Gwen Stefani’s fingers are bathed in ice. She has diamond rings on almost every finger. She’s wearing a striped top and jeans, but the finger bling reminds me, This is Gwen Stefani. I didn't really need reminding, Stefani looks the same as she had since she first became ultra-famous 20 years ago. If she ages at all, it would seem like she does it backward. It's this timeless physicality that had me, before meeting her, composing a list of questions about her beauty routine. I wanted the answers for reasons other than this interview, even; I basically aspire to be 48 years old and look like I’m Benjamin Buttoning, too.
But I didn't wind up asking Stefani any beauty questions because we’re in Dubai and that’s kind of all we can talk about—neither one of us has ever been here. Stefani is here to play a private concert for Marriott Rewards and SPG members at the opening of The Renaissance Downtown Hotel in Dubai (one of the many perks for Marriott Rewards and SPG members who have enough points racked up to be a part of experiences like this; past partnerships have included concerts with musicians like Ellie Goulding, Demi Lovato, James Bay and CHVRCHES).
While most artists might just fly in and out for the show, Stefani is soaking up the city. Her affinity for travel makes her the ideal candidate to perform at the Renaissance Dubai's inaugural event. “I love culture,” she says.
Before Stefani was set to hit the stage, she spoke to NYLON about how happy she is to be alive, exploring Dubai, being labeled “punk,” and the future of No Doubt.
I can’t believe we’re in Dubai! What are your plans while you're here?
I'm here because of the opening of the hotel. I get to play tonight, and that's going to be incredible because I hadn't played in a long time. I didn't tour last summer, and since then, I've been taking shows whenever they come around. It's just so fun because when you don't do it a lot, and then you do do it, it's really exciting. Traveling the world has been the biggest gift out of everything because it just opens your heart up. [Dubai] is just full of so many different cultures coming together, and it's just really, really fun.
What's been your favorite moment in Dubai so far?
We went to this high-end perfumery. I thought we were going to go to a bazaar or something—[but] I love perfume so much and just all of the oils and things like that—but it was this small little boutique and this expert perfumery guy. He's so passionate, and he knows everything. I have created perfumes before on a commercial level and at the end of the day, creating the juice was really fun and really hard because I didn't know what I was doing. I was certainly with a team of people, but to work with him yesterday and learn about what he knows was really fun. He made me some perfume. It's really light, really pretty. Then we went into the desert and got to go on those Land Rovers that look like they're from the 1940s. They had no top on them. It really felt like we were on a safari. I was like, "This is so Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and everything that you see in a movie." It was so beautiful. We got to see a falcon show with the guy that came from South Africa that's been training this falcon since it was a baby. We went to this stone wall, and inside of it, we had dinner. There were locals that came out and did a drum dance for us. We ate lentil soup. It was just really cool.
What have you been up to today?
We’ve been here talking about tea all morning, which is one of my biggest passions. I'm such a huge fan of coffee, tea, and culture and I don't know. It's weird because I've been in Christmas mode, so all of the sudden, I feel like I went into this whole weird, crazy, foreign world.
You’ve had a challenging few years.
I did my last record, and before that, I had a really rough few years, and it was even before it got rough, rough. Even when I did that last No Doubt record, I came off having a baby, Zuma. Doing that show was so intense with No Doubt. We hadn't been together since my solo record, so it was amazing, but I think I really physically and emotionally killed myself. I came from that tour just drained. I knew they had been waiting, and we were going to make this record, and there was a lot of pressure. We tried to write it, but it took so long, and I just don't think I had anything left in me to bring. It has to come from within.
How did The Voice gig end up happening for you?
It took me a long time [to get to] Push and Shove. We started to try to promote it, and it really just didn't feel good. It was just really hard, and so that's when I was taking a break, and then I got pregnant like a miracle with the last baby that I had. Then I had him, and that's when they called me to do The Voice. It's in a crazy order, but the really big change in my life was when I went to do that show. It was something I never did before—I never expected to be on TV. Coming from the old-school ‘90s, being on a TV music show... I just would never imagine that to be something that I would do. When [The Voice] came to my house, I just had the baby, my parents were there, and the baby was only like four or five weeks old. I was just like, "I'm going to do it." I didn't even think about it. And getting on that show was the greatest thing I've ever done because it was so full of music and inspiring in so many ways. Playing that role of trying to think back on all of the things I had done and thinking, Wow, I did do all of those things. How did I do that? It was awakening to be on the show. At that point, I had just been repeating and repeating: Write a record, go on tour, write a record, go on tour, have a baby and have another baby. It was just something different and inspiring.
In your earlier records, you were really the punk-rock princess of pop. Since then, you’ve skewed more toward traditional pop blended with other genres. Would you combine punk and mainstream pop again in your work?
I feel like I kind of did on the Christmas record, weirdly. I grew up in Anaheim [, California]. My parents were into folk music, like Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris, and I went to bluegrass festivals when I was a kid. I feel sorry for kids these days. Every generation says that, but the music that we had in the ‘80s was so exciting. It was the British invasion and all the new dance music that was created through technology. It was these keyboards that we'd never heard before, like [in] Depeche Mode and The Cure. It was a combination of these amazing singer-songwriters in the ‘70s evolving into technology with keyboards. It was just such a cool time of music, and the music that we discovered was ska which was coming a little bit out of England. It was through the ‘70s and the punk thing, but I was never a punker. I was so young during that time period. I don't think that that really reflected my nature. I was a Catholic girl with really strict parents, super-passive and very good. I think people get the wrong idea of who I was really at that time. [I was] just very naive. When we started the band, we had discovered this music that was super-underground. For where we were, in Orange County, we were the anti-pop of what was going on in high school.
Can you elaborate on how your Christmas record is punk?
The reason why I think this record is the punk side of me is because when I met busbee, he was like, “Gwen, I don't know what kind of style to make a Christmas record." I wanted to do the Christmas record because I've always wanted to do a Christmas record. Because I'm Christmas. That's who I am: happy. And I think that after making that last record, I felt very confident in my writing again and very like, "This is what I'm supposed to do." And then he's like, "You know what, you're punk. You've got that edgy thing to you, but we need to make this record like punk, like Phil Spector, a raw record where you go back and get all live musicians, horns, and strings.” And that's why, to me, this record sounds kind of like a No Doubt record. But I'm saying, pre-Tragic Kingdom. It’s not overdubbed or anything.
Why do you think the punk label stuck with you?
I was the only girl that was in a band in my scene. The bands out of Orange County were mostly punk. So, the bands that No Doubt was playing with were those bands. It wasn't necessarily the music that I was listening to. I was listening to Bread and ‘70s love songs, but I loved being able to get up there and having to prove I can compete with these guys and I'm going to get the crowd going. Even though I love makeup and hair, I was in a band with all guys for my whole life. I definitely felt really comfortable being creative. It wasn't even until I was in the band for almost nine years, I didn't even write a song. My brother wrote all the songs, and then when I got my heart destroyed and broken, that's when I wrote Tragic Kingdom, and that's when I found myself. Before that, I was passive. To answer your question, it's an evolution of who I've always been as far as like that punk attitude that people might have thought that I had. It wasn't girl power. It wasn't. It was just like, "This is my experience, I'm writing it in a song." I never thought that anyone would hear it. I think that then I did the solo records because I wanted to explore that girly side of me.
What was the process of putting together This Is What the Truth Feels Like?
It saved my life. I was totally screwed; everything, all of my dreams, everything that I ever thought I was going to be, was gone. I didn't know what to do, and that's when I just knew. I was just praying so much at that time, thinking, What is my purpose? How did this happen to me? My parents are still married. I have the most incredible role models of love. How did this happen? And why is it that out of the two people, one that I married, they destroyed me and all of the music I've ever written is about being destroyed. That doesn't make any sense to me. I wrote This Is What the Truth Feels Like, which was an amazing, spiritual experience of writing.
You scrapped a record in 2014, right?
Yeah, but it wasn't a real record. After Push and Shove, No Doubt decided we were going to be more open to writing because I was so insecure when I was writing that record. I was so scared. I just couldn't. Then we started going in and trying to write with other people and other producers, and that felt uncomfortable. Then I got pregnant and did The Voice, and then, while I was knowing that I was going to do The Voice, I was like, "Well, I should put something out if I'm going to be on The Voice, so I might as well do a record." With No Doubt, we had all these plans. We were going to do this documentary. We did a bunch of festival tours together. That's when I started trying to collect songs. I was like, “Listen, I literally just gave birth to a baby. I had two other kids. I'm on a new show. There's no way for me to write a record. There's just literally not enough time in the day.” I started thinking, after all these years, so many people do amazing records that they didn't write. I met with Benny Blanco, who's a producer-songwriter, and working with him and collecting songs like, "Baby, Don't Lie," which is crazy and weird because that song was called, "Baby Don't Cry," and I was like, "I've never been able to do songs I didn't write." It always felt fake and weird. I was like, "I like that song, but it's kind of generic. I don't know." And so I changed it to, "Baby, Don't Lie" because I felt like that was more my story, but it was a subconscious thing that I needed to know that song would end up being really true to what my whole life was. It was so weird. It was almost like a precursor of what was to come.
Who did you end up getting songs from?
During that pregnancy, I got a lot of songs. I started getting songs from Sia. I have a song called "Start a War" that she gave me. "Elastic Heart" she gave to me, but that ended up being her song. She was so sweet to me. I went in with her with No Doubt and Pharrell. We did sessions together. There's a lot of interesting sessions that happened during that time period.
Are you working on any other music with No Doubt?
The guys did Dreamcar now, and I'm just so happy for them because they've always been that guy band, wanting to do their own dude thing. I think it just feels good for them to be able to have their own thing that they're doing. We don't have any plans to do anything. I went through so much. I can't believe I'm alive. I just did that record and I toured it which was so magical. All of those people that have been a part of my life, supporting me through all of these years, came out and I got to sing those songs to them, not only the songs that were like, "I'm dead.” But that’s a crazy record because it was written in a really short amount of time, like eight weeks. It went from death to light and love. It's pretty magical to tour and play live.