GWEN STEFANI found herself back in a recording studio this summer only about 10 weeks after giving birth to her first child. It wasn't that she had exhausted the joys of new motherhood so soon; rather, she had quickly discovered that in her world, parenthood and career didn't have to be an either-or situation.
It wasn't what she expected when she found out she was pregnant.
Even before the commercial momentum subsided from her 2004 debut solo album, "Love.Angel.Music.Baby," she'd started work on a follow-up, and during a whirlwind stint in Miami she wrote a handful of new songs that wound up on her album "The Sweet Escape," which was rush-released on Tuesday to be in stores in time for Christmas.
"After I got pregnant, I didn't know if I'd ever put this record out," she said last week from Las Vegas, shortly before performing the album's first single, "Wind It Up," at the Billboard Music Awards.
But with the arrival in May of Kingston James, she realized she had a window of opportunity and a child with the temperament to crawl through it with her. And she knew the window wouldn't stay open indefinitely.
"About 2 1/2 months after he was born, I thought, I'll go in the studio and see if it feels good. It it's meant to be, then it's meant to be.... I'm in a rush, and no, I don't want to take time off. This isn't the beginning of my career, and I do want to tour next year while he can tour with me.
"He's generally an easy, cool guy; he's busy and he's having a lot of fun," she said. "He makes everything so much fun. I'm nursing, so he's around me the whole time, and he definitely balances me out. It was fun before, but now it's fun in a whole different kind of way. Normally, I would get more rest, but I figure I can rest later."
As Stefani sees it, it won't be long before she will want to stick closer to home -- or rather \o7homes,\f7 in London and Southern California -- with her husband, British rocker Gavin Rossdale, and their son. Now, it's a different kind of biological clock that's ticking, compared to the one she was fretting about before the baby came along.
"In five years, he'll be in school, and in five years, I'll be in my 40s," said Stefani, 37. "So I'm doing what I can right now.... If you saw me in my day-to-day life, you'd see my work and my career is all fun, pretty much. I don't go off to work without him. Right now, he's to my left, and my stylist is holding him and kissing him and he's got his little stuffed animal lamb. If we were at home, I'd be playing with him, that's why I'm so lucky. If I had to leave him at day care and go to work, I never would have finished this record.
"I thought I could maybe miss an amazing opportunity, and I think anybody in my position would do the same thing," she says. "I'm blessed with such an incredible guy."
She'd gotten close to having a second solo album ready, and decided it wouldn't take long to finish it up. Stefani collaborated once again with the Neptunes, Nellee Hooper, Linda Perry and her No Doubt partner Tony Kanal, also bringing in rising hip-hop star Akon to write and sing the title track.
Their results were combined with some songs she'd recorded for "Love.Angel.Music.Baby." but didn't fit its theme: an '80s-inspired dance record.
Or as she often described it while on tour, "a stupid dance record." Stupid or not, it yielded five hit singles and has sold 3.8 million copies.
"The idea on that one was to be more surface and fun and lighthearted," Stefani said. "I feel like this record went deeper and more personal than the last record, which is more normal for me."
The added depth is most apparent in the ballads "4 in the Morning," a lament about the struggles of a committed relationship, "Early Winter," which she wrote with Keane's Tim Rice-Oxley about a romance that's ebbing, and "Wonderful Life," a collaboration with Perry expressing appreciation of first love.
They complement the \o7so \f7\o7courant \f7hip-hop-laced upbeat tunes such as "Wind It Up," the minimalist "Yummy" and "Don't Get It Twisted," which gives her another instantly memorable lyrical hook akin to her "b-a-n-a-n-a-s" line from "Hollaback Girl."
There's a stop-and-smell-the-roses ethic that Stefani seems to prize, and it surfaces in the autobiographical "Orange County Girl," with its chorus, "I'm just an Orange County girl, living in an extraordinary world."
"My life is unbelievable," she said. "I never dreamed this life -- I never even knew it existed.
"I don't know what I'm going to look back on 20 years from now," she said, "but let me describe where I'm at now. And remember, this is a girl from Anaheim: I'm on top of the MGM Grand in this condo that's crazy, it's got an upstairs and downstairs, a living room, flat-screen TV, a cappuccino maker.
"And it's not that I'm into material things, but I don't take it for granted. I'm just enjoying life, and the craziness of it."