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Keys to the Tragic Kingdom: The Stories (and Men) Behind Gwen Stefani’s Songs

Wendy Geller
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

On Tuesday, July 12 at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET, Yahoo Live will stream the kickoff show on Gwen Stefani’s This Is What the Truth Feels Like tour, live from the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Mass. Click HERE to watch!

Maybe I deserve this boy after all that I’ve been through.” So sings Gwen Stefani in “Truth,” the closing song to her latest solo album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like. Indeed, the 46-year-old has, by her own confessional songwriting, been through the wringer when it comes to love. Unlike some of her pop peers, she hasn’t had many relationships to write about, but she’s managed to squeeze every drop of inspiration from the few men who have pierced her heart.

From her anguished mid-‘90s breakup with No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal, to her questioning 13-year marriage to and subsequent divorce from Bush’s Gavin Rossdale, Stefani’s had plenty of emotion to document – a process which, along the way, honed her artistically into a Grammy-winning, bona fide superstar. These days, the queen of the Tragic Kingdom is finally enjoying a happy ending, writing a chart-topping collection of rose-colored songs about the boy she deserves – recently divorced fellow Voice coach Blake Shelton, whom she termed an “unexpected gift” in the wake of her very public sorrow.

Stefani and Shelton recently chronicled their courtship in their duet “Go Ahead and Break My Heart,” off his latest album, If I’m Honest. Below, however, we run down the stories and sorrows behind the best breakup songs in her own discography.

“Don’t Speak” (1995)

Although No Doubt’s breakout full-length, 1995’s Tragic Kingdom, was pretty much entirely about Stefani and bassist Kanal’s unraveled relationship, this particular ballad (written with her older brother, original No Doubt member Eric Stefani) serves as the quintessential Cliffs Notes to the dramatic crash-and-burn of the love Gwen dreamed would last forever. (“All I ever did was look at Tony and pray that God would let me have a baby with him,” she recalled to The Guardian in 2007.)

After dating Kanal for seven years, Stefani additionally found herself in the tricky position of navigating her deepest feelings served up as a platter of top 10 smash hits – topped off by two and a half years of performing confessional songs like “Don’t Speak” on tour. This time was no picnic for Kanal, either. “We were on tour for Tragic Kingdom for 28 months. We were going through the breakup, and in every interview we were talking about it so we were opening this wound on an hourly basis. It was so brutal but I don’t know how we made it through,” Kanal told The Guardian in 2012.

“Sunday Morning” (1995)

Tragic Kingdom was sprinkled with a variety of feisty counterpoints to “Don’t Speak,” showcasing Stefani as way more than a tear-soaked dumpee. “Sunday Morning,” however, was likely the punchiest of them all, with the frontwoman spitting out such lyrics as “You want me badly/You can’t have me” and “Now you’re the parasite” over a staccato rhythm.

The song was inspired by an argument Kanal and Stefani had through through the bathroom door of his parents’ house. Kanal told Complex in 2012: “Gwen wasn’t feeling well, and I was at my parents house in Yorba Linda, and I had the guitar. She was sitting the bathroom, and I was sitting outside of the bathroom singing, kind of like serenading her. I was just like, ‘Somebody is feeling quite uh-uh-uh, uh-uh-uh, somebody is feeling quite ill,’ and that became ‘Sunday Morning.’ That’s how the song started. It’s obviously not about someone feeling ill now. Gwen made the lyrics.”

“Sunday Morning’s” infectious fierceness makes it an easy classic for any jilted girlfriend’s playlist, even two decades down the line.

“Ex-Girlfriend” (2000)

Stefani and Rossdale, who began dating in 1995, presented a glossy – and seemingly solid – united front to the public over the course of their union, which by showbiz standards was practically golden in terms of length. However, Stefani peppered the relationship’s tenure with a series of oddly questioning tunes pointedly directed at her other half, starting with this single from 2000’s Return of Saturn. At the time, the pair weren’t even engaged, but Stefani mused, “It makes me sick to be on that list,” already forecasting her place in Gavin’s history of discarded lovers. “I should have thought of that before we kissed.” Though the couple married two years later, Rossdale was reportedly less than thrilled with the track.

Lest anyone be confused as to whom Stefani was addressing, the singer references a line from Bush’s “Dead Meat” in which Rossdale states: “I’ll burn before I mellow.” To this, she answers, “I’ll be the one to burn you,” a prediction that ultimately did come true upon her unexpected post-divorce hookup with Shelton.

“Simple Kind of Life” (2000)

The flipside to Return of Saturn’s bitter “Ex-Girlfriend,” this yearning track – one of the first Stefani wrote completely on her own – explores Stefani’s deepest life desire. “By the time I was 21, I wanted to get married,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2001 – a sentiment that she’s expressed with almost tiresome frequency over her career (even when she was married). This song goes so far as to consider an age-old but rather antiquated method of trapping a man: “Sometimes I hope for a mistake.” Yup, that kind of mistake. Stefani later confessed to the Boston Phoenix that she’d been having a late-night “PMS moment” when she penned this tune.

“You seem like you’d be a good dad.” A lousy husband, unfortunately… but there’s that. Ironically, the music video for “Simple Kind of Life” depicted Stefani as a runaway bride, bolting from the altar with second thoughts.

“Underneath It All”

This song, from 2001’s dancehall-heavy Rock Steady, predates Stefani and Rossdale’s 2002 wedding by just a short period. Despite this, the tune (which Stefani wrote with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart) isn’t filled with the bubbly anticipation expected from an engaged girl – and one who wanted to be married since age 21, at that! Instead, it explores what seems to be a resigned attitude toward her man, putting forth such unusually bleak sentiments as “You’ve used up all your coupons, and all you’ve got left is me.”

Stefani does try gamely to defend her sweetie, calling him “really lovely” and herself “really lucky,” but one is left wondering what the “it all” entails that she had to dig through to find those revelations. Out of all the songs Stefani has written referencing Rossdale, this one perhaps serves as the most telling predictor of what was eventually – way down the line – to come.

“Cool” (2004)

A decade after her split from Kanal, Stefani was firmly ensconced in her position as Mrs. Gavin Rossdale, and therefore seemed to have the bandwidth to concentrate on herself for a while. When putting out her first solo album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby, she stuck to themes of self-discovery, including reconciliation with her first true love: Tony. The song, which was written with producer Dallas Austin, is a remarkably feelgood record about moving on and making peace, including lyrics such as “It’s good to see you with someone else,” and “Time always kills the pain.” Stefani told MTV at the time that she “never meant to go personal with this record,” but that “things just come out.” Kanal good-naturedly put his talents to his ex-gal’s first solo record, contributing some songwriting and synth-playing to the mix. (For what it’s worth, the real Mr. Stefani – er, Rossdale – appears on the album as well, credited as “GMR” on the track “The Real Thing.”)

“Early Winter” (2006)

Another of Stefani’s most cherished dreams came true just months prior to the release of her second solo album, The Sweet Escape: In May 2006, her first son, Kingston James McGregor Rossdale, was born. The LP followed in December and continued in the dance-heavy vein of her debut, with a couple of exceptions. While “4 in the Morning” presented a rather syrupy but un-alarming declaration of love (“You’ve got to give me everything… because I give you all of me”), the song “Early Winter,” co-written with Keane keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley, read authentically grim enough to spark rumors of troubles between Stefani and Rossdale. “Why do you act so stupid?” Stefani snaps, adding, “You know I’m always right.” Perhaps Stefani was referencing the one big public bump in the road the couple had weathered, namely the discovery that Rossdale was actually the biological father of his teenage goddaughter Pearl Lowe. At any rate, Rossdale Baby No. 2, Zuma Nesta Rock, followed a short two years later, so the couple must have found a cozy enough way to weather the winter storms.

“Used to Love You” (2015)

By now, the story is all too familiar: Stefani, now the mother of three young boys (third baby Apollo Bowie Flynn was born in February 2014) and a fixture on NBC’s hit reality talent show The Voice, reportedly discovered that Rossdale had been cheating on her with the family nanny. She filed for divorce in 2015 and, true to form, began pouring her heartbreak into her art. Already at work since 2014 on her third solo album, Stefani used her pain to create the single “Used to Love You,” a stinging message to Rossdale which USA Today termed the “spiritual sibling” to her long-ago ode to heartbreak, “Don’t Speak.” Although it’s obvious where the inspiration for the song came from, Stefani herself seemed a little surprised by the immediacy of the composition, noting to Today’s Matt Lauer that “I’ve never put a record out where I’m going through things in real time.”

“Make Me Like You” (2016)

Stefani, although undeniably broken by the demise of her marriage, made good on her 2000 promise to “be the one to burn” Rossdale. She surprised America – indeed, the world – by unexpectedly hooking up with Shelton, a country boy from Oklahoma who himself was freshly weathering a high-profile divorce from his wife of four years, Miranda Lambert. (Shelton and Lambert actually first started dating in 2006.) As a neat flip of the coin to her prior single, Stefani explores the fun and joy of discovering a new love in the wake of seemingly endless blackness. “What’s so crazy is that sometimes tragedy, if you really absorb it, you can turn it into something beautiful. And this whole album is about trying to take something that’s awful and healing from it,” Stefani told Jimmy Kimmel, admitting that “Make Me Like You” was indeed about her new man.

Although skeptics questioned the validity of Stefani and Shelton’s all-too-conveniently-cute relationship, the couple appear to be the real thing, with Stefani even appearing on Shelton’s May release If I’m Honest (in the form of single) and making goo-goo eyes at him during their duet performances on The Voice and Billboard Music Awards.

Gwen Stefani returns to the road this summer on the This Is What the Truth Feels Like tour, presented by Live Nation, starting July 12. For a complete list of dates, click here.