Graham Reid | | 8 min read
The fact is, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt looks even more gorgeous lounging casually on the couch opposite than she does in her carefully styled photo shoots.
While her magazine image is often that of a distant, pouting, sexually empowered ice-queen -- "Glamazon" is the new description -- in real life she glows naturally, laughs unselfconsciously, radiates curiosity and furrows her brow just like non-popstars do when confronted by a confusing question. Kinda normal then, but in a drop-dead stunning way.
Her pale skin appears translucent, the effect even more pronounced by having former partner and No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal beside her. His olive complexion is exaggerated by bleached blond hair, which looks vaguely orange as hazy Los Angeles afternoon light seeps in.
Striking-looking stars like these two -- millions of records sold, friends with the likes of U2, for whom they've recently opened across the States -- aren't supposed to be chatty and friendly.
Stefani particularly -- a fashion icon who has spawned Gwennabees -- should be haughty and aloof. And Kanal could be forgiven for finding another interview about their Rock Steady album a little tedious.
But they surprise in the nicest way, because they are still music fans who, even after recently working alongside Sly and Robbie, Elvis Costello, Dr Dre and others, can still come over all "Wow!" at the drop of a hat.
Or more correctly at the the drop of "New Zealand".
Kanal is animated. "Really? From New Zealand? Tell me, do the Thompson Twins still live there?"
Assured that former Twins Tom Bailey and Alannah Currie do indeed live in New Zealand, they can barely contain their excitement.
"We're big fans," says Kanal stating the obvious. "We were very inspired by them, we'd love to work with them in the future."
He asks for a Thompson Twins contact number so he can explore the possibility of Bailey doing some No Doubt remixes, as Stefani sits shaking her head doing the "Wow" thing just at the very thought.
These two give the impression that despite the business, lawyers, promotional hustle and so on, at heart they are people who just like music, sometimes unfashionable music.
"We're huge fans of 80s music," says Kanal, "and a lot of people are afraid to say that, like it's not cool. We couldn't care less about being cool and have always been Thompson Twins fans and listen to their albums even now. Their remix album is phenomenal," he says of something that came out 13 years ago.
"Yeah," says Stefani, getting in on the Thompson Twins rah-rah. "When you go back and hear it again you realise how ahead of their time they they were.
"We wrote Running for Rock Steady, which was based on one of their tracks," she says then, as if caught being too much the fan, there's the hint of a blush. Stefani photoshoots suggest it takes a lot to embarrass her.
Stefani and Kanal are back in their hometown to talk up their new album, a multi-headed monster of different producers and guests. Knob-twiddlers on Rock Steady include the reggae rhythm team of Sly and Robbie, Jamaican dancehall duo Steely and Clevie, former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, who co-wrote Underneath It All with Stefani, Bjork's mix-master Nellee Hooper, William Orbit, who did Madonna's Ray of Light, and the Cars' Ric Ocasek.
Elsewhere, the formidable Neptunes team co-wrote and added hip-hop jumpy-funk to the album's opening track, Hella Good, and a track rejigged by Prince two years ago gets a first-time airing.
Within that diversity, No Doubt have gone deeper into the ska and reggae of their origins in the South Californian ska-punk scene 15 years ago. But they've also taken more risks than you might expect from a pop band with a glamorous frontwoman who is as at home in the pages of Vogue as Rolling Stone.
They are clearly chuffed with the album and Kanal says it was, for them, recorded in a remarkably short time. It was less than a year from first writing sessions to release, whereas Tragic Kingdom (1995) took three years and Return to Saturn (2000) took two.
This one was just such a pleasure says Stefani. She admits that the worst time of her life was in 94, when she and Kanal split up after seven years together, and her brother and founder-member Eric quit the band. Their huge single about the end of the relationship, Don't Speak - and the 15 million-selling, multi-award-winning Tragic Kingdom album - raised expectations.
"With Don't Speak you could see how many people were affected by it, and once you get that you want to do that again. So I took it really seriously and we really tried hard with Return to Saturn, which was very much a growing-pains record. Coming off the success of Tragic Kingdom, that was hard."
Return to Saturn sold less than a quarter of Tragic Kingdom's figures, so a new attitude and approach were required. Letting go of expectation was one solution, but there was also an early breakthrough when guitarist Tom Dumont ("the worrier in the group," says Stefani) went to Jamaica.
"It was like a rebirth for him because he has an uptight side to him. But he came back feeling inspired and was hyping everybody up. It made everything really fresh.
"He knew people down there who hooked us up with Sly and Robbie. And then we met Steely and Clevie. We'd been listening to loads of dancehall, so actually the album was an excuse to go there and it was just a magic time."
Whereas they had previously written on guitar then recorded demos, the common thread on this album is their use of the computer as a recording tool. For most of the tracks, says Kanal, their first drafts were simply fine-tuned by the revolving door of available producers.
"For Hey Baby [the first single] Gwen's vocals were recorded on the first day we worked on that track ... about five minutes after I wrote them.
"And we took that to Jamaica. Sly and Robbie put a little drum stuff on, brought in [Jamaican toaster] Bounty Killer and just fine-tuned. All the producers put finishing touches on already existing sounds."
Stefani says the initial results encouraged them to continue in the same manner, and for a band that grew up on ska and reggae, to go to the source and get a good reception was an ego-boost.
"They were very excited, which was good because you can imagine, if you get the whole reggae thing wrong ... it's a crime to get it wrong, especially in Jamaica, and we've had a career where we've made more than a few mistakes," she says.
"But this was awesome and set the tone for the whole record."
Working with Ocasek was different again. After being with reggae and hip-hop producers (tracks with Dr Dre and Timbaland haven't made the final track listing), Ocasek was "a real band guy with real stories to tell". Like a homecoming, she says.
So it's hardly surprising the Ocasek tracks sound like ... well, the Cars-meets-No Doubt actually.
Stefani rocks with laughter, takes it as a compliment, and says Ocasek is someone they idolise - as is Prince, who came to a show in Minneapolis three years ago and invited them back to his place after the gig.
"He was very down to earth," says Kanal with a glow of fandom. "About a year passed and he called Gwen and asked her to sing on his Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic record, and in exchange said he'd work on anything we wanted. So we sent him an unfinished song called Waiting Room which we'd worked on during the Saturn sessions.
"He reworked our version completely, wrote new lyrics and added things and it was phenomenal. We did a little more on it but it didn't fit on Saturn so we pulled it back up and realised it fitted perfectly with Rock Steady."
And Nellee Hooper, who has worked with U2 and Soul II Soul - and someone they'd been fans of since hearing his work with Bjork - just happened to be available.
"We were going to do one track with him and we did five," says Stefani. "He'd take a tiny sample and detune it to make it funky then add it as a beat - we didn't even know about that idea."
As Stefani talks about these producers she sounds surprised they would want to work with No Doubt.
"You know, we had to work a long time to actually have people interested in us, so now to be with people we've been inspired by and idolised ... Wow! To be actually sitting with Ric Ocasek and him going, 'Gosh Gwen, you're a really great songwriter' - that feels amazing.
"It's a lot of pressure, too, of course, but that made everybody want it to be so good. It's not like we planned to have all these people or even that this would be the way we'd do it again, it was just the way it ended up. It could have been a compilation if we hadn't been careful."
Rock Steady is certainly diverse, and a courageous album for a band that could have replicated its winning Tragic Kingdom formula to regain its audience.
But in these days immediately post-Twin Towers, when musicians are blabbing on about how their work will reflect a new seriousness, No Doubt had already recorded a frivolous, fun and summer-sounding album.
While Stefani says they had doubts about releasing it now -- "Should we wait? But wait for what?" -- they have a refreshing, clear-eyed view of what it is. It's an album of danceable pop. No more, no less.
"This isn't going to change the world, it's maybe just a diversion, hopefully a relief," says Stefani, then adds something so self-effacing among rock's self-inflating hype that it makes you like her even more.
"I don't know if people are healed by music -- but that's all we have to offer as a contribution."