Gwen Stefani Talks Blake & Writing The “Most Personal F***ing” Album Of Her Life

Photo: Jamie Nelson.
On her new album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like (on sale March 18), Gwen Stefani delves into the giddy blindness of new love while shaking off the remains of a shattered marriage. It’s a complex emotional cocktail — which is to say, it’s classic Gwen Stefani. This is the woman who made the biggest hits of her career by calling out her ex-boyfriend for breaking her heart — again, and again, and again — then fawning over a crush who became her husband. Last August, Stefani called off her 13-year marriage to Gavin Rossdale. A year earlier, she'd met Blake Shelton (who was going through his own separation from country star Miranda Lambert) on the set of The Voice, where they were both coaches. In November 2015, they publicly confessed to their budding romance. This Is What the Truth Feels Like chronicles that whirlwind. While it’s more dance party than seeping wound, Truth does get dark. In the songs “Misery” and “Red Flag,” Stefani debates the logic of investing in love to begin with, putting words to that sense of hopelessness that comes after a crushing breakup. “Asking for It” warns future lovers, “It’s a lot to handle me,” while “Lovable” is a pretty direct revenge song with its cutting line, “Watch what ima do / ima go and prove / with somebody new / that I’m lovable lovable lovable.” The gut-punch of the album is “Used to Love You.” It’s all raw, pleading vulnerability. In the video, Gwen stares into the camera, tears streaming down her face, and asks, “Why?” Her latest single, “Make Me Like You,” presents a much happier Gwen. She’s stepping through the shattered glass of her divorce into a bippity-boppity wonderland of puppy love. In that video, she croons, “Thank God that I found you,” while skipping, roller-skating, and dancing through a dreamland, which has its own bar called...Blake’s. Talking to Stefani (as we did last week by phone) feels like chatting with a gal pal. She’s funny, frank, and she shares her secrets. If she weren't so pressed for time, you'd gladly continue gabbing so you could spill all of yours, too. Here, she opens up about what it was like making the record that she says saved her life.
This album plays like a heartbreak recovery record. You’re moving on, but wounds remain. When did it feel like the right time to get back to the studio and write about everything that you’ve been through?
"I just felt at a certain point in my own heart, when everything was crushed and I was down real, real low, I was like, I don’t want to be down here. This is not me. I remember feeling embarrassed. Like, I gotta prove that this is not going to be who I am. I gotta turn this into music. "I remember thinking, I could be sleeping in bed crying, or I could get up right now and try to drive to Santa Monica [for a recording session]. And I did it. On the way, I called my girlfriend going, 'Why am I doing this? I am already in so much pain. Now I’m going to go torture myself and sit in the room with some guy I don’t know, who doesn’t even know what’s happening to me?' And I went there, and it was just him and a piano. We wrote one song together called “You Don’t Know Me.” I wrote all the melodies. I wrote all the lyrics. I was like, that’s what you do, Gwen. Why do you question your own gift?"

I remember feeling embarrassed. Like, I gotta prove that this is not going to be who I am. I gotta turn this into music.

Gwen Stefani
You were already working on music with Pharrell Williams and Benny Blanco, but those songs — “Baby Don’t Lie” and “Spark the Fire” — didn’t make it into this album. Was this a total reboot?
"I had been trying to make a record. It was just a different thing. It was like, I wish I had new music. I wish so bad I could write new songs. Everything was I wish, I wish, I wish, and there was no way I could do it. I had just done that No Doubt record [2013's Push and Shove]. Then I got pregnant and gave birth. And then I got [The Voice], which was just an incredible gift, and perfect timing in my life to do something different. I needed that inspiration. It put me in a different position. I was playing the role of a caretaker. It brought back so much of my own confidence I had lost along the way."
Photo: Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock.
Stefani and Blake Shelton at the 2016 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.
You’ve always been so open and honest as a lyricist, especially when it comes to working through heartbreak. How was it different this time?
"It felt different. But it also felt familiar in a spiritual sense. When I first discovered songwriting when my heart was cracked and smashed the first time, I wrote Tragic Kingdom. I didn’t even know I could write music. And no one would have predicted that anyone would hear that record. [With Truth], it was the same attitude, in the sense that I wasn’t doing it for any other reason but to help myself."
Record labels like artists to make albums that will sell. Did you face any pushback for making such a personal — and personally motivated — album?
"I did a bunch of sessions, and they felt real man’s-worldy. The [songwriters and producers] were happy I was there, but they were going to do everything and they wouldn’t really listen to my ideas. It was track driven and it felt radio chasing. It was the wrong kind of setting.
"Then I got this new A&R guy who really got me. He put me in [the studio] with J.R. Rotem, Raja Kumari, and Justin Tranter [and later, Julia Michaels]. I had no idea who those people were. I remember driving to the studio mad. I got there, walked in, and I go, 'Hey, nice to meet you guys, but I just want to be clear that I’m here because I want to write. I want to say what I need to say. I don’t care about charts. I don’t care about the label. I don’t care about anyone hearing this music. All I want to do is say the truth. I want to use my gift.' It was a mini speech, and they were kind of like, Okay. "We wrote our first song, called “Red Flag,” real fast. Once that happened, it just came. I needed the right support team. They made me feel so confident. I had lost a lot of that along the way, I think, whether from my own personal situation or just the longevity of my career. I don’t know. I’m a human, things happen.

I told those guys, 'Let's write the most fucking personal shit, ever.'

Gwen Stefani
"Then we wrote a song called “Rocket Ship,” and that’s when the label said to me, 'Listen, we think this overall album you’re writing is too personal. We don’t think people are going to relate. You should just put out an art record.' And I was like, 'Are you kidding me? I’m literally channeling God here. I’m saving my own life with this record and you come and punch me in the face?' The next day I went in and told those guys, 'Let’s write the most fucking personal shit, ever — opposite of what anyone would want to hear.' And that’s when we wrote 'Used to Love You.'”
Your new single, “Make Me Like You,” suggests that you’re blindsided by falling in love again. Did you resist it?
"I think that when you go through what I went through, or what I’m still going through, you think you’re hopeless. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You panic. It was a really super-unexpected gift to find a friend, somebody who happened to be going through the exact same thing as me, literally mirroring my experience. I don’t think it’s an accident that that happened. It saved me." Naming the bar in your video "Blake’s" after your boyfriend is pretty cute. Was that a surprise gesture to him?
"We came up with a bunch of ideas that people who are true fans would be able to pick up on — there was a license plate that had some [Orange County] references, my hairdresser was in it. And [Blake’s] was just one of the things that became a talking point, which was one of the intentions. And it was cute." You and Blake work together on The Voice. You collaborated on a song on his new album. Are you starting to influence each other musically?
"I didn’t have any kind of musical direction for this album. Every song was written around emotions. Of course [our relationship] was an influence. Musically, no. Every song was written purely out of whatever my heart was going through at that moment. And we would create whatever music we needed to support that. There was no, 'I want to make a reggae song or a hip-hop song.' It was all about, how do I get this out? How do I capture it? And how does it make me feel better?"

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