Gwen Stefani on her new single, returning to her reggae and ska roots, and the legacy of Tragic Kingdom
Gwen Stefani had begun working on new music before the lockdown hit, but says it was only when she brought up the idea of reintroducing herself to her collaborators that inspiration struck. “I'm not trying to force myself on anyone, and I'm not trying to have a comeback,” she says with a laugh. “I’m simply going to do some music without feeling defensive about it. Whoever likes me can listen. If you don't like it, you can actually say you don't like it! I don't care. I just want to put music out.”
After cutting a song in February with rising songwriter and producer Luke Niccoli (who’s worked with buzzy acts like Yves Tumor, Miya Folick, and Joji), Stefani was virtually introduced to pop hitmaker Ross Golan (Selena Gomez, The Chicks, P!nk), who suggested the trio write about exactly what the singer was feeling: a desire to remind people that she’s not just records collecting dust on your shelf.
“Let Me Reintroduce Myself,” released Monday, is a feel-good return to the ska/pop/reggae hybrid — record-scratching, horns, a walking bass line — that Stefani perfected during her time fronting No Doubt. Using her downtime in Oklahoma during the pandemic to dig back into ska’s roots, she immersed herself in the history of the genre, leading her to feel like now was the right moment to return to the sounds that first put her on the map 30 years ago. “All of the riots had happened, and I just started thinking so much about when I started loving music and why,” she says. “It was eighth grade when I learned about ska and Madness and the Selecter and all those bands that started to define the kind of music that I felt like I fit into; here I was, this Catholic girl from Anaheim doing reggae music! But that music was all about unity and anti-racism, and that was in the '70s. Then we were doing it in the '90s. And now here we are, again, in the same old mess.”
After the “Let Me Reintroduce Myself” writing session in late August (for which she later cut her vocals safely at the Los Angeles studio, the Village), Stefani began referring to Golan and Niccoli as her “song soulmates,” joining forces on a handful of other Zoom-born songs since then that will, if all goes according to plan, see the light of day some time in 2021. But for now, the No Doubt singer’s new track is a welcome return to form after five seasons judging The Voice, twice topping the country charts with fiance Blake Shelton, and building upon the success of her first-ever Christmas album, 2017’s You Make It Feel Like Christmas. “I just said, "I want to do some reggae,’” she remembers. “And it was just this weird full circle moment, because as soon as I started telling whoever I was going into the studio about that, they were so inspired too.”
In a call late last week, Stefani walked EW through returning to solo music, revisiting her back catalogue on the heels of Tragic Kingdom’s 25th anniversary, and how some of her biggest hits have gained new resonance in recent years.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you feeling knowing this song is about to come out?
GWEN STEFANI: Under the circumstances, to be able to put out new music is just beyond a gift. Even if it wasn't a pandemic it would be exciting, but it's crazy with the pandemic, you know what I'm saying? I just didn't think it was going to come this year or that I'd be this lucky.
What was your headspace like as you went into writing and recording new solo material this year?
Well, this is the deal: I haven't really put a record out in five years. That's a long time. I don't know how it went by so quickly. I would have loved to, but I was doing the Vegas show [Just a Girl] and that took up a lot of time. Before that, I toured the record before, [2016’s This Is What the Truth Feels Like], and the next thing you know, five years passed. I also was feeling like... "Does anyone really want to hear new music from me?" It's so much work to make new music, and I think about all the bands that I loved — I don't go looking for their new records. I just listen to the stuff that I liked in high school .
Somebody sent me a song called “When Loving Gets Old,” and I really loved it. Nobody sends me songs. Why doesn't anyone just send me, like, “Umbrella”? I got this song, I actually liked it. I went in to record it. The girl that sent it to me said, "They actually wrote this for you." And I was like, "Really? No wonder the lyrics feel so good. Why don't I write with them?” We wrote this song called “Cry Happy,” made up of all of these lyrics I’d written on my phone. We had this really great day, but I had to rush home to the kids. It's so different these days; you get there and you have to get home to cook dinner, so I didn't get to cut a demo. That was last February. And then we hit lockdown.
I spent a hundred days in Oklahoma, doing laundry and cooking. We had 15 people there. It was an incredible pause on life to be there at the ranch with the boys and just have this surreal lifestyle for a while, but nothing to do with the life included creating music or anything like that. But Blake happens to have a studio there and had to do some work and brought an engineer in. So I recorded the vocals on “Cry Happy,” and that was like lighting a match to a wildfire because I was like, “My god, I’ve got to do music."
You felt inspiration again?
I felt all kinds of inspirations and ideas. It's like God saying, "You’ve got to do this now." When I get that urgency, you can't stop me. I'm like, “I’ve got to go write songs. That's what I need right now. And I don't even care if anyone hears them, or if they think they suck, I'm doing it, now.”
When I got back to L.A., I went into the studio. Everything was plastic-guarded. You get your temperature taken. Everybody's wearing masks. By then, all of the riots had happened. I started to go back and investigate ska and reggae, and I found all these documentaries about how ska was born in the 1960s, how that was linked to the Jubilee when Jamaica was being freed from England. Starting No Doubt, we were the third-wave imitating the 1960s.Then I found this documentary on a school in Jamaica called the Alpha Boys School, which was run by Catholic nuns. There's this little white Catholic nun called Sister Mary Ignatius Davies who helped nurture reggae music. You can see all these pictures of her with these little boys and they're learning these brass instruments. The first ska band that was ever born was these kids out of Alpha Boys School, the Skatalites. No Doubt used to listen to them. Doing my research, it all just felt so full-circle.
So this music was born out of that. I wanted to go back and make something that was joyful and back to my roots, where it all started. [Pre-pandemic] I’d been in the studio with Luke Niccoli and he's the one that said you really should work with my friend Ross, who turned out to be someone who really gets my sarcasm, and the fun side of my lyrics. We really hit it off.
With Luke, we taught each other a lot, especially when it came to ska and reggae, because I kept saying, "Dude, no, listen to Sublime. It has to have scratching in it. It has to be '90s." So he was discovering all this stuff that he didn't know, but bringing his technology and youth to the sound. It was a perfect kind of combination between the three of us. And we wrote a bunch of songs together and I know we're going to write more.
Lyrically, “Let Me Reintroduce Myself” addresses the idea of people thinking of you as a relic. Is that how you feel?
At the beginning of this process, I feel like I had to make excuses for why I wanted to make new music. I felt like people were going to judge me and be like, "Well, you're like super old. Why would you even want to?" This is just how my brain works. Anyone would, you know what I mean? Everybody has their own fears or insecurities.
Ross’s reaction was [for us to incorporate] a way of saying, “Well, I haven't really gone anywhere if you really think about it.” I just had a No. 1 hit on [country] radio ["Nobody But You"] — two of them actually, because the next one's ["Happy Anywhere"] going to go No. 1 soon [Editor’s note: it did, 24 hours after our call]. We were just trying to say I haven't really gone anywhere. I'm still doing the same thing. I still wear the same kind of stuff that I've always worn. It's just an evolution.
“Let Me Reintroduce Myself” references your past, lyrically and visually. Some artists are really loath to look backwards, but you seem extremely willing to. Why is that?
Five years ago, when my life blew up in my face, there was a lot of looking back. Music has always been a really amazing place to pour my heart and emotions into. It's like therapy.
When I was offered to do the Vegas show — a huge milestone for me — it was very reflective. I think it's an incredible thing to put out new music and have your sound evolve, whether it be through the No Doubt years or the three solo records I did. The first solo record [2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby.] was very much a dance record — that was the pop music when I was in high school that I wasn't into, but was the backdrop of my life. Back then, I said, "You know what? I want to try to make that kind of music. I want a dance song." It was so incredible to be able to work with all the talented people that I did and have such a different kind of sound like that, which made me want to do the second record, [2007’s The Sweet Escape].
The third solo record was not born in the same way. It didn't have a reference for the production. It was just, “How do I get through this time in my life? I've got to write these songs. I don't care how they're dressed up sonically. It's just getting them out.” During the process of doing that, I fall in love and I'm writing a song about my life basically being over and then starting to fall in love at the same time, all with one album.
After that, it was like, how do I evolve? When you do a new record, usually everything comes with that: the tour, the merch, the vibe. But when you're doing a Vegas show, you don't have a new song. You don't have anything new. How do you create a show around everything you've done? So there was a lot of looking back and thinking about, “How do I make this feel super nostalgic? How do I make this feel like, when everyone's coming from around the whole world to see me in this room, we have this common story, and that these songs were the backdrop to our lives?”
This year marked the 25th anniversary of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. How has that record changed meaning for you over the years?
I don't really like anniversaries. I don't really celebrate like, “Oh, I wore that in 1995. Now it's 10 years later, woo!” But then when it actually happened and I started seeing everyone posting and seeing all the stuff that we had done — things I don't remember, until I see the image — I was just overwhelmed, like, "Oh my god, we did that?" It was a really emotional couple of days. I really enjoyed hearing just how much that record impacted people. It really is truly mind-blowing to me that I get to do music, let alone to be part of people's lives in that way. It's hard to wrap my head around it.
I'm really proud of Tragic Kingdom. It was a very weird album. I was so naive. I didn't even know how to write a song. I don't know how I wrote those songs because I didn’t know anything back then. But doing the Vegas show was a really reflective time, because doing a song like “Just a Girl” every night felt more relevant than ever, especially in the last couple of years with the rise of the #MeToo movement. It feels like history repeating itself. We've come far, but we haven't. I always thought that I would outgrow that song and be a woman and not be able to sing the words “I'm just a girl” anymore, but it felt more relevant than it ever felt in my whole life. It was bizarre.