Season 1, Episode 15: How Gwen Stefani Learnt She Could Write Hit Songs

Season 1, Episode 15: How Gwen Stefani Learnt She Could Write Hit Songs

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Hello and welcome to Hot Girls with me, Lex On The Decks. For this week’s episode I am going to be exploring the life and legacy of American artist, Gwen Stefani. I’ve chosen Gwen, not because she has the hair I aspire but primarily because both through her work with No Doubt, and as a soloist she’s been heavily influenced by Jamaican music and you wouldn’t necessarily know that immediately when thinking about her music. She had such a massive impact on culture when she was releasing solo albums and she’s also managed to have longevity as an artist which is actually one of the hardest things to achieve as a musician. I think she’s a fascinating artist to learn from. Very ambitious and very recognisable and I’ve found it fascinating how her personal and her professional life have interwoven. It’s an interesting story so I hope you enjoy.

Before we get stuck into Gwennie Gwen Gwen I wanted to just say thank you very much for tuning in. This is our third month of being live and the response has been amazing so thank you for backing the movement. Please do tweet us @lexonthedecks – (lex with an x decks with a cks) and let us know which artists have inspired you and who you’d like to learn about and if there are women working in music you’d love to hear interviewed then let us know and we will see what we can do. 

OK, Gwen Stefani, let’s go!

Early life

On October 3, 1969 Dennis and Patti Stefani had a little baby girl who they named Gwen. Yes, Gwen Stefani is her actual name which is a first for this podcast series. She grew up in Orange County with her parents, older brother Eric and younger siblings Jill and Todd. Her dad worked in marketing at Yamaha so was a musical guy but it was really Gwen’s brother Eric who introduced her to music in a creative way. When she was about 13 her brother Eric came home one day with a record by the British band Madness who were from Camden in North London and their biggest hits like House of Fun, Baggy Trousers and Our House – playful underground music that blew up. And Gwen talks about that as being a trigger moment for them because it introduced them to Ska music. You don’t hear so much about ska these days (spelt ska) but it was a genre that actually came out of Jamaica and was then picked up by punk bands in the states and UK so it became this kind of playful, sound which was somewhere right between reggae/rnb sounds and rock music, without being “pop”. 

Inspired by this music, when Gwen was 16/17 she first started singing as a part of a band her brother Eric wanted to form called ‘No Doubt’. That was in 1986. 

Well they ended up releasing six studio albums and selling 30million copies, to date, but, let’s not skip ahead. I want to pause on that clip of Gwen Stefani talking, because it’s important for where No Doubt came from and their intention, which was to make music they liked and to put on shows that they liked. Simple mission accomplished. For the first four years of being together as a band, a band which did see a few iterations, but Gwen was consistently a singer, they were unsigned and they paid for everything themselves, splitting the costs of rehearsal studios and the other overheads which they paid for through other jobs. They also played often in the Stefani’s garage like a real American high school movie. 

They got signed in 1991 to the label Interscope and released the debut album ‘No Doubt’ – inventive naming – in 1992. At this point the band consisted of 8 members, including Eric, Gwen, Tony on bass and Tom on guitar. Tony the bass player was Gwen’s first boyfriend and first love and they were together for the Band’s first two albums, No Doubt and The Beacon Street Collection. Eric wrote most of the material for these albums and was seen as the leader of the group. The albums were OK, the band had a good sound but they didn’t see any real critical success possibly because none of the songs were seen as distinctive enough to be marketed as singles. No Doubt actually paid for their own video to be made, for the song “Trapped in a Box” clumping together the steep investment of about 5k. The video got local airplay in Orange County but, despite the band’s hopes, it was never aired on either MTV or VH1. The second album sold three times as much as the first so some good progress, well done guys, but it was actually released by no doubt on their own label as Interscope weren’t interested. 

They got passed from the label Interscope to a side label under that called trauma – and as a band, because their sound was distinctive but also kind of category defining – kind of ska music in a period of time when harder rock music was more popular – Gwen being the lead vocalist was a big part of that as well. What made them special also made them difficult from a management point of view because the trajectory wasn’t necessarily clear. 

Tragic Kingdom Album

Then something happened which would forever change the fortunes of both Gwen Stefani’s personal life and her bank account. Tony broke up with her. After 7years together he decided it wasn’t to be and he totally broke Gwen’s heart, hence the name of the band’s third album: “The Tragic Kingdom”. When they started the process of making this album, Eric was struggling with managing the creative input of label producers and other people. Gwen who’d never really written music before except for supporting with the process of the other records, all of a sudden started writing these incredible songs. You know, take yourself to that place of heartbreak and that pain. It’s incredibly intense and she was so emotional and had so much to process that the song lyrics were really just the outpouring of human emotion. Unsurprisingly, really writing from that place delivered much more successful songs. The hero song of The Tragic Kingdom album was ‘Don’t Speak’ which is such a real processing of being dumped essentially. That song, Gwen wrote at Tony’s house, and it totally changed the fortunes of no doubt in 1996. It went to number one on the billboard chart and stayed there for 16weeks which was a record at the time, woweee. So good things can come from heartbreak.. Other key singles from that album included: Just a Girl, and Happy Now. 

Amid the production of this album, Eric Stefani left the band because he was no longer enjoying the input of so many people on the process – also lets be real, it must have been quite intense spending all your time with your sister and her ex boyfriend who were still kinda in love and singing at each other. Where did Eric go, I hear you cry? Well to The Simpsons where he worked as an animator. 

Off the back of the success of the Tragic Kingdom, No Doubt went on tour with the rock band Bush as a support act and a few weeks into the tour lead singers of the tour bands started making out and that was how Gwen met her first husband, Gavin Rossdale. 

They ended up touring for two and a half years – much longer than anticipated but the band also became much more popular than anyone had expected. 

Return to Saturn was the band’s fourth album, the follow up to Tragic Kingdom and it featured the singles Ex-Girlfriend (banger) and Simple Kind of Life which has the classic video of Gwen as a runaway bride. Video has quite a similar feel to Katy Perry’s hot and cold video so feel like maybe she was inspired by that. When she wrote a lot of this material she was in a back and forth with Gavin Rossdale, making sense of that relationship which became long distance when they stopped touring together, still spending most of her time with her ex boyfriend Tony and as she said, way beyond that, the complexities of growing up on tour, success but also instability in your life. This album and phase, to me is more like rock ballads – you have the close ups of the guy with his guitar etc, whereas their next album was pretty magical as it really brilliantly blended of Jamaican music and ska music.

That album was called RockSteady and I think, well definitely for me, this is No Doubt’s Golden album. The cover was the red white and black with lyrics over it. Released in 2001, Gwen Stefani is so Powerful in that album and at that time, as though she’d found this new sense of self-assuredness. Rolling Stone included Rock Steady in its list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. It definitely comes from a band that knows who they are and while all the band members were very important, Gwen was the front woman and lead writer. The sounds of the album came from a few different things but when they were on tour with previous album they would rock out to that on stage and then throw after parties where they would play Dancehall. For anyone who isn’t familiar with that term, Dancehall is a branch of reggae music really from Jamaica, artists like Sean Paul, beanie man, songs like heads high, toast by Koffee urm even like No Games by Serani or dude. Those are all versions of Dancehall music. I did one of these episodes on Spice who is a key artist in that genre so if you’re interested, listen to that or her music. The song “Underneath it All” from the rocksteady album is this so distinctively, this and features Lady Saw who was really popular at the time. 

It was during the development of this album that Gwen linked up with someone who would be another key influence in her musical life. Mr Pharell Williams. They’d both been enjoying each other from afar and when they slinked past. She had something specific in mind she wanted his input on so just a call out on networking here – she could very quickly say to Pharell, here’s something for you to look at and they started building a relationship from there. The song that came out of her bringing him in, was Hella Good. The other really big track from that album was of course the iconic “Hey Baby”. Around this time, Gwen also started recording bits as a solo artist, outside of No Doubt. 

First big example of this was the 2001 single “Let me Blow Your Mind.” It was a song by the rapper Eve. Evie Eve. And Gwen was invited to do the hook in a stroke of genius. That’s one of those songs that definitely has stood the test of time. She was invited to do the hook by Dr Dre who she’d been a long time fan of, mainly as a producer and was like if Dre’s doing it, I’m in and great timing to work with Eve as well because it was the same year Eve released ‘who’s that girl’. Eve and Gwen went on tour together over 10years later which is so nice so that the songs they made solidified a bond that they could use and fans would be excited about many years later.

A combination of these bits of solo work, her evolution as a person and I think the relationships and inspiration she had working with producers like Pharell led to her decision to create and release a solo album. The writing process took as while as she had a little baby during it so paused the release and finishing process. About 2.5months after he was born she went back in to finish the album. From the outside releasing a solo album might seem like an obvious step for an ambitious artist, but in reality, I can imagine it must be quite scary. She knew how to work with No Doubt and make that successful but imagine if she released her solo album and it flopped, it would be akws. She went into the process of that album, really clear and specific about what she wanted to create and actually said if she hadn’t met her expectations she would never have released it. Working closely with the Neptunes  The album was released in 2004 and couldn’t have done a lot better. It went triple Platinum in the US, the UK and quadruple platinum in Australia. The launch single, “What you waiting for”, I want to share some of the lyrics cos I re-listened to them for this and wow, she really lets you into her mind, so firstly she’s having this back and forth Naturally I’m worried if I do it alone, Who really cares ’cause it’s your life, You never know, it could be great, Take a chance ’cause you might grow.” and then later the song goes, “Your moment will run out ’cause of your sex chromosome

I know it’s so messed up how our society all thinks (For sure)” aka if you don’t get a move on people will think you’re too old to release a solo album because you’re a woman and therefore you’re only hot when you’re young. And I will say Gwen as well as lots of other artists are continuously proving that agism is really backwards and misguided. Being that deliberate in the creative process, led to an album which had just a lot of hits. As well as Wind It Up there was, Rich Girl, ft eve, Hollaback Girl with the inspired line “this shit is bananas”. Not as deep as some of her other songs. The Happy Ballad, Cool which I love and Luxurious. Tony Kanal her ex and the bass player of No Doubt was really involved in the writing process so quite amazing how that relationship evolved and remained special in both of their lives. Another thing I want to highlight was how seriously Gwen Stefani understood the difference between whats expected of you as a performer when you’re a solo artist verses in a band. ELABORATE – Dance theatrics vs just rocking out on stage, putting your arm around the bass player – you know. 

I cannot talk about that album and Gwen Stefani in this period of time without talking about her muse, the harijuku girls. Gwen was so theatrical in this album launch she was constantly accompanied by four Japanese girls – I dunno whether it would be seen as cultural appropriation now-a-days but she was totally celebrating the style they’d created and bringing it to the Western world so maybe not. I found an article on no doubt from 1997 in which Gwen references herself as “The one who grew up liking makeup and The Sound of Music and pretty clothes and girlie hairstyles.” Which I found amazing when you think about what she went on to do with LAMB, and her second album as a solo artist in which she remade the music from the Sound of music and really living out her dress up fantasy. She created something from visions she’d had for years. She also launched a clothing line, called LAMB off the back of the success of that album. 

The second album came more because she had left over songs and inspiration from the first which I think went better than she had even hoped for. Wind it Up, sampled a famous song from the sound of music which was a film Gwen absolutely loved. Then there was the song “Sweet Escape” with Akon which still bangs in my humble opinion and then also Yummy’s a good song. She went on a huge worldwide tour off the back of the album. I will say, critics slated the album and to that end, critics really don’t matter that much. A writer wrote in the review in NME that the album was “this year’s bargain-bin fodder”, and that “the majority of this record serves only to bury what made Gwen Stefani unique in the first place.” But critics do tend to go off things when they become popular so you take the positive or negative reviews too seriously. 

Since that second album in 2006-8 really, Gwen hasn’t released an album as a solo artist. No Doubt reformed so that was her next musical output. When they had their reunion, 

Stefani was 42 and she looked and still looks insane so i want to know what she’s eating.

The reunion album was Push and Shove and it contained one of my favourite songs of all time and what I think is one of the most underrated songs. I’ve never heard anyone talk abut it, I don’t know why. It was a collaboration with Major Lazer who also have been influential in bringing Jamaican music to the world it’s called push and shove. The music video is underwhelming, I will say that but if you’re listening and you like this song please tweet or email me because I want to know. Other songs I recommend from that reunion album are settle down and looking hot. There’s also a good remix of looking hot by the electronic producer Rehab so maybe check that one out 

In 2015 Gwen started a new musical chapter as one of the judges on The Voice in the US. As had previously happened in her life, the same year that saw a big career move also saw a big personal move. In February of that year, her husband of 14years and the father of her three children Gavin Rossdale seemingly forgot he was married to Gwen Stefani, or something, because he did a Jude Law. Stefani discovered that he had been having an affair with their nanny, Mindy. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar she describes that discover as  “the beginning of hell,” she said, “My dreams were shattered. All I wanted my whole life was to have babies, be married, like what my parents have.” Mindy had been working with them since 2008 and yeah, it was no one off. Really heart wrenching shit, no disrespect to anyone involved but. God or the angels or someone definitely had one eye on Gwen because her co host on the Voice, country singer Blake Shelton went through a divorce at pretty much the exact same time and the two of them then fell in love with each other and are still together so you know what. Love can come again sooner than you expect 🙂

So… what are my lessons from Gwen Stefani. 

The first is, be a dreamer. 

The second is to be nice.

The third is to do what you think is cool rather than what you think might be seen that way by others

The fourth is to keep making work – she’s still releasing singles when inspired, trying different genres etc. 

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