Gwen Stefani has been thinking about God a lot lately.
While recording her new album, she would pray in the car on the way to the studio, hoping for a productive session despite her tight schedule—because now, as the mother of three young children, she doesn't have the luxury of working late into the night without deadlines. Once there, the No Doubt frontwoman wrote with an unlikely team of songwriters and producers she describes as gifts from a "higher power," all part of a "master plan." Armed with her collaborators and notebooks of material, Stefani, an avid journaler, would then try to spin pop songs out of the most tumultuous months of her life.
"It was really a life-saver record for me," Stefani says of This Is What the Truth Feels Like, out March 18. "It wasn’t until I had to go through the worst tragedy that it really opened up a channel for me to be like, 'God gave me a gift. I’m going to use it now. Because if I don’t, I’m going to die.'"
Twenty years ago, No Doubt went from SoCal ska heads to international rock stars with "Don’t Speak," which Stefani wrote about her breakup with bandmate Tony Kanal. Now, she's channelling heartache into music once again with her third solo album—her first in a decade—which arrives after a few false starts and a high-profile split from ex-husband Gavin Rossdale last year.
"I’ve really been trying to exercise my spiritual side in the last year," she says. "I scraped myself off the floor and went into the studio and tried to somehow be alive again."
Stefani, 46, never planned to return to a solo career. Her first album, 2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby., was meant to be a quick side project while No Doubt was on hiatus, but it spawned hits like "Hollaback Girl" and a sequel, 2006’s The Sweet Escape. No Doubt eventually reunited in 2012 for Push and Shove, but the record received mixed reviews, and plans for a follow-up were put on hold when Stefani became pregnant with her third child, Apollo Bowie Flynn Rossdale. A few weeks after his birth in 2014, her "Hollaback Girl" producer Pharrell Williams invited her to perform the song with him during his Coachella set. Not long after, she was contacted about becoming a coach, alongside Williams, on NBC’s talent competition The Voice and saw the show as platform to release new music.
"All of that was really innocent, like, 'I hope I’m still relevant, I hope people want to hear from me, wouldn’t that be awesome?'" she says of the songs "Spark the Fire" and "Baby Don’t Lie," released that fall. "And then it turned into something completely different."
Stefani is private about the exact circumstances that led to her end of the marriage, but she has said that it "blew up in [her] face" the day after 2015 Grammy Awards. (There were tabloid reports alleging that she discovered Rossdale was having an affair with their children’s caretaker.) In interviews, references to divorce and Rossdale prompt her to feign shock at "the D word" and "the G word," but Stefani maintains she has nothing to hide. "I don’t feel like I have anything to be ashamed of," she says. "I’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t feel like I have anything to protect about myself. But when you’re a mother, you have to have some boundaries."
When Stefani first started work on her third solo album, she tried to make it the way most pop records are made today: by having a team of star producers and songwriters, like Charli XCX and Ryn Weaver, submit material for her to record. But after the dissolution of her marriage, Stefani decided to scrap an album’s worth of material and start over, taking a more active role in the songwriting process. It wasn’t exactly a smooth transition: Stefani says she had a difficult time writing about her personal turmoil until she wrote a song by herself, accompanied only by a piano, just to prove to herself that she still could. Some of the early sessions in the studio were also unfruitful. "I started going in with different people, but it felt kind of man’s world-y," she says. "Like, 'Wow, we’re excited you’re here, but we’re going to do everything.' [They weren’t] open to my ideas."
It was Stefani’s newly appointed A&R rep, Aaron Bay-Schuck, who suggested she record with Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, the songwriting team behind recent hits from Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, along with Raja Kumari (who has written for Iggy Azalea and Fifth Harmony). One of the first songs they wrote was "Red Flag," a skronky track about a break-up’s warning signs that Stefani delivers in a sing-song-y rap. Though news of her divorce wasn’t yet public at the time, Stefani suspects her collaborators knew she was in crisis because of her lyrics.
"I just said to them when I walked in: 'I don’t know who you guys are, but I just want you to know that I’m not here to do anything but use my gift, and I want to say the truth,'" she remembers. "I was calling ourselves The Breakfast Club because it was such a weird combination of people."
Stefani describes Tranter, who spent several years as the flamboyant frontman of the glam-rock group Semi Precious Weapons, as the cheerleader of the bunch and a source of confidence. "He wanted to work with me for two years—no one would let him," she says. "Somehow I ended up in the room with a super fan." Michaels, who was born the year after No Doubt released its first album, was harder to please—the yin to Tranter’s yang. "She has a way of raising the bar really high because she hates everything," Stefani says. "I kept asking, 'God, why is this girl here right now?' But it was meant to be, and the chemistry between all of us was so amazing."
Stefani’s label, however, cautioned her that the material might be too personal for pop audiences. "They really knocked the wind out of me," she says. "I was feeling like, 'Wow, you don’t understand, I’m channeling God, this is saving my life.'" Determined to prove them wrong, a fired-up Stefani doubled down and wrote a song that was even more vulnerable, "Used to Love You," which eventually became the album’s lead single. "They called me the same day after I wrote it and were like, 'We think you have a hit,'" she says. "That’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to me."
The song marked a turning point in the recording sessions. After getting the heartbreak out of her system, Stefani began writing more cheerful tunes inspired by her budding romance with country musician Blake Shelton, a fellow coach on The Voice who had also recently gone through a divorce. (Stefani, who originally filled in as a coach for Christina Aguilera, is now an adviser for Shelton's team.) “It was the first time that I really had written a record from a different point of view of being in love and being grateful and being in a really, 'Oh my God, I got saved!' kind of place," she says.
Fans following her relationship with Shelton will find plenty of insight in This Is What the Truth Feels Like, which tones down the hyperactive mix of 1980s-inspired pop and hip-hop of her last albums for more introspective material. "They’re all gonna say I'm rebounding, so rebound all over me," she sings over acoustic guitars on "Truth," which inspired the album’s title and sounds more like a No Doubt song than some Push and Shove tracks did. The buoyant new single "Make Me Like You," she recently confirmed, chronicles the early stages of their romance, and its music video features several nods to their life in the public eye.
"This newfound tabloid fame that I've got definitely came from being on TV—that just takes it to a different place I've never been before," Stefani says. Yet for her, it's an acceptable tradeoff: "I’m just so grateful for that experience. To be on a show where I got to step outside of myself and coach and think about my own career really helped me find my confidence again and feel kind of reborn."
There are some songs Stefani is less forthcoming about. She won’t confirm or deny whether the song "Send Me a Picture" is about sexting. (Sample lyric: "Are you all alone? Baby whatcha wearing?/ Send a little something I could stare at.") "I’ve never sexted before. What’s sexting?" she asks before letting out a laugh. "You can think whatever you want. That’s what’s so cool about all these songs, no matter how personal I get or whatever I intend the song to be."
For Stefani, writing about the truth isn’t the same as writing a tell-all. She brings up "Hollaback Girl," a song reportedly inspired by the time Courtney Love called her a “cheerleader,” though that’s never been confirmed—and never will be, if Stefani has her way.
"People still ask me all the time what that song’s about," she says. "I know exactly what that song is about. I’ll never tell anyone."