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Gwen Stefani

The Thrills Are Alive

Gwen Stefani “I’m just an Orange County girl living in an extraordinary world,” sings Gwen Stefani on her new album, The Sweet Escape. But it’s a safe bet this world would be a little more ordinary without Stefani in it.

For starters, the leadoff single from the singer and fashion icon’s sophomore solo album is the strangest song to hit the charts all year. “Wind It Up” starts with hollow, booming production from The Neptunes, adds a mechanical, self-referential rap about dancing, and then grafts on an excerpt from the Sound of Music’s “The Lonely Goatherd,” complete with Stefani’s yodeling. If she had released the single even five years ago, before the mash-up phenomenon, listeners would likely have asked, “What planet is she from?”

“It’s still like that,” laughs Stefani, reclining regally in a downtown Toronto hotel suite. “It takes a few bites before you get used to the texture. Once you’ve got it going, you’re like, ‘I need more of this.’ It’s a very addictive song.”

In its original recorded version, she explains, “Wind It Up” had no input from Rodgers and Hammerstein, but she ordered up a remix for a New York fashion show last fall for her clothing line, L.A.M.B.

“You know how there’s Trekkies for Star Trek?” she enthuses. “There’s those same people for Sound of Music. They’ll do sing-alongs in London where you dress up like characters. I’m kinda one of those girls. When I heard [the mash-up], I was in tears of joy.”

Apparently, it was on the same trip to New York that Stefani became pregnant by her husband, ex-Bush (and now Institute) singer Gavin Rossdale. Their son, Kingston, was born in May; she conducts interviews with the baby burbling in the next room and being tended to by his nanny.

Despite her professing to be almost completely sleep-deprived, Stefani’s complexion looks nearly flawless, with just the faintest hint of dark circles under her eyes to remind us that she’s human. Even such tiny imperfections are absent in the photos for The Sweet Escape’s booklet, which were taken by Montreal-born and LA-based photographer, Jill Greenberg.

“People are reacting different ways,” she says of the photos, “like, ‘Why does she look so weird?’ If you blow [the photos] up, you can see all the details of skin, but it’s perfect, so it’s pretty surreal-looking.”

Having spoken out about the strangeness of having paparazzi camped out outside her house during her pregnancy, perhaps she feels that presenting herself in such a way is a means of combating the popular press’s fascination with flaws?

“Maybe subconsciously it is,” she allows. “Sometimes you think, ‘Why do they keep following us? They’re taking 1000 pictures of the same outfit all day long.’ They’re just waiting for you to do something really bad, like the shots they got of poor Britney … You would be surprised being a woman eight months pregnant, coming out of the doctor’s office – the way they would surround me was shocking. How did they know that I wasn’t in labour? But it doesn’t bother me, really, ‘cause it’s fleeting – it’s not going to last forever.” She shrugs and laughs again. “I just moved to a new house, and they can’t get there anyway.”

As a musician, Stefani professes to be less concerned with surfaces now than when she was writing the 2004 smash, Love Angel Music Baby, which contains such seemingly nonsensical pop confections as “Hollaback Girl” and “Bubble Pop Electric.” The Sweet Escape ends with two songs (“U Started It” and “Wonderful Life”) that she held back from her debut because she felt their lyrics were inappropriately dark. Their production, like that on most of her debut album, unabashedly mines the ‘80s; elsewhere, as on “Wind It Up” and the retro video game-plus-congas groove of “Yummy,” the album is more eclectic. Stefani feels The Sweet Escape is “a little more personal, a little deeper in some places.” She is reluctant, as ever, to discuss the meanings behind her lyrics, but images of difficult relationships crop up often.

The album’s standout track, in terms of songwriting, is the yearning ballad “Early Winter,” Stefani’s collaboration with Keane keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley, on which she sings, “Why do you act so stupid? You know that I’m always right.”

Stefani is unwilling to be drawn on whether or not these lines are empowering or ironic, but she does suggest that poor singer Tom Chaplin (about whom Rice-Oxley wrote much of Keane’s surprisingly dark album Under the Iron Sea) isn’t the object of the song’s disapproval. “It’s a relationship thing,” she avers, apologetically vague. “You can decide for yourself what I thought – I put enough out there that you can just guess. That song is just a beautiful song. I think a lot of people will relate to it – the cycle of problems, or of life and love. It’s like a figure 8.”

Right now, if life and love are a cycle, Stefani seems to be at a peak. A new album with her band No Doubt and another baby are distinct possibilities, but for the time being, she’s happy trusting her career to serendipity. She finds inspiration just about everywhere and in just about everything – from Tokyo fashion (for the Harajuku girls, who will accompany her on the next tour) to Billy Idol (whose ballad “Eyes Without a Face” was her template for “Early Winter”) to the film Scarface (whose “coke whore” look for Michelle Pfeiffer inspired The Sweet Escape’s album cover) to Jill Greenberg, whose controversial series of portraits End Times, featuring sobbing infants, made Stefani seek her out.

“She gave them candy, took it away, and made them cry,” says Stefani. “When I saw [the photographs], I didn’t think ‘child abuse’ – I just thought, ‘That’s beautiful.’ Every kid cries,” she asserts, and as if on cue, Kingston pipes up in the next room. “Other people reacted like, ‘Oh my God. That’s so disturbing,’ or ‘That’s so sad.’ I guess that’s what art’s all about. It’s supposed to make you think.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Dec. 5, 2006


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