Miércoles 6 de Diciembre de 2006, Ip nº 182

Leopard changes her spots
Por Dan Cairns

Okay, the hair, for starters. Gwen Stefani in the last days of 2006 has two new looks. Gone are the stacked Marie Antoinette constructions and the cascading, just-out-of-bed curls. This afternoon, in a London hotel room, she’s a rocker, and the shock-headed plume of peroxide in front of me isn’t moving an inch. Litres of lacquer have been spilt. When Stefani cocks or tilts her head, the stiff quiff remains unbending. Later, at the television studio, you could run a ruler along each perfect strand of blonde fringe, her alternate look. “Busy?” I ask her hairstylist. “Oh,” he says, his eyes rolling in their heavy mascara rims, “we’ve got lots to do.”
When she burst out of the Japanese-style wrapping last year as a solo artist with her album Love.Angel.Music.Baby, the 37-year-old Orange County singer got straight to the point. Her biological clock was ticking, she implied on the opening track, What You Waiting for?, so we’d better enjoy solo Stefani while we could. Since joining the band No Doubt in 1986 at 17, she had worked the live circuit, finally had a breakthrough hit in 1997 with Don’t Speak, then reaped every reward except motherhood. “Tick-tock tick-tock,” went the song. She was in a hurry. “I’d wanted a baby for so long,” she says. “It was all I ever thought about my whole life. Then, all of a sudden, years had gone by and it kept getting put off. And I didn’t know how it was going to fit into my life, you know?” The problem was exacerbated by the fact that, inconveniently, LAMB sold almost 6m copies, propelling Stefani to stratospheric supernova status. The world could not, it seemed, get enough of her wacky videos, her tiny attendant Japanese sidekicks, the succession of early-Madonna-inspired pop and dance singles (Rich Girl, Hollaback Girl, Cool) she unleashed on us.

Then, suddenly, she got pregnant, and found herself stricken with sickness, crying before going on stage every night, having to get her outfits taken out to hide her growing size. She and her husband, Gavin Rossdale, formerly the singer in the British band Bush (huge in America, couldn’t get arrested over here), had a baby boy, Kingston, in May this year. She’s got everything she ever wanted, right? So why is she about to release a new album? Nut-brown eyes twinkling with warmth and humour — and a tiny trace of wariness — Stefani does what famous people tend to do when you chuck them a tricky one. She throws back her head (and quiff) and gurgles with metallic laughter. It’s as if they’ve become unaccustomed to awkward questions. But all credit to her: she answers it. After a fashion.

“I definitely have an addiction to wanting to do stuff,” she begins. “I don’t know if it’s my Catholic background; the guilt. But I feel like I’ve been given so many opportunities, and what are the chances of this happening to somebody? I mean, it’s really extraordinary, my life. If anyone else was in my situation, they’d do exactly the same.” She’s remarked before on the prurience and invasiveness of the British press, which, as she lives some of the year in London, she’s had her fair share of. The camera lenses homed in on her when it was revealed last year that Rossdale had fathered a child in the 1980s with the doyenne of the Primrose Hill set, Pearl Lowe. When Stefani herself became pregnant, the paps all but moved into her home.

“I got caught up in the whole celebrity-pregnancy thing,” she sighs. “For an entire year, I had people outside my house, waiting for me to come out. I am like everyone else who enjoys a bit of nasty gossip. Like, don’t let me open one of those magazines, because I can’t put them down. We’re all addicted to it; it’s gross, but it’s entertaining. But I’m the one who has to live it. In LA, there would be mornings where I’d be sleeping with my french doors open, in the heat, and I’d be woken up by chatter. I’d look out and there’d be these guys in lawn chairs, hanging out, having a coffee, ready to chase me around all day. Like, wow. Who am I? What happened? That’s a bizarre life, isn’t it?”

What marks Stefani out from the norm is that — unlike, say, the never less than melodic and macrobiotic Chris Martin — her music is as bizarre as her life. Or perhaps “bizarre” doesn’t do justice to her second album, The Sweet Escape. Its lead single, Wind It Up, is so unashamedly barking, it should be sectioned at once. It samples The Lonely Goatherd, from The Sound of Music (nice timing), and in its video, the star apes Maria: here in a habit, there at a spinning wheel, running up dresses out of curtains for her Harajuku girls, yodelling like a loon. Produced and co-written by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, the Neptunes, it is quite unlike anything else released this year. But is it a single? I mean, obviously, it is a single; but should it have been?

“Pharrell was like, ‘It has to be Yummy,’” Stefani says, referring to the album’s other grade-A-nutter song. “It was between the two, and I just felt Wind It Up had more of that kind of ‘da-da-da DUM’, that weird feeling, whereas Yummy is more like, if you’re in a club you’re going to get really into it, but it doesn’t have that ‘BAM’.” (She talks that way a lot, in capital letters, like a Lichtenstein painting.) A record-company bean-counter could be excused for worrying whether Wind It Up, Yummy and the other weird-outs on a gloriously unfettered album have any ‘BAM’ or ‘da-da-da DUM’ at all. Yet if that old pop formula — huge success, the wresting of artistic control, next album a flop — may apply to other artists, Stefani has form. LAMB was scarcely demure. And, while The Sweet Escape arguably lacks a track as drop-dead commercial as its predecessor’s Cool, it has an ace up its sleeve in the shape of Early Winter. Stefani co-wrote the epic weepie with Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane. She is refreshingly unstuffy about its origins.

“I really wanted a ballad on this record,” she says, “you know, like Eyes Without a Face, by Billy Idol, or Killing Me Softly, or Time After Time. I call Tim the Clark Kent of songwriting, because he’s quite, like, humble. He wears these glasses and you notice, when he takes them off, he’s actually really good-looking; and he gets in there and writes these super-unbelievable, chilling, goose-bump songs. I called him on the phone; the baby’s sitting on my lap, crying, and I go, ‘I just really want it to sound like Eyes without a Face’, like, you know, making an order for breakfast.” Room service duly delivered.

Could she stop all this? Drop the photoshoots, the red carpets, the awards, the touring, the constant merry-go-round? “If Pharrell calls me up... it’s Pharrell,” she says. “Do you know how many people want to work with that guy? Of course you’re going to reassess yourself and be, like, what’s going on? And, being a woman, you definitely start to realise there’s only going to be a certain amount of time to do this thing.” And if the success she describes as “just delicious” went belly up, beyond her control? “It’s going to end,” she says, suddenly wistful, “and it’s so sad, because it’s so fun. Anybody would want to do this. But, at the same time, I would love to not work, to just sit at home with Kingston and eat pizza. It goes so fast, before your eyes. Part of me thinks I should be at home and watch him grow.”

Up close, she has perfect skin, and — with apologies to Lloyd Cole — when she smiles your way, your eyes go out in vain. She once said that her “overall thing isn’t sexy”. Would she mind if people thought it was? “There are a lot of girls I see, and it’s like the whole idea is: look at me, I’m sexy. Anybody can do that, pretty much, if you put the right things on, or take the right things off. My image has maybe shifted a little bit more to embrace that, but I earned it, in the sense that I am now age-appropriate.” (That clock again.) For the most part, she thinks, such antics “look ridiculous. It’s like: you have time. What are you going to take off next if you take it all off now?”.

The publicist appears. There’s a TV show to film, a quiff to be chiselled into pliancy, an album to promote and a baby to breast-feed upstairs before the celebrity circus heads across London. So much to do, so little time. The mother of all maverick solo artists, Gwen Stefani is sprinting to stay still. She may be breaking records, but there are other races to be run. On your marks, get set, GO.

  26/11/2006. Time Magazine.