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Gwen Stefani talks bouncing back from 'middle of hell' divorce

Gwen Stefani sounds unbreakable.

She's on the phone from Los Angeles, radiating enthusiasm and excitement in a conference call with journalists around the country. The topics are the No Doubt singer's first solo album in a decade, This Is What the Truth Feels Like, and her summer tour, which hits Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on July 26. And it sounds like she's loving every minute of it.

"That's a really good question," Stefani tells a guy who asks about the technology in her stage show.

"This is so fun," she chirps to a woman who asks about influential female performers.

"That's super perceptive of you," she gushes when a guy likens This Is What the Truth Feels Like to No Doubt's blockbuster breakthrough album, Tragic Kingdom.

This is the Gwen Stefani we've known for 20 years, the empowering punk heroine turned platinum pop queen from sunny Orange County, Calif. Just like in her video for Hollaback Girl, Stefani is America's cheerleader: relentlessly, perfectly positive, even when you know she's suffering below the surface.

"It's incredible to be in the position to be able to be a songwriter and share your story with people and then have people relate to it," says Stefani, 46. "It makes you feel better about yourself in your own life, and you feel comforted. I just am really in the moment right now. I'm kind of in disbelief that this is all happening. I'm super, super grateful."

Now she wants to spread the love around the country. Because not so long ago, she wondered if she'd ever feel up to it again.

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To understand why Stefani is so stoked to tour behind This Is What the Truth Feels Like, you need a quick primer on her love life.

First there was Tony Kanal, No Doubt's bassist, with whom Stefani had a passionate but failed relationship. It nearly broke the band but ultimately inspired much of Tragic Kingdom, including the aching single Don't Speak.

Then came Gavin Rossdale, the singer-guitarist for Bush, with whom Stefani had three boys and a 13-year marriage. It was a turbulent relationship beset by embarrassing revelations and allegations (Rossdale once had a boyfriend, he had a secret child from a previous relationship, he was having an affair with the family nanny), and it ended last year when Stefani filed for divorce.

"I literally was in the middle of hell in my own personal life, and nobody knew," she says. "I just wanted to get under the covers and eat pizza and cry."

Her marriage was crumbling right as she was experiencing a crushing crisis of confidence about her career. Over the last five years, she'd fallen to a "desperate place," eager to keep up with younger artists, "maybe doing it for the wrong reasons." And nothing was working.

"I wanted to be on the radio," she says. "I wanted to have a hit. Like, who doesn't?"

But as her life unraveled, she found that she was starting to write in a way she hadn't since before Tragic Kingdom, inspired by heartache and nothing else. The songs were a gift from God, she says, a "Band-Aid to kind of help me through this crazy time in my life."

While writing and recording This Is What the Truth Feels Like, she struck up a kinship with Blake Shelton, her fellow coach on The Voice, who was going through a divorce of his own. Tabloids couldn't resist the pairing, and, well, neither could Stefani. The album's first single, the roller-disco confection Make Me Like You, was inspired by falling for Shelton.

"Music has to be from real life, and it has to be honest and with the right intentions for people to connect to it," she says. "I just feel so grateful to have to go through the pain to get to this place because sometimes that's what you have to do."

At 46, Stefani feels a bit like her younger self again, especially as an artist. This Is What the Truth Feels Like is her most personal album since Tragic Kingdom, a comparison that's been on her mind for some time.

"This record was, All I have left right now is my music — and if I do that, maybe I'll survive," she says. "Tragic Kingdom was pure like that; this was pure. I wasn't making this record to talk to you about it. I wasn't making this record to go on tour. … I was making it because it's all I could do to save my own life."

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So now everything is bright and sunny again in the Stefaniverse. She's ready to "get out there and connect with people and try to have this exchange of love." She's got an all-new band, a cadre of backup dancers and the same relentless energy she did in her early No Doubt days.

"I want people to feel like they know me by the end," she says. "To me, what's punk is saying, 'No, you will have fun and I will control you and by the end of this, we are going to be best friends; that's it.' "

Despite all she's been through, she hasn't completely soured on pulling back the curtain on her personal life — to a point. During our conference call, she never mentions Shelton, with whom she's made several high-profile TV appearances, performing their collaborative single Go Ahead and Break My Heart. But she does suggest she's happier now than she ever would have expected at this time last year.

"I never could have dreamed of what's been happening this year in so many ways, in my personal life or in music or in any of it," she says. "Like, I would never dream it, you know? I could even go so far as to say I can't believe some of the outfits I got to wear this year. That's how excited I am about every little bit, every detail. There's been so many great things and so many challenges that are just — I never thought I'd get through, and I did."

Yes, the tabloid attention can at times seem "crazy," she said. But in her ever-chipper way, she insists it's really not all bad.

"It has brought out a lot of negativity, but it's also brought out a lot of positivity and creativity and opportunities. It's an amazing time right now."

She's off and gushing again, using words like amazing and incredible and excited and grateful and blessed. What else would you expect from America's cheerleader? She's unbreakable.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Gwen Stefani

The singer performs with Eve at 7 p.m. July 26 at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. $22.95 and up. (813) 740-2446. livenation.com..

Gwen Stefani talks bouncing back from 'middle of hell' divorce 07/19/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 19, 2016 12:03pm]
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