LOS ANGELES -- Few pop hit makers are hotter these days than Linda Perry, songwriter and producer to the stars, or Pharrell Williams, of N.E.R.D. and the Neptunes. A musician -- especially one making a debut of sorts -- would have to be nuts, or stupid, to turn down contributions either might offer.
Yet as Gwen Stefani put together her first album apart from No Doubt, the alternative-rock band she has fronted for 17 years, she had a vision of the record she had long wanted to make, and wasn't about to budge. Not even for the small army of pop and hip-hop luminaries she had assembled from a fantasy list of collaborators.
Jittery as she was about venturing out of the cozy cocoon of her band, with whom she's written songs, recorded, toured and lived for half of her life, she was determined that if what she heard from her high-profile new musical partners didn't match the sound in her head -- '80s dance music with a contemporary spin -- it was history.
With great anticipation, the woman her manager refers to as "the chief executive of Gwen" got together with Williams, a two-time Grammy-winning musician and producer. But the first songs they came up with "didn't have that sparkle," she says. "It was kind of a disappointment."
Perry, who has written hits for and with Pink, Courtney Love and Christina Aguilera, didn't even make Stefani's list of people she yearned to work with on Love.Angel.Music.Baby, which came out last week.
"She had come up to me at the Grammys saying, 'We've got to write a song together,'" says Stefani, putting her feet up after hours of strenuous posing for a magazine cover. "I'm thinking, 'You're not Prince, and you're not ['80s and '90s heavyweight producers] Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. How are you going to give me my dance record?'"
Not until Perry showed up the morning after their first meeting, having worked all night on a track that became the hook for the album's first single, "What U Waiting 4," did Stefani realize she had been selling Perry short. "She didn't even say anything -- she just pushed 'Play' and it went, 'What you waiting ... what you waiting ... what you waiting for?' It was like she was challenging me."
On paper, Stefani's directness can sound like the height of hubris, but face to face it's clear that ego is the last thing driving the new phase of her career, which in the past two years has seen her launch her L.A.M.B. fashion line, formalizing her status as a font of street-smart couture; embark on her solo career; and land her first big-screen role, as Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese's coming film about Howard Hughes, The Aviator.
If that weren't enough, she and No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young assembled a greatest-hits album, another of rarities, then knocked out a whirlwind tour behind the hits collection.
She also married longtime boyfriend Gavin Rossdale, singer for the British band Bush. Oh, and she just turned 35, a critical number for any woman who, like Stefani, wants children.
"I just kept feeling like the time clock was really loud in my ears," says the platinum blond singer-songwriter, who has evolved from reluctant rock singer to trendsetting pop-culture beacon.
In fact, the sound of a ticking clock opens "What U Waiting 4," the new album's first single.
Once again, Stefani channeled her feelings into music, as she has done from No Doubt's breakthrough 1996 hit "Don't Speak," inspired by her breakup with then-boyfriend Kanal, to the confessional 2000 pop ballad "Simple Kind of Life," another top 40 single.
"I had this feeling that, shoot, I've been doing No Doubt for half my life. ... I need to try something different for a second. I felt like I really want to do a film, and I really want to do a dance record, and I really want to have a baby before I die ... because I'm going to run out of time.
"That was the motivation," she says, the clarifying filter. "Time."
The afternoon is waning after a photo shoot in West Los Angeles that took up much of the day. She's traded the exotic ensembles for a humble zippered gray sweat shirt, a pair of well-lived-in blue jeans and canvas deck shoes. Her hair, swept up for photos into a sort of Buck Rogers sci-fi-of-the-'30s do, has been hastily combed out and is gathered loosely at the nape of her neck, tied off in a green bandanna that perfectly matches her shoes.
Gwen Stefani, Fashion Model gets to punch out; Gwen Stefani, Fashion Maven never does.
"She's as glamorous as Madonna ever was, for sure," says Rose Apodaca Jones, West Coast bureau chief for Women's Wear Daily. "With Madonna, she was like a god you couldn't touch, but Gwen has always seemed like somebody you could sit down with and have a drink."
More than that, she offered a new model of the pop sex symbol: the street-wise good girl. As alluring as Madonna but more wholesome, Stefani demonstrated that a woman could go head-to-head with the men who usually surround them in executive suites, on stage and in the recording studio without selling her soul, or body, to get there. She personifies the DIY credo of the punk-rock scene that spawned No Doubt, but she substituted a traditional American ethic of enthusiastic hard work and fair play for old-school punk's "no future" attitude.
And she carries a paid-my-dues resume largely missing from instant stars of the American Idol age and artistic sensibility lacking in the Britney Spearses and Christina Aguileras of the pop world.
Stefani exudes enthusiasm about Love.Angel.Music.Baby. But little hype. The main goal of doing a solo project, she says, was "just to be open" to other creative voices. She gave "strict instructions" to her collaborators about the style she was after -- "early Madonna tracks, early Depeche Mode and Cure ... stuff that was the backdrop to my life when I was in high school" -- but also struggled to check her ego at the studio door.
"It's really intimidating," she says. "Everybody I was working with was from outside my world. Like Dr. Dre -- like who said I could work with him? ... You've got the whole fan thing going, and then you've got your own insecurities."
Those surfaced when she had trouble getting the sound she wanted. "It's one thing to be around the friends you've known for 17 years and go, 'You know what? It's not coming today -- let's go eat,' and nobody judges you," she says. "But to be in a room with all these hot shots is limiting. I was basically drowning in the talent of all these people, and my ego didn't like it too much."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.