She insists it isn’t really a solo album. Merely “a collaborative side project,” a lark that snowballed into something more.

And no way is No Doubt over.

Yet that lark – “Love, Angel, Music, Baby,” the first album issued under Gwen Stefani’s name – comes with trepidation about the future. Intentionally or not, it just might set her on a new career path, one that wouldn’t include the band of brothers she has considered family since she was a feisty teenager from Anaheim, Calif.

“We were pretty much married to each other for 17 years,” Stefani, 35, says of her bandmates. “But when we literally started getting married to other people, we grew up.”

This, then, is the second pivotal point in Stefani’s professional life. The first came nearly a decade ago, when “Tragic Kingdom,” her second album with No Doubt, rocketed to multiplatinum status, making the ska-pop outfit a global phenomenon.

Three Grammys and 30 million worldwide sales later, Stefani has become as iconic for who she is as for the music she makes. But, she says, it’s time the band took a break.

“It’s healthy for us to take time for ourselves,” she says. “We’ve had our cake and eaten it so many times, we can’t believe it. So it feels like a chapter has been finished.”

And a new one has begun.

Released Tuesday, “Love, Angel, Music, Baby” places Stefani in league with Madonna and Britney Spears and tries to appeal to fans of R&B and hip-hop, a base beyond No Doubt’s usual audience. It is certain to bring her greater glory – though Stefani stresses she has no intention of quitting her day job as a vibrant yet vulnerable rocker.

Still, it’s impossible now for her to be only that.

In the busy years since the 1995 release of “Tragic Kingdom,” Stefani has remodeled herself into an A-list presence whose style impacts the whole of popular culture – and whose personal life has become salacious gossip-column fodder.

Always clad in Galliano, Vivienne Westwood or L.A.M.B., she’s become a red-carpet regular – the platinum blonde with shades of Jean Harlow (whom she portrays in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator”) that scores of hounding paparazzi want to shoot.

And as the wife of Gavin Rossdale – leader of the English rock band Bush and, Stefani only recently discovered, father of a 15-year-old daughter – her every elation and crushing disappointment makes headlines.

“If being a superstar is appearing in US Weekly, Star magazine and In Style on a regular basis, then she’s a superstar,” says Michael Paoletta, senior editor at pop-industry bible Billboard.

Stefani, who has homes in L.A. and London, nonetheless revels in her roots. “She’s still as sweet and genuine as she was in the beginning,” says Paul Tollett, chief of L.A. concert promoter Goldenvoice, who knew Stefani was destined for glamour and greatness after No Doubt’s first gig. In January 1987, Tollett booked her then-unknown band eighth on a benefit bill at the now-defunct Long Beach haunt Fender’s Ballroom.

Gwen blew the room away.

“She just had overwhelming charisma,” Tollett remembers. “She was so natural.”

That quality remains and permeates her strikingly commercial new album, which stands to broaden her following by wallowing in materialism (always a salable move) while simultaneously marveling stupefied at how her unexpectedly massive popularity has garnered such wealth.

“Nobody wants to hear white rich girls singing about being rich,” Stefani says. “But everything that’s true about my life now, everything that I can’t believe is true – that I can go to Vivienne Westwood and clean her out … I’m sorry, but you just don’t get used to that. You don’t get used to never having to think twice about buying extra guacamole for your burrito.

“The whole thing is just a dream.”

That’s the thrust of her new album, the sort of pet project only a major force like Stefani could get released. An homage to the dance-pop she craved as a teenager, “Love, Angel, Music, Baby” finds Stefani joining forces with some of today’s hottest talents: OutKast’s Andre 3000, Dr. Dre, the Neptunes, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and song doctor Linda Perry, to name a few.

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“But the goal wasn’t to get everybody on my record,” she says, though her name alone easily enabled that. “The goal was to make a record that had that feeling I got when I’d go dancing at Studio K at Knott’s Berry Farm. You don’t feel that anymore.”

As if channeling spirits, Stefani and her assistants have crafted what sounds like a lost radio relic from 1986.

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“I wanted to make a record where every song sounds like a single,” Stefani says, “and every single would be someone’s guilty pleasure, even if they hate me.”

Not many people hate Gwen Stefani. Industry observers expect the album to go platinum before the year is up.

“The world just rallies around this woman,” says Billboard’s Paoletta. “And there’s so much buzz surrounding this right now, it seems like an obvious smash.”

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What that means in the long run is unclear. If this album explodes, would Stefani’s platinum status then spread into parallel careers – one solo, the other with No Doubt?

“I really don’t know what’s going to happen after this record,” she says. “How am I supposed to know?”

She says priorities have changed for everyone in the band, including ex-boyfriend bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young – who, Stefani says, “is very happy to be golfing every day right now.”

“It’s always going to be different; we’re never going to be those kids anymore. If we come back together, we’ll come back together, but it’s only going to be when we want to and when it feels natural.

“There are no plans, and that’s what’s so glorious about having success and longevity: We can do whatever we want.”



(c) 2004, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

Visit the Register on the World Wide Web at http://www.ocregister.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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