Gwen Stefani isn’t one to celebrate anniversaries.
“I don’t really pay attention to that stuff,” Stefani tells Variety. “I know some people live by it, birthdays and all that, but it’s just not something I care about.”
But as “Don’t Speak” — No Doubt’s biggest hit, from their third album, “Tragic Kingdom” — turns 25 today and Stefani sits on the cusp of a new chapter in her three decade-long career, she’s finding herself reflecting more and more on her past.
For someone who delighted in the frustrated superpowers that came with being “Just a Girl,” No Doubt’s 1995 breakout single, Stefani’s path to success is an impressive one. Stefani emerged in the late ’80s as the lead singer of the ska-punk band, which was personally signed to Interscope Records by noted music executive Jimmy Iovine. After releasing five albums, the group went on hiatus in 2001, and Stefani embarked on her solo career, during which she churned out hits like “Hollaback Girl,” “Rich Girl” and “Sweet Escape.” No Doubt reunited in 2012 to release “Push and Shove,” but Stefani chose to focus on motherhood, putting her solo career second. It didn’t hinder her work opportunities, as Stefani took on the role of coach on “The Voice” for five seasons. It was there where she met her fiancée, Blake Shelton.
“Don’t Speak,” which would go on to spend 16 weeks as the most-played song on U.S. radio and be nominated for song of the year at the 1998 Grammys, paints a different picture of the uber-confident TV and music star you see today. And even back then, compared to “Tragic Kingdom’s” mostly uptempo, attitudinal singles (like “Just a Girl” and “Spiderwebs”), “Don’t Speak” was, essentially, a power ballad that lamented two break ups — Stefani from bassist Tony Kanal, her boyfriend of seven years, and from her brother and No Doubt cofounder Eric Stefani, who objected to the band’s commercial ambitions and left before the album’s release in October 1995.
You can hear those struggles in every measure of “Don’t Speak,” particularly in Stefani’s vocal delivery, but the song didn’t start as a breakup anthem. Eric Stefani’s verses originally had a much more complicated melody and phrasing. “Don’t speak” was still the main lyric in the chorus, but the song put love in a happier light. There was even an accordion incorporated (watch below).
Enter: the label, which asked the group to simplify the verses. As Stefani recalls: “My brother, he’s very eccentric and not good at criticism in that sense, he was just so frustrated. So we sat down and tried to re-write it and he made a joke by singing, ‘You and me,’ like literally taking his melody and turning it into three notes. Meanwhile, I had been dumped by Tony and heartbroken, and I changed the lyrics [at the end of the chorus] to ‘Don’t tell me ‘cuz it hurts.’ … “The way that I wrote it, you could really just relate to the denial in the song. I’m basically saying, ‘Don’t tell me that because I already know it, but if you say it, it’s going to crush me.’”
Stefani’s “Don’t tell me ‘cuz it hurts” almost comes off pouty at first, but ends up a heart-wrenching wail in the song’s final chorus. Although the phrase is repeated nine times, it’s given new life with each turn as the arrangement builds in tandem.
“When I was writing back then, I was so naive, I didn’t know anyone would hear it ever,” she adds. “We had been working on that record for so long before it came out. So I think when there’s something that honest and real and pure — and not done for any other reason than just to say it for your own heart — then people connect to that. … It was so different from everything else on our record, so the fact that it was the defining world hit that it was — and continues to be — is insane.”
But the success of “Don’t Speak” and “Tragic Kingdom” was a double-edged sword for Stefani. While No Doubt was catapulted to mainstream popularity, she was still nursing a broken heart.
“Tony was my first real boyfriend and I was tragically obsessed with him,” says Stefani. “When my brother quit the band and then Tony quit me… it was a really hard time. I lived at home until I was 26, I was quite sheltered and innocent you know, I just was. So I depended on Tony for so many things, like to help me with my homework, everything just to survive and live. … Once the song came out, it went from a nine-year hobby that was our passion while we went to college, to all of a sudden it’s like we do the ‘Just a Girl’ video, we go from that video set to the airport and go on tour and don’t come home for two and a half years. It was a huge thing to be there with your ex who you love still who doesn’t want to be with you.”
Meanwhile, tensions were rising within the band in another way. As No Doubt’s star rose, so did Stefani’s — and seemingly, no one else’s. No Doubt played up this factor within the “Don’t Speak” music video instead of making it about a romantic relationship, but Stefani says they didn’t have to do too much acting to make it look like the band might also be breaking up.
“I was the voice of the song so that was my story. I wrote those lyrics, people were relating to me as the lead singer, and I was the girl in the band,” Stefani says of the “Don’t Speak” video. “But the band was becoming the shadow of me and that was really hard for them. There was a lot of tension between us with the band feeling like I was being put in the spotlight more than them — that competition that they felt. We couldn’t really enjoy the success.”
Stefani maintains that it wasn’t all bad and the band still managed to have fun on tour and mend some of their wounds. “The shows were so incredible and Tony and I were still best friends and we still had a lot of fun together,” Stefani says. “It’s just that there was also a lot of stuff happening, a lot of layers to it. At the end of the day, we all agreed that we were so passionate about what we did that we made it work.”
To this day, Stefani continues to perform “Don’t Speak,” as she did recently during a Pandora Live event on March 31.
“I’ve been performing it without them for probably seven years,” she says. “I love performing that song. It never gets old to me. It’s like, you know you’re giving [the fans] what makes them so happy when you do it, and it brings people right back to that place where they first heard that song or related to that song for whatever pain they were going through. [I’m] really lucky to have that one.”
But will she ever perform “Don’t Speak” with No Doubt again? Stefani isn’t so sure.
“I don’t know about No Doubt,” Stefani demurs. “We had so many years together and we all have families now and that’s just our priority. I can’t really imagine what the future holds with that. We had done some big shows together, a bunch of festivals probably six years ago, and we knew that was kind of the last thing we were going to do together.”
Stefani feels that she has finally grown up, and intends to focus on being a mom to her three boys, planning a wedding to Shelton and her solo career.
“It’s like we’re in real life now, and we were so lucky,” she adds. “I always think about how we never really had to grow up. Like I literally left my parents’ house, went on a tour bus, and when I came home, I was a millionaire. It was such a weird existence.”
Her new solo project is on its way, with Stefani having released two singles — “Let Me Reintroduce Myself” and “Slow Clap” –so far, both of which add a pop flare to her ska roots. Stefani wrote the songs with hitmaker and “And the Writer Is…” podcast host Ross Golan (whose credits include work with Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande) and Luke Niccoli (Joji, Quinn XCII), fully embracing the process of writing with “professionals,” as she puts it.
But Stefani confesses she also has insecurities about coming back into the spotlight. “It’s hard to explain it, but after you’ve been around as long as I have, you do have another set of insecurities you didn’t have before,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Would people even want to hear this?’ or ‘Why am I doing this? I should probably just hang up my hat,’ you know what I mean?”
Stefani used these insecurities as inspiration to reintroduce herself — literally — with a music video that features her wearing looks from her No Doubt days and solo era, including the polka-dot dress from the “Don’t Speak” video. Stefani wanted the video to set a nostalgic tone for her fans, as she plans on incorporating more of her old sound into her upcoming album.
“I already knew I wanted to do music in that lane again,” Stefani says. “I think it was inspiring watching my son, who is turning 15, discover the music that defines him — because that’s kind of the age where you find music that defines you — and that was ska and reggae for us. … We were very inspired by the ska movement that happened in the ’70s. It was all about anti-racism, that’s why they wore checkerboards — black and white, everything was about unity. When we were kids, we just caught onto that and thought it was really cool. During quarantine when… there was this whole racism conversation going on again, I was just thinking a lot about my youth.”
Stefani is eager to give fans what they want to hear on her next record, saying that this time around “feels more exciting than ever.”
“I just feel so lucky to be doing it, and I feel excited for the people that listen to my music because this record really considers what they might want,” Stefani says. “They are purely my inspiration for it, because I’m counting on them. You spend all this time writing this music, so you want someone to listen to it.”