No Doubt She’s Good

The Guardian


Wearing your sunglasses indoors is the preserve of idiots or icons. Emerging from a BBC Radio 1 studio, hidden behind what might be trendy welders’ goggles, Gwen Stefani errs on the side of icon. Why this should be so isn’t easily explained — certainly not by Stefani herself, whose favourite self-descriptions are “dork” and “geek”.In one of those unpredictable pop transformations, Stefani started the 21st century as the squeaky-voiced wacko from No Doubt, but enters 2004 a “celebrity” whom fashion designers seat in the front row of their shows. More mysteriously, she has achieved this without losing a corresponding amount of musical credibility.

She really does walk the walk, loopy but cool in her huge shades, trashy-starlet bouffant and yards of tweed. Men stare wistfully. (Referring to this later, she implies that male fans are surprisingly rare: “When I think fans, I think girls, because my overall thing isn’t sexy.”) As she sinks into a chair, she’s playing the Los Angeles ditz-head, squealing at her anager: “You look so good it’s awesome!”She’s far from ditzy, though. No Doubt is ostensibly a partnership between her, bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young, but it’s her tomboy-in-stilettos charisma that has kept them chugging along for 17 years. The press are warned not to treat Stefani as a separate entity, to which end Kanal accompanies her to most of interviews. He’s the only other part of the team the public might recognise, though even this is Stefani-related. He was her first boyfriend, and their break-up was the subject of the band’s signature tune, “Don’t Speak”, ensuring him radio-playlist immortality. His physical presence — dark complexion set off by peroxide-yellow spikes — is as strong as Stefani’s. But in any case, Kanal seems resigned to his supporting role. He does venture a sleepy-eyed comment on their longevity: “If somebody’d said 17 years ago that we’d still be doing this now, I’d have said-” Stefani finishes his sentence: “Get outta here!”She sounds as if she’s never quite got used to their success. This is the immediately endearing thing about her — the Anaheim “dork” who sold 15m copies of the 1995 breakthrough album ‘Tragic Kingdom’ lacks any evident sense of entitlement. She is, in fact, humble enough to count the smallest blessings. “I still cross myself. I crossed myself before my meal last night because I was so hungry, and I was grateful,” she says. 

She makes an interesting celebrity, a 34-year-old who only left home at 30, has had just one boyfriend apart from Kanal and seems to be devoid of the drive that fuels pop stars at her level. Does she enjoy being recognised? “I didn’t think it’d be like this. There’s a lot of good and bad, but probably more good, ‘coz you get to do what your passion is, which for us is writing songs. It’s, like, so awesome.”Like pop’s other big Italian-Catholic female, Madonna, Stefani has spent much of her time in London since marrying an English man but has no intention to change accent. (“If I ever sound English, slap me,” she snorts.) Her husband is Gavin Rossdale, the Sylvia Plath-quoting singer of London angst-rockers Bush.

They married in 2002, after five on-off years together, and the seeming incongruity hasn’t stopped them being happy. Stefani worries, however, about the negative media image of celebrity couples. “I don’t want to complain about having my picture taken, but you don’t want to be known as a celeb couple, getting your picture taken walking the dog.”When they met, Rossdale was bigger than Stefani, but after “Don’t Speak”, they were level pegging. In America, they were among the hottest rock couples, but when Bush’s star declined, she remained a celeb-mag staple. Her emergence as a name in her own right came a couple of years ago. A successful collaboration with rapper Eve was followed by No Doubt’s most critically acclaimed album, the reggae-influenced ‘Rock Steady’, and suddenly, Stefani’s geeky grooviness was being proclaimed everywhere. “But I still don’t feel we’ve established ourselves outside the US,” says Kanal.Bowing to the inevitable, Stefani is planning her first solo album, and prospective guests include the unimpeachable Missy Elliott. Meanwhile, Dr Dre and Prince figure among past collaborators. Have her style and distinctive voice made her the cool choice of black artistes wanting to cross genres? She nearly chokes. “No!” She waves dismissively. “Eve asked me to collaborate with her, but I didn’t want to just be the side dish. But Dr Dre convinced me to do it, and I’m so glad I did, ‘coz it really opened my world to other people. We suddenly had fans who’d never bought a No Doubt album before.”

Stefani never seemed to have the tough confidence of most successful pop stars. Has hip-hop approval given her a boost? “Gosh. In some ways, you’re more insecure (the more successful you are), ‘coz you’re judged all the time. Sometimes it’s tempting to go online and see what your fans think of you, but that can actually be totally confidence-destroying.”If she’s ever feeling low, she should check out, a fan website filled with testaments to her fabness. Contrary to Stefani’s claims, not all are from girls, either. The most poignant message is from someone called M214Zep, who’s worried that marriage is luring her away from her public: “Let’s face it, as soon as (her current obligations) end, she and Gav are going to start making babies. This will be the end of LPs and touring for a long while.”

Stefani laughs: “We’re enjoying the marriage part without babies. I do think about kids all the time, but there’s a plan for me out there, and I’m just following it. Someone wrote a book and said, This is your life, and so...”It’s a delicate question, but how does she deal with having eclipsed her husband’s fame to become the high-profile one of the pair? This is the one time she side-steps a question.

“I feel very protective of my marriage and I don’t talk about it. I wouldn’t have married him if he hadn’t been supportive and awesome. He’s multi-talented and has a lot of different sides. I always refer to him as a fox.”Stefani has no plans to leave No Doubt. “We’re calling mine a side project, because I’m not going anywhere. It’s taken me out of my comfort zone, but it’s awesome to do what we want to do and step out of ourselves.”