her faith in recent years, hesitates to take full credit. “These ideas come from somewhere. I believe they come from” — she points up to the ceiling — “from God, I’ll say it.”

On the eve of No Doubt’s highly anticipated Coachella reunion this month, Stefani is at an artistic crossroads. In the last decade, she has released two albums: 2016’s This Is What the Truth Feels Like, which she’s said was a “lifesaver” following her split from Gavin Rossdale, with whom she has three kids; and her 2017 holiday album, You Make It Feel Like Christmas, which features her now-husband Blake Shelton, whom she met as a costar on NBC’s The Voice. During this time, however, she has also recorded and shelved albums’ worth of material, trying to figure out where she belongs in pop.

SEKS jacket and skirt, ANDREADĀMO top, CHRISHABANA earrings, Calzedonia tights, Piferi shoes

For a while, she thought she wanted to make a reggae- and ska-influenced record, and even released some of those songs in the first year of the pandemic: The nostalgic “Let Me Reintroduce Myself” and scrappy follow-up “Slow Clap” spoke to an underdog ambition — “I don’t wanna go to the back of the line / No, no, I put in my time” — but they didn’t connect widely. “I got kind of lost,” Stefani says. “I got lost with not really having a band, not really having the people at the label that used to be my family, because so much time has passed.”

She thinks she’s most creative when she collaborates, and she feels a tinge of jealousy when she hears about other artists who get sent hits tailor-made for them. But when Stefani, 54, has tried to make records the modern way, working with teams of hitmakers, she has sometimes felt like she was “going backward” — doing an impression of someone doing an impression of her 20 years ago. “A lot of the pop writers that I’d worked with started getting really different from the way I write. I was like, ‘Why are you counting syllables?’” she says. “Or they were trying so hard to go for a hit, where I’m like: ‘I’m not chasing that.’ A hit is the greatest thing in the world, but it has to be from nowhere.”

She knows these are rock star problems of the highest order. “If I had another hit, that means I need to remove a hit [from my live shows],” she says. “I’m not going to play for three hours! So I’ve already won.”

And yet. She can’t just turn off her drive. “I almost feel guilty about it, or like I have to justify it or feel bad that I’m doing it,” she says of making new music. “Like, ‘You should just get on with your life.’ But I really still want to do it!” She laughs like she can’t believe she’s saying this out loud. She prays for answers. “I want to live my purpose. I don’t want to be greedy. I want to contribute still. I don’t know.”

It’s like I’m watching Stefani experience, in real time, the emotional tumult described by her most enduring songs. Her greatest strength, from her days in No Doubt, through the chart-topping highs of her solo career, to her new experiments with Shelton, is the specificity with which she captures the agony of juggling competing desires and obligations. She is certain, though, that music is the only way through the muck.

“I just know that I was chosen. And it took me a long time to say that, and it still makes me cringe a little bit, because it sounds conceited,” she says, her voice quavering a bit. “I really struggled hard at certain things. But I can do this one thing.”

Balenciaga dress, Buerlangma chestplate, Patricia von Musulin earrings

Stefani did not always feel chosen for rock stardom. She loves to talk about how her biggest dreams growing up in Anaheim, California, were doing KFC jingles or becoming a Disneyland hotel lounge singer; her earliest jobs included working makeup counters at the mall. (Stefani still prefers to do her own makeup before shows and launched her cosmetics line, GXVE Beauty, in 2022.) She describes her older brother, Eric Stefani, who co-founded No Doubt in 1986, as the real musical genius in the family. Before she became the band’s impossibly energetic frontwoman, she was happy just to sing backup and hang out with her boyfriend, bassist Tony Kanal. It was only when the band was on the brink of implosion — Eric left to pursue his animation career, Kanal dumped her — that she found her voice on 1995’s landmark Tragic Kingdom.

Thanks to wounded anthems like “Don’t Speak,” that album has sold 16 million copies around the world, and the hits kept coming. Later, Stefani would become the first artist to sell a million downloads of a song with “Hollaback Girl.” So longevous is Stefani’s career that you can trace milestones in telephone history through her work: the drama of answering machines (“Spiderwebs”); the spotty reception of Razr-era cellphones (2006’s “Breakin’ Up”); the ubiquity of smartphones (2016’s “Send Me a Picture”). Yet when it comes to songwriting, in Stefani’s estimation, “You never get good enough. You are always going to be in competition with yourself.”

Who else could compete with Stefani anyway? Her voice — whether purring like a glamazon or howling like an old-timey damsel on train tracks — has been blaring out of grocery store speakers for so long you almost forget how potent and strange her hits can be. Her catalog is full of such big swings it’s hard to imagine other artists having the guts: She channeled Fiddler on the Roof with Dr. Dre and Eve on “Rich Girl” and convinced Pharrell Williams to set his alien beats to The Sound of Music on “Wind It Up.” (“He was mad, like, ‘There’s absolutely no way,’” she recalls, laughing. “I was like, ‘You don’t understand. This is my childhood dream.’”) She sampled Martin Luther King Jr. with André 3000 on “Long Way to Go” and interpolated circus music on “Don’t Get It Twisted,” quite possibly the fiercest song ever written about missing your period. She has always, respectfully, been B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

“I don’t land in pop anymore. I don’t know where I land. And who cares? We’re in the Wild West right now in music.”

“She has spectacular taste, and when you have spectacular taste, whatever that word means usually descends upon you,” offers Jimmy Iovine — co-founder of Interscope Records, the longtime label home to No Doubt and Stefani — when I ask him how she does it. “When you have great taste, what you do is probably not going to be corny.”

When No Doubt got on Iovine’s radar, they were still deep in the Southern California ska scene, where Jamaican- and British-influenced punk bands wore black and white to symbolize racial harmony — a nod to the United Kingdom’s “two-tone” acts of the ’70s and ’80s. “There were really no rules to it, and that was what was fun,” Stefani says of coming from ska. “I definitely think that was the DNA of everything I did musically.” Though ska’s theatrical optimism can look naive from the vantage of 2024, the spirit of hybridization and experimentation it engendered in Stefani continues to shape younger artists.

“Gwen’s ability to evolve and explore different styles of music, songwriting, and aesthetic while still remaining true to herself is incredibly inspiring,” Olivia Rodrigo tells me over email. “To me, she’s a prime example of an artist who defies stereotypes and preconceived boundaries and just makes stuff that she thinks is cool. If that’s not a true artist, I don’t know what is.”

Rodrigo was 15 when she discovered No Doubt’s 2000 album, Return of Saturn. On songs like “Simple Kind of Life” and “Marry Me,” Stefani grappled with feeling torn between her independence and her desire to start a family — sentiments that still feel radically vulnerable. “Gwen sang about being a woman moving about this world in detail that I had never before heard put to music,” Rodrigo writes. “She unapologetically sings about things ranging from wanting to make out with someone to fantasizing about having a husband and kids. There’s so much heart in every word she says, and every song feels like it’s ripped from the diary of the coolest girl you know.”

Sportmax dress, Patricia von Musulin earrings

The ticking clocks concerning work and family would come to define Stefani’s solo career — sometimes literally. On 2004’s “What You Waiting For?” a frenetic dance track with an Alice in Wonderland–inspired video, she wagged a finger at herself: “Your moment will run out ’cause of your sex chromosome!” As No Doubt took a pause after touring 2001’s blockbuster Rock Steady, Stefani recalls thinking, “I have this little window of time to be free, creative — a girl. And not have anyone tell me what to do. Or have to vote, or have to feel bad that I got the attention.”

But in interviews from that time, she talks about the overwhelming pressure to seize the moment and the tears she cried in bed over having to report to the studio the next day. Just before her first solo tour for Love. Angel. Music. Baby., she learned she was pregnant with her first child, which made the trek grueling. “I was so sick, and it just felt like — ugh,” she says now. Not long after giving birth to Kingston in 2006, her phone was ringing again: Iovine wanted her to hit the studio with Akon, whose calendar was filling up. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Stefani says. “‘The baby’s 9 weeks old!’”

Couldn’t you say no?

“Not to Jimmy. Because Jimmy’s always right.”

He was right: She and Akon hit it off and wrote “The Sweet Escape” in what “felt like 10 minutes,” she says. (“We’re sitting there, it’s done, and Akon goes, ‘Wait, I got one other idea.’ He walks in the booth like: ‘Woo-hoo!’”) It became one of her defining hits, though its lyrics about a couple weathering a rough patch hit closer to home for Stefani than listeners perhaps realize. “It makes me cry,” she says. “I listen to the lyrics of that song, and it’s like: ‘Whoa!’ There was so much loaded f*cking stuff in that song that was going on in my private life that it’s just crazy. It’s foreshadowing the future.”

“Nobody can get to us. You can say whatever you want about our relationship. The truth is the truth, and we know what that is.”

It became a cycle: Stefani returned to work sooner than she may have liked, ran herself into the ground, then felt guilty for not being more productive. When she came home from almost 100 shows of the Sweet Escape world tour — while nursing a baby and working on her L.A.M.B. fashion line, “which is a whole job in itself ” — “I was dead,” she says. Then she learned she was pregnant again with son Zuma. “I think everyone was disappointed,” she says, referring to No Doubt. “I don’t think they would say that. No one’s going to be mad you’re having a baby. But while I was busy, they were kind of waiting.”

It’s not that she didn’t want to get back with No Doubt; they toured in 2009 to get inspired to write what would become their 2012 comeback album, Push and Shove. “Except things change when you have two babies,” she says. “There was nothing left in me. I had no ideas. I had so much insecurity. I felt like — help!”

MUGLER catsuit, Hugo Kreit earrings

If she went to write new songs with the band, “I would be leaving my family. And if I didn’t come home with a song, I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I’m such a loser — I didn’t have dinner with my family, and I didn’t write a song. I wasted an entire day of my life trying to be in No Doubt again.’”

Every choice felt like a sacrifice. “I look at it now and think, ‘God, what was I doing trying to please everybody?’ Because really, I should have just been with my family. But we did it, and there are some good songs. It was... ” Her voice trails off. She pulls her feet onto the couch and lets out a nervous laugh. “Don’t remind me. I don’t want to talk about it.”

Has No Doubt ever been to therapy together? “No, no, we need to, probably,” Stefani says, smiling. “But we have a lot of water under the bridge.”

Before Coachella, Stefani and the guys — Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont, and drummer Adrian Young — had already been discussing playing shows again. “It’s been a long time coming,” she says. “It’s been something that we were going to do.” At the time of our interview, apart from a Zoom they recorded for the announcement, she says, “we still haven’t really hung out or done anything,” and they aren’t always in regular contact. When Dumont texted her about the Coachella offer in January of this year, she noticed their last text exchange occurred the previous January. Yet she points to the speed at which things progressed as a sign of their eagerness to play together: “I would say [from there] within 10 days or two weeks, we were booked.”

Beyond Coachella, there are no concrete plans for touring or new music, although Stefani is “open to anything.” (“Well, I don’t have a crystal ball,” she adds. “Most things have surprised me in life. One of the things I’ve learned is to be present in the moment and try to absorb what’s happening around me instead of looking ahead.”) The two shows are “going to be a really nice bow to tie on the relationship, because we were kids [when we met],” she says. “I already know what it’s going to feel like because we’re just so in sync when we’re onstage. It’s going to feel like riding a bike again. We’re going to be laughing, and we’re going to look at each other and go, ‘Oh my gosh — there you are.’”

Iris van Herpen Hypnosis Collection dress, Hugo Kreit earrings, Calzedonia tights

Mention a song of Stefani’s in passing, and she will likely either stop and tell you the entire story of how it came together in filibuster-level detail, or she will tell you she doesn’t even remember how it goes. “I’m like Dora,” she says. The Explorer? “No, Dora, the movie. The short-term memory?” Huh? “The fish?” She means Dory from Finding Nemo. “I have such a weird memory,” she says. “I think it’s part of the gift.”

The story of “Purple Irises,” her recent duet with Shelton, falls into the former category. It’s the kind of wistful-happy song Stefani does so well, about how happily ever after isn’t always a walk in the park. It’s also the most candid song she’s ever written about aging, with specific references to momentous years in her life and career — like 2014, when she had her third son and joined The Voice. “I went from a difficult time in my life to giving birth to Apollo. Getting pregnant with him was really the start of [a series] of miracles,” she says. “It was almost like a restart to my life — the second chapter.”

The day she wrote “Purple Irises,” Stefani was battling her usual studio nerves, but she’d also been thinking about her marriage. “I had been going through those times where you’re questioning: ‘Oh my gosh, am I just getting older? Am I cute?’” she says. “In my own relationship, even though I know the truth of what’s happening today, you still create drama in your own mind about your insecurities and what might happen. I was in that phase of the relationship with Blake and getting paranoid.”

“It’s an insecurity we both have,” Shelton says. “These are conversations that she and I have with each other: ‘Are you still going to love me when I’m old or if I forget who I am?’”

SEKS jacket and skirt, ANDREADĀMO top, CHRISHABANA earrings, Calzedonia tights, Piferi shoes

While working on the song, Stefani remembered a text she had sent herself with the words “Purple Irises,” thinking it might make for a good lyric. During the early stages of the pandemic, Stefani and Shelton had discovered purple irises growing on his Oklahoma ranch and made a whole project of transplanting them. “Gwen has an incredible sense for planting things: how to grow them and, once it’s growing, how to cultivate it, and when to prune something,” Shelton says. “I like to farm on a big scale, like corn or beans, acres at a time. She concentrates more on patches here and there and ends up farming things a little better than I do.” The thriving flowers became a reminder to Stefani to get out of her head. “The truth is I am in love with my best friend,” she says, “and all this sh*t I’m thinking of in my brain, that’s all it is — I’m overthinking.”

“I just know that I was chosen. And it took me a long time to say that, and it still makes me cringe a little bit.”

She wrote it as a solo track, but Shelton dropped enough hints about wanting to be on it that she finally invited him to duet. (The two have “fantasized” about a joint, singer-songwriter-y record: “I feel like Blake and I are already a project together,” she says. “I’m always going to want to write music with Blake Shelton.”) Though they’ve sung together before, there was something surprising about Stefani bringing him into her world this time. Her divorce from Rossdale hung over the promo cycle for This Is What the Truth Feels Like in ways that often seemed nakedly uncomfortable for her; she could be forgiven for wanting more of a firewall between her life and her art at this point.

“But when you’re in love and have truly aligned values, nobody can get to us. You can say whatever you want to say about our relationship — I mean, a week ago we were getting divorced again or something,” she says, referencing tabloid rumors. “It’s just lies. The truth is the truth, and we know what that is. And so that [negativity] would never penetrate just by me being vulnerable and sharing a song that I didn’t write for anybody else but myself and Blake.”

When the first mix of “Purple Irises” came in, they were at home but didn’t have any good speakers on hand, so they headed out to the car to listen. “I was like, ‘This is what I always do with my music, but I’ve never done it with somebody else — that’s weird,’” she says. They didn’t go anywhere, though. They just sat in the driveway for nearly an hour, laughing and listening to what they had made over and over again.

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Anyone surprised by where Stefani ended up hasn’t been paying attention. Ranch life is certainly a fun twist: “Gwen has her own tractor now,” Shelton says, “and we’re working toward her one day soon being able to fire it up and go out to do her own thing on it.”

Yet Stefani can be ambivalent toward the cool factor often projected on her. When I mention the “F*ck you, I’m a girl!” chant she used to lead audiences in during the “Just a Girl” days, she puts her finger to her lips and shushes me in mock embarrassment. The world-domination gene was never in her, either. No Doubt had been hustling for the better part of a decade by the time Tragic Kingdom came out, and Stefani says, “I always wonder which part was better — the first part, when we weren’t famous, or the second part? Because the second part, we worked so much.”

Dabbling in country, pivoting to TV, making a Christmas album — these have historically been the moves available to veteran divas in the music industry’s imposed middle age. But there are few templates for a culture-shifting artist like Stefani anyway. Some fans balk at the idea of Stefani going full country with Shelton, but, judging from a 2020 The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon bit in which she gives “Spiderwebs” a Nashville twang, she’d pull it off. And if she went back and made bonkers Y2K electro-rap concoctions, who’s to say those same people wouldn’t write her off as out of touch?

Lately, a new path forward is emerging. She’s been channeling the yacht-rock sounds of the ’70s and ’80s that she grew up listening to, working with an eclectic circle of collaborators; she shouts out a young SoCal songwriter named Niko Rubio, whose mom was an OG No Doubt fan and whose alt-rock tastes, Stefani says, “let me be me.” There is a defiant spark in the way Stefani talks about letting go of expectations. “I don’t land in pop anymore. I don’t know where I land,” she says. “And who cares? If anything’s going to happen, we’re in the Wild West right now in music, right? Crazy sh*t happens.”

Wanting it for herself, she’s decided, is enough. “I told this to Blake the other day: ‘You don’t understand — to be a mom and a wife and then write a record?’ Everybody might be like, ‘Why did it take so long?’ Well, OK, I want to see you try to find five seconds to get creative,” she says. “It’s so hard to squeeze it into the life that I have. And that’s why I think it’s more special than ever. It’s like when someone says, ‘Oh my God, I got to get my hair colored’ or ‘I got to take a bath today’ after just having a baby. That’s what it’s like for me to do music. It’s that selfish — and special.”

Top image credits: Vintage Saint Laurent dress courtesy of Albright Fashion Library, Kim Mesches crochet cast, Calzedonia tights

Photographs by Domen & Van De Velde

Styling by Jan-Michael Quammie

Set Designer: Enoch M. Choi

Hair: Suzette Boozer

Makeup: Anthony H Nguyen

Manicure: Eri Ishizu

Tailor: Hasmik Kourinian

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Video: Todd Stefani

Associate Creative Director, Video: Samuel Schultz

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Lauren McCarthy

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert