Gwen Cuts Loose

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The night before she is scheduled to perform at the 2004 Billboard Music Awards, Stefani sits on the couch in a Las Vegas hotel room looking like Alice in Wonderland on casual Friday. Her hair is held off her face with a thick velvet headband, and she's dressed in a black sweater, jeans and white sweat socks. A keyboard with colored tape marking specific keys sits next to the couch so that Stefani can rehearse the intro to "What You Waiting For?" in her spare time. She starts by showing me a big white blister on her thumb that she got after one of the candles in her hotel room tipped over and spilled hot wax on her. "I can't stop playing with it," she squeaks.

"I was in such a shit mood before you came," she says. "I'm really on my period right now, really bad. I'm so emotional. I'm gonna cry just talking about it." Many of Stefani's stories involve her either crying, or nearly crying. "I'm just really emotional," she says. "I don't fight with people — like, I can barely fight with my husband because I'll just start crying instead. I've learned not to do that so much. Period week, I cry a lot. And the week when I was going to Anaheim to play my first show by myself, I cried on the way, because I was like, This is surreal. Why does the first show have to be in Anaheim?'"

Gwen Stefani's parents — Dad is a marketing exec and Mom quit her job as a dental assistant to stay home with the kids — still live in the same house in Anaheim where she grew up with her older brother, Eric, younger sister, Jill, and younger brother, Todd. "My mom and dad met at Anaheim High School," she says. "After they got married, all they wanted to do was have four children, and they did." When the kids were still small, their parents would take them to bluegrass and folk festivals; one of the first shows Gwen remembers seeing was Emmylou Harris. "She had just had a baby," she says, "and she took a break in the middle of the show to go feed the baby. I couldn't believe it."

The Stefani kids still all live relatively close to home, and though Gwen says she's very close with Jill — the two call each other simply "sister" — it was Eric whom she idolized as a teenager. No Doubt was his band before he recruited Gwen to share singing duties with the late John Sinclair, who committed suicide in 1987. Eric quit the group before Tragic Kingdom came out and now works full-time as a cartoonist. "Everything Eric was into, I got into," she says. "He's supercreative, and he was this high school cartoonist and he was in marching band, and he had all these wild artist friends. I don't know if he really was cool or not, but he seemed cool to me."

By comparison, Stefani says she was "pretty lazy" and "passive." She had trouble with her grades at Loara High School and didn't even know if she was going to be able to graduate. By the time she got to Cypress College in 1987, she discovered that, even though she couldn't spell to save her life, she was getting pretty good at writing song lyrics. "After Tony broke up with me, I realized I had something to say," she says. "When I started writing songs, it was like, 'I'm a real human in this world, and I can do something.'"

Love, Angel, Music, Baby, though, proved a major challenge to Stefani's confidence as a songwriter. Her original idea was to make an old-school dance album "with Tony in his bedroom and the two of us singing in a microphone," she says. Jimmy lovine wanted something bigger and pushed Stefani to shoot for the moon, pairing her with producers such as Dallas Austin and Linda Perry in hopes of striking chart gold. "She was nervous about it," says Iovine. "It was her first time doing something without her band, and it was a big step. I said, 'Let's just experiment and see what happens.'"

But when it came time to start work on the album in earnest, her insecurities kicked into high gear. "I cried before I went in the studio," Stefani says. "I was just terrified." Writing songs with her band of seventeen years seemed like a piece of cake compared with trying to be creative on cue, alongside Pharrell Williams or André 3000 or Dr. Dre. "It was very threatening to let these people into my world," she says. "Because that's what I define myself as — a songwriter. The hardest part was letting someone even suggest an idea and then my ego being able to take it if it was good."

She got together with Perry, and on the first day they wrote a song called "Fine by You" that didn't make it onto the album. "It was all about 'I don't want to be inspired. I don't want to call anyone. I just want to sleep and wear the name you gave me. And everything I do is fine by you and you don't judge me and you love me,'" Stefani says. "It was a stupid love song, but really good. I went home and felt good, like, 'I did it. I wrote a song today.' I was still really scared to go back, and when I got there the next day, Linda had been sitting up writing all night. That whole jealousy happened, like, 'You did that?'" The song Perry had written was "What You Waiting For?"; it was her way of telling Stefani to get off her ass and stop complaining. "It was like a dare, and I don't even remember writing the words after that," Stefani says. "I just barfed them out."

Once Stefani felt comfortable with the direction of the album, her quirky creative impulses took over. She became fixated on the idea of dedicating a song to the wildly dressed Japanese women she had admired ever since her first visit to the Harajuku section of Tokyo in 1996. "Everyone had this crazy personal style," she says. "The last couple of times I was there, it had evolved into all these different things like the Gothic Lolitas and these girls with blond hair and dark tans and high-heel shoes, like they were from Hollywood. I was working with Linda, and I did a shout-out to them: 'Harajuku girls, you got the wicked style.' That's when the dream started."

The dream, that is, of having four Karajuku girls follow her everywhere she went to promote her album. The four girls, whom Stefani named "Love," "Angel," "Music" and "Baby" are actually professional dancers whose main job — other than performing onstage with Stefani — is to stand behind her and look cute. But the idea also evolved into a running theme on the album: Not only did she write a song dedicated to them ("Harajuku Girls"), but two other songs on Love, Angel, Music, Baby reference the Japanese fashionistas. "I was thinking about calling the album Stolen Goods," she jokes. "Or It Was Yours and Now It's Mine."

Maybe one day, she says, maybe after she's started her family, maybe she will make a "real" solo album. "I would really love to learn to play something so I don't have to rely on someone to collaborate with," she admits. "Like, I've written songs on guitar, but I don't play guitar good enough to be free. If I could play every chord? I feel like I could write a million songs if I had that."

But how will she know when it's time to stop fighting the ticking in her head and start the family she's always wanted? For a moment she seems at a loss for words. "I've been making a conscious effort not to think about the future," she finally says. "I feel lucky to not have to have a real job, to be able to express myself, be creative and be relevant. I don't know what I'll be doing in ten years. How old will I be? Forty-five. I don't want to think about it, to be honest, because it's a waste of time. Tomorrow night I'll be in bed with my husband again and it will be really great. It's all about right now."

This story is from the January 27th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone. 

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