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Gwen Stefani Climbs Back From the Abyss

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Posted on 11:01, Friday, March 11

NY Times - BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. In February 2015, Gwen Stefani joined Maroon 5 onstage at the Grammys to perform the ballad My Heart Is Open. After the awards, she got Mexican food with the bands singer, Adam Levine, a fellow coach on the NBC reality-singing competition The Voice. For a pop superstar of two decades, it was a relatively normal night. But when she woke up the next morning, My life was literally blown up into my face, she said.

For 10 weeks, those closest to her had known the secret that ultimately ended her 13-year marriage to Gavin Rossdale, the singer of the band Bush. Ms. Stefani wont discuss the details, partly to protect her children, but said: If I could, I would just tell you everything, and you would just be in shock. Its a really good, juicy story. (The tabloids say Mr. Rossdale was having a several-years-long affair with a nanny caring for the couples three sons.)

Ms. Stefani, 46, was reeling. Im gonna die, she said, recalling her emotional state. I am dead, actually. How do I save myself? What am I going to do? How do I not go down like this?

Sitting at the long marble table in an office in her sprawling home here, dressed in a sheer white blouse and shiny red stilettos, Ms. Stefani laid out the answer: She plunged herself into her first love, songwriting. I have to make music out of this. Thats what God wants for me, she remembers thinking.

The result is This Is What the Truth Feels Like (Interscope), her first solo album in a decade, which will be released on Friday, March 18.

The albums 12 tracks are more direct and less whimsical than her previous two pop records. There are fiery songs about secrets and infidelity (the swaggering Red Flag and Naughty, delivered in Ms. Stefanis speak-sung pseudo-rap) and ballads that capture the rawness of a long relationships premature end (Used to Love You). And thanks to Ms. Stefanis budding romance with her Voice co-star, the country singer Blake Shelton which began after news of her split with Mr. Rossdale broke last August more than half of the tracks are about discovering the spark of a new love. The songs arent as dancey as much current pop; they retain the bouncy, synth-driven sound of Ms. Stefanis earlier work. In a field dominated by young starlets, shes made a grown-up pop album, confessional and sleek, without the oddball B-A-N-A-N-A-S flourishes of her past hits.

As Ms. Stefani began writing, she said she didnt worry about potential sales, what it means to be a 46-year-old pop singer in a youth-dominated field, or pleasing her record company.

She talked to a new contact at her label, Aaron Bay-Schuck, and felt a glimmer of hope. (I was like, wow, this guy, I think he might actually get me.) And then she started sessions with the team that became her Truth squad, including the songwriter Justin Tranter and later his frequent partner Julia Michaels, who together had written high-profile tracks for Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber.

Ms. Stefanis directions were clear: She wanted to capture her history if it didnt happen in real life, it wasnt going on the album. And the floodgates opened.

Being in that room and being creative, it was the only place that felt good I was like, I love the smell of this room, she recalled. (Ms. Michaels said there were a lot of laughter and tears during the sessions, which Ms. Stefani attended in her signature look: The red lip and big nails and the jewelry.) Songwriting had saved her before, Ms. Stefani said. She described herself as having been a passive girl, an unremarkable teenager, until she uncovered her talent. Its almost like one of those movies where they discover they have magic, she said. When I was able to first write a song, thats when I found my whole self.

Ms. Stefanis label, however, had reservations about the highly personal music she was churning out. On a phone call that felt like five people punching me in the stomach, she said she was told: We support you, you should put out an artistic record, and dont go for radio. Its over for you, basically.

John Janick, the chairman and chief executive of Interscope Geffen A&M, said he absolutely remembers the uncomfortable call because he was the one who had to make it. I said, Im not sure you have the song thats going to really connect with people, he recalled. And two days later, she sent us Used to Love You.

The label immediately got in touch to say, You have a hit, Ms. Stefani said, noting with some glee that it was the most personal song shed attempted to write. Thats never happened in my entire career. (The song wound up peaking at No. 52 on the Billboard Hot 100. A second single, Make Me Like You, for which Ms. Stefani created an intricately choreographed live video during a commercial break on this years Grammys in a multi-million-dollar partnership with Target, is at No. 54 and climbing.)

After a few weeks in the studio, Ms. Stefani returned to her other job on The Voice, burdened with knowing her marital issues had not yet become public. Im not a secret girl, she explained. I tell everybody when my period is coming.

But she soon learned that Mr. Shelton, whom she refers to as one of my co-workers, was also in the throes of a personal crisis. He had been going through literally the exact same thing in literally the exact same time frame, she said. Her friendship with him blossomed.

Her collaborators noticed a change instantly. We had anger, we had sadness, we had flirtation, we had sexy, and now were madly in love, Mr. Tranter said. Ms. Stefani described the shift with one of her frequently used terms crazy! and added, Never in my wildest, craziest dreams would I ever have seen this coming.

Ms. Stefani, unguarded and reflective, spoke quickly in torrents of words, pausing only to sip tea from a cup that, like most of her dcor, was black and white. She thought back to her childhood in Anaheim, Calif., where she presumed shed one day lead a happy family like the one her parents had built. I literally was so sheltered and nave, and thats a lot why I think I got myself into so much trouble, in a way, she said. She lamented that because of her split from Mr. Rossdale, she now has her sons 50 percent of the time. Its like, the most unjust, unbelievable system, she said, adding that the blessing in it was she had time to heal and write. Atop her work table sat a book of photos from her youngest sons first year, two pairs of sunglasses, her journal and a tin of Dr. Martens Wonder Balsam.

No Doubt, the band she co-founded in 1987, had already sold more than 20 million albums worldwide when it took its first break following its 2001 LP, Rock Steady. Her first thought: dance record. The result was Love. Angel. Music. Baby., a 2004 album of wacky, hip-hop-inflected songs that blended her fascination with Japanese fashion and 80s synth pop. Pharrell Williams, now a longtime friend, collaborated on its signature hit, Hollaback Girl.

Gwen is a true heroine, whose creativity represents all the young female rebels at heart, Mr. Williams said in an email.

She got pregnant with her first son, Kingston, before embarking on her first solo tour and returned to the studio to make a follow-up album, The Sweet Escape, when he was just eight weeks old. The cycle almost immediately repeated itself: a worldwide tour and a pregnancy, with her second child, Zuma. Her growing empire now included fashion and fragrances.

And she wasnt done yet. No Doubt had been awaiting her return, so she hit the road with a toddler and a nursing baby and completely exhausted herself. I felt quite trapped on so many levels, because when you have that much success you feel like you owe everybody, she said. Everybody depends on you.

Sessions for the bands first album in 11 years, Push and Shove, followed, and Ms. Stefani wasnt brimming with ideas. The LP failed to take off commercially, and when the band returned to the studio this time with collaborators including Sia, Greg Kurstin and Mr. Williams Ms. Stefani got pregnant for a third time. Thats when I started to really find my faith again, she said. Its like a miracle, at my age.

Weeks after giving birth to Apollo, the offer to become a coach on The Voice arrived, and Ms. Stefani found herself relishing her new role as mentor. I needed so badly to do something different, and I needed so badly to be in a different role, a giving role. Freshly inspired, she felt the urge to make music and mulled a solo album. I started to think, well, Ill just curate a record, and Ill do it like every other pop girl does.

This was the first time Ms. Stefani had dipped a toe into the new pop economy, where ace songwriters for hire shop tracks from artist to artist. Every song that people would write for me felt like me 12 years ago, me 10 years ago. And lyrically they could never touch my heart, ever. She recorded a full album, but decided to shelve it once sessions for Truth took off.

Considering how much the pop landscape has changed in a decade, Ms. Stefani is incredulous about her ability to continue recording. I dont even understand how I could possibly have had this long a career, or a career at all, she said. And that anyone cares, and that Im relevant or anything, it just blows my mind.

Mr. Tranter said Ms. Stefanis sweetness and humility arent put-on. At first I thought she was just being polite, he said. And then I was like, oh, she actually doesnt realize the lives that shes changed. She has no clue. Describing Ms. Stefanis appeal as that amazing combination of extreme fabulousness and extreme honesty, he noted the 1995 No Doubt album Tragic Kingdom defined one whole era of music, and then she did it again as a solo artist, which is very rare.

Mr. Janick said the longevity of Ms. Stefanis career is one reason the label is confident in her new albums viability. Obviously theres a lot of people that have grown up with Gwen over the years. Her being on The Voice, what she does in fashion, shes all over all the magazines. You can say its a grown-up pop record, but I feel like it touches on all different things that people can relate to of all different ages and sexes.

Ms. Stefani, who sometimes reminds herself Wow, I did do that! I wrote those songs! to boost her own confidence, said singing about being happy is so fresh to her. I needed something new to happen. And not just in my career, in my life. Something had to change.

Im not going to say Im not still picking up the pieces and every day isnt a challenge, she said. Im still in shock. But its an awesome time.

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