"If you listen closely enough to If I'm Honest," says Shelton, "you can learn some facts of my divorce. Maybe not specifics, but you can get a general idea about it. It is my divorce record, but maybe even more than that, it's my happy, falling-in-love record too." Emotionally, it's Shelton's richest album. The divorce (his second) has given him more feeling and depth. It's almost enough to disrupt his self-described reputation as a stupid redneck.
"Can we do this interview lying down, like therapy?" Shelton asks, slumping on a sofa at Starstruck Entertainment, a white-gloss, shockingly modern three-story palace in the heart of Music Row in Nashville. He's sipping from a big plastic cup of at least 12 ounces of vodka and diet soda -- a boozy Slurpee.
Shelton sequenced If I'm Honest in a way that simulates a "very specific time frame" in his life. It opens with "Straight Out of Cold Beer," a backwoods party song that represents his carefree mind-set at the start of 2015. Then, he says, "the bottom drops out" of the album as it proceeds into the spring. "That's when it became painfully obvious that it wasn't going to work out in my marriage," he says. The second song, "She's Got a Way With Words," humorously but bitterly recalls a lover who cheated and lied. Shelton didn't write it, but if you want to assume it describes some of the facts of his divorce, he won't stop you. Then the album "stays in that lull for a while -- that sad, dark place." A few funny songs balance out the album, including the winking double-entendre "Doing It to Country Songs." Shelton always has done those songs well, but more impressively, he sings his ass off on the heartache ballads.
"When we recorded the vocals for some of these songs, I was only six months removed from when all the crap went down," says Shelton. "When you have a broken heart -- at least, when I do -- you got to get it out of your system. You want people to sympathize with you. I was at rock bottom, in the middle of hell." For a while, Shelton stayed with Adam Levine. "As close as we have been, we got even closer."
When The Voice began to shoot season nine in the spring, he decided to tell everyone at the show. Though he and Lambert hadn't announced their divorce, he knew it would be final by the time the blind auditions were broadcast in September, and he didn't want his producers and fellow judges to refer to Lambert as "Blake's wife."
Shelton and Stefani had met two years prior, when she joined The Voice as a coach in season seven. But she recently had given birth to her son Apollo, and Shelton "never really got to know her, other than small talk." When Stefani didn't return for season eight, Shelton assumed he would never see her again. So the way she reacted to his news was surprising and memorable. "I won't forget that day," he says. "I looked over at Gwen -- who I didn't really know -- and she had these huge tears in her eyes. I thought, 'Wow, she feels super bad for me!' "
It wasn't only empathy. Though she, too, hadn't announced it, Stefani was in the process of separating from her husband, Bush singer Gavin Rossdale, after 20 years together and three kids. Later that day, she asked to talk with Shelton, alone.
"I thought it was going to be another one of those things-are-going-to-be-OK talks," he recalls. "She didn't tell me much, because we didn't know each other at the time, but she said, 'I'm going through something very similar to what you're going through. I understand. And I hate it.' That's kind of how our friendship and bond started, that day. It went from that, to checking in on each other once a week through email -- 'This shit happened to me, what happened to you?' -- to maybe three times a week, then every day, to 'Hey, here's my phone number if you ever want to text.' Next thing I know, I wake up and she's all I care about, and I'm wondering if she feels the same about me."
"Gwen saved my life. Who else on earth could understand going through a high-profile divorce from another musician? You can't even imagine the similarities in our divorces."
After lingering in misery for a while, If I'm Honest starts to lift and turn, most notably with "Go Ahead and Break My Heart," an unlikely duet between Shelton and Stefani. Shelton, who isn't prolific, began to write about his new relationship to woo Stefani. He sent the incomplete song to her as a voice memo and invited her to help write it; she twisted it in a different direction, from his tentative optimism to something more blunt ("Thought I was using you just to get me through") and scarred. "She wrote a verse that was brutally honest and didn't really go with my verse. I was writing about her, and she made it about us. I was so taken aback by it. F--, she's awesome." They debuted the song, a week before Shelton's album release, live on The Voice while "making bedroom eyes at each other," as one newspaper described it.
As Shelton has acknowledged, the couple "could not be, on paper, any more different" -- a country singer who plants corn on his Oklahoma farm and bow-hunts white-tailed deer, and a glam-packed California vegan who started her career in a ska band and has her own fashion empire. She's Vogue, he's Field & Stream; he's a tractor, she's a Porsche.
A few months ago, Shelton was in his truck, driving to pick up Stefani at an airport in Oklahoma, when "It's My Life" came on the radio. (He also rents a home in Los Angeles, where she lives.) "I thought, 'Man, that sounds like Gwen.' And sure enough, the DJ said it was No Doubt. I was like, 'What the f--?' I didn't know that was her song. I'm still learning, I guess." While she visited him, the couple ate at a Dairy Queen and shopped at a Dollar General in Tishomingo, a short drive south of Ada, where Shelton grew up. Her very presence in those Middle American institutions made national news.