Before she discovered she could write songs, Gwen Stefani was looking forward to a life of marriage, children, and white picket fences. When her brother introduced her to ska and new wave music, it set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to millions of albums sold and a Madonna-sized public image that extended past music and into the worlds of film, fashion, and technology.
Born and raised in Fullerton, CA, Stefani had a musical epiphany at the age of 17. She had fallen in love with the Madness and Selecter records her brother, Eric Stefani, was playing constantly. Seeing Fishbone, the Untouchables, and other bands involved in Los Angeles’ ska revival scene only reinforced her interest in music, so she was more than ready when her brother asked her to join a ska band he was forming with a friend named John Spence. Gwen originally shared lead vocals with Spence but in December of 1987 he committed suicide, leaving the band — now called No Doubt — with an uncertain future. According to numerous interviews with the bandmembers after their breakthrough, Gwen was the glue that held No Doubt together during these hard times, pushing the group to keep trying. She was also romantically involved with the band’s bass player, Tony Kanal, by this time.
After playing numerous gigs and parties, No Doubt were signed to Interscope in 1991. The label considered their 1992 debut album a flop and refused to financially support a tour or further recordings, but the band refused to give up. The self-financed Beacon Street Collection appeared in 1994 and did well enough to make things nice with Interscope, but the band was once again going through a traumatic period behind the scenes. Eric Stefani left to become an animator for The Simpsons and Gwen and Tony’s relationship had ended. Gwen wrote a collection of songs focused on heartbreak and rebirth that would become No Doubt’s third album, Tragic Kingdom, and the rest, as they say, is history.
With the smash singles “Just a Girl,” “Spiderwebs,” and “Don’t Speak,” the album reached the number one spot in Billboard and garnered two Grammy nominations. The press began to focus on Stefani’s role in the band. Voted one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People,” video and photo shoots focused on her and rumors spread that the other three members of the band were unhappy with the lack of attention they received. This topic of discussion continued as the band released Return of Saturn in 2000 and Rock Steady a year later, but it was overshadowed during this time by new gossip — Stefani’s romantic relationship with Bush’s frontman, Gavin Rossdale. She also started doing some work outside the band, lending her vocals to the remix of electronica artist Moby’s “Southside” and rapper Eve’s “Let Me Blow Your Mind.” In 2002, she arrived 45 minutes late for her wedding with Rossdale in London.
After Rock Steady, No Doubt took a break. Stefani approached Kanal about producing an off-the-cuff solo project that would be influenced by her non-ska favorites. Prince, the Time, Club Nouveau, and Madonna were the names thrown around and the idea was to make the project “fast and easy.” Over time, the “fast and easy” record morphed into something much bigger. Old friend, former labelmate, and hit songwriter Linda Perry became involved and the project became much more polished, slick, and dance-oriented. A pile of high-profile collaborators — Dr. Dre, the Neptunes, Dallas Austin, Andre 3000, Nellee Hooper, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis — became involved. In September of 2004, the infectious and hyper dance single “What You Waiting For?” appeared with its accompanying video dominating MTV.
The album, Love.Angel.Music.Baby., hit the shelves in November with surreal artwork that introduced Stefani’s four-woman “posse,” the Harajuku Girls. The all-Asian Harajuku Girls were inspired by Stefani’s fascination with the Harajuku girls of Japan, young club kids who have a flippant and fun attitude toward fashion. Appearing with Stefani live, in videos, and in photos, the Girls quickly drew criticism from the Asian community, angry about the rumor that they had to sign a contract to never speak English even though they could, and that Stefani’s Girls looked nothing like the “real” Harajuku girls. Based on a dancehall cover of Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Rich Girl” became the next smash single with the anthem “Hollaback Girl” becoming success number three. While the singles were dominating pop and dance radio, Stefani appeared as Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. With music and movies checked off, Stefani moved into the world of fashion and introduced her clothing line L.A.M.B. Taking her influence to the world of tech, she designed the Harajuku Lovers’ 4.1 MP Digital Camera for Hewlett-Packard. The camera was released in a limited edition with a Stefani-designed case and biographical DVD.
Late in 2005, Stefani discovered she was pregnant, but her schedule remained busy in 2006: along with working on L.A.M.B., she released a line of limited-edition Gwen Stefani fashion dolls complete with outfits from her videos and tours, and worked on her second solo album with producers including Akon, Swizz Beatz, and Nellee Hooper, as well as the Neptunes and Tony Kanal. That spring, Stefani gave birth to a boy, Kingston James McGregor Rossdale. The Neptunes-produced “Wind It Up” arrived that fall and heralded the full-length The Sweet Escape, which was released on the same day as the live DVD Harajuku Lovers Live. ~ David Jeffries, Rovi