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Gwen Stefani: Living Out Loud

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In the video for Gwen Stefani’s “Used To Love You,” the pop star, on the verge of tears, intimately sings to the camera, her delicate porcelain face closely framed by a spare black backdrop, as she makes her way through the song’s roller coaster of emotions. Disbelief, shock, sadness, physical pain, anger, enlightenment – you name it, it’s all there, raw and vulnerable, her feelings laid bare and writ across her face for all to see. Stefani actually sings very little, except for the chorus: “I don’t know why I cry, but I think it’s cause I remembered for the first time, since I hated you, that I used to love you…” That ‘you’ she’s referring to, of course, is her now ex-husband Gavin Rossdale, to whom Stefani was married for 13 years.

What’s most surprising about the video is that Stefani wasn’t acting out those emotions; she was actually experiencing them, as she was undergoing a much-publicized and painful split from Rossdale. “I had written that song two or three weeks before I did the video, so all that was happening in real time,” says Stefani on the phone from Orange County, California. “It was at the end of a long rehearsal day and I was in my dressing room and had just gone through some crazy personal stuff right before [filming].” She refers to some “paperwork” that had come in, and though she’s vague on details, one can imagine the papers related to her divorce, which has since been finalized. “I think everyone knows that was when I was going through a big huge breakup,” says Stefani. “I started to write again and it was what I needed because it was so pure. It was just about: ‘how can I get through this and survive this time period? How can I turn this tragedy into something – art, music – and save myself?’”

Later, when Stefani performed “Used To Love You” – the first single from the singer’s third solo effort, ‘This Is What the Truth Feels Like’ – for the first time at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York last October, she describes the experience as therapeutic. “Getting up there and singing that song, it was so emotional. Even though it was a dark period, it was one of my favourite feelings,” says the songstress. “It’s like taking something that’s so bad, and then just releasing it, and feeling the love come back to me, the support and people relating to it and the real intention I had in writing it. It felt so healing for me.”

It’s been a tumultuous year for the singer and former No Doubt front woman, not least because the once power couple – (Rossdale is the lead singer of ’90s Brit alt-rock band, Bush) – also share custody of three children, Kingston, 9, Zuma, 7, and Apollo, 2. “It was hard – I literally had to peel myself off the floor and drive down Santa Monica Boulevard and go into the studio and write those songs,” she says. “I had a choice: I could have died and went away and just been unhappy and miserable, or I could’ve gone to the studio to do something good and be confident in that and not give up on myself creatively.”

But the last several months have also resulted in some of her happiest moments, too: while she won’t talk about it specifically, Stefani and her The Voice co-star/country crooner Blake Shelton – (who also recently parted with former wife Miranda Lambert) – have been dating at least since last fall and aren’t shy about revealing their mutual affection for each other. It’s clear that many of the songs on the record, which dropped in March, are about her newfound beau. Just witness the palpable chemistry between the duo as they united to sing “Go Ahead and Break My Heart” on the reality music show in early May. “Even though things were horrible, they went from horrible to, like, euphoric over an eight-month period – the music just captures that.”

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Stefani admits that the highs and lows of her personal life over the last year, openly documented on the album, may be why it seems the pop star has found a new sound; not since No Doubt’s ‘Tragic Kingdom’ have we seen her so vulnerable and honest. The chameleonic performer has dabbled in everything from pop, electronic, soul, ska and hip hop throughout her career as a solo act and as lead singer of the band No Doubt. “There’s two parts to the record: the beginning of the writing, and me trying to save myself, when I was angry and dealing with really crazy stuff,” she says. “Then, I started healing and the music started getting kind of hopeful and joyful. I’ve never been in a place to write songs like that before, because I’ve never felt good.”

Indeed, many of Stefani’s breakout hits from her days with No Doubt in the mid-‘90s, such as Don’t Speak and Sunday Morning, are rooted in the romantic trials and tribulations of her on/off-again relationship with fellow band mate Tony Kanal. “I’ve always had a disclaimer on every single love song I’ve ever written about why something wasn’t right,” she recalls. “When I wrote Tragic Kingdom, it was the same kind of thing – it was like, okay, I got dumped. I didn’t even know I could write songs, and I never thought that record would come out, let alone that people would hear it or that it would be this huge thing. It was very naïve, and very confessional.”

It’s hard to imagine the seemingly ageless pop icon ever feeling insecure about herself or her music, but, she says, the further she gets in her career, the harder it is to reinvent herself and get back up on that stage. Luckily, her experience being a judge on The Voice, of nurturing new talent and being exposed to a multitude of new music genres, inspired Stefani to channel her courage and get back into the studio. “Being on the show changed my life in so many ways; it was the perfect blessing for me to do something different in my career – I’d done everything, that I started repeating myself,” she says. “I think when you have a long career, you start to lose confidence because you look back and go, wow, I did that, but I don’t know if I can ever do that anymore. I got to a place where being on that show kind of woke me up again.”

As she embarks on a North American tour for the album, Stefani is more than ready to reconnect with her fan base, which she credits for much of her success. “I’ve been so blessed to be in this weird relationship with a bunch of people that I don’t know for years,” she says. “They gave me this incredible life and that inspiration to want to keep going and write and be artistic. They motivate me.”

Feature image by Jamie Nelson

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