The body language isn't good. Walking towards me in the oak- panelled lobby of her central-London hotel, Alison Goldfrapp keeps her arms folded and her sunglasses on. Under the mass of corkscrew curls is the expression of someone who'd rather be anywhere but here.
If Goldfrapp's reputation is anything to go by, I'm in for a rough ride. Her reported habit of tearing strips off any photographer who she suspects of making her look less than her best suggests she's not to be messed with. As we walk to the lifts, however, she is quietly apologetic. The promotional merry- go-round surrounding her new album is taking its toll, she says, and today she's feeling a little off colour.
Sitting cross-legged in an armchair 10 minutes later, a cup of coffee in one hand and a bar of chocolate in the other, Goldfrapp is not, it must be said, especially threatening. What's immediately clear is that she finds interviews deeply uncomfortable. Her answers are peppered with lots of uneasy "um"s and "er"s. Often, having launched into a description of a particular sound or sensation, she'll suddenly become embarrassed and leave the sentence hanging in the air.
She agrees that times have changed for Goldfrapp, the band she founded with the film composer Will Gregory in 1999. Their ethereal debut, Felt Mountain, released to little fanfare in 2000, is what the music industry calls a "slow burner". It was a work of dense atmospherics and sweeping cinematic beauty. Critics swooned over Goldfrapp's voice - an otherwordly composite of Bjork, Shirley Bassey and Kate Bush - and Gregory's lavish orchestration. After a sluggish start, the album went on to sell 600,000 copies - "I gave the gold disc to my mum," she laughs - and was nominated for the Mercury prize in 2001. Did she ever imagine it would be so successful?
"You have these fantasies about how everyone will love it, but then you have the nightmares that everyone's going to hate it," Goldfrapp replies hesitantly. "At times it all seemed a bit unreal. Of course, it's nice to be acknowledged for what you do, although it's taken long enough."
The singer is in her thirties - like a true diva, she won't divulge her exact age, though I'd hazard a guess at 34. These days, a new Goldfrapp record is a major event, and the singer's time is no longer her own. She is, however, extremely excited by her second album, Black Cherry, and it's not hard to see why. It's a darkly eclectic and wilfully experimental work that has little in common with its predecessor. The harpsichord and strings which haunted Felt Mountain have been replaced by buzzing synthesisers and propulsive electro grooves. "Train" blends a grinding industrial pulse with Goldfrapp's spectral wail, while "Tiptoe" is a deliciously dirty piece of Eighties-style electronica that brings to mind sweaty discos and after-hours sleaze. It's some departure for a band celebrated for their restrained, velvety cool.
"I guess the safe option would have been to produce something similar but I wanted this album to have a completely different mood," Goldfrapp explains. "In a way its more extreme than we planned. We toured Felt Mountain for a long time and, as much as I loved those songs, playing them over and over again started to make me feel claustrophobic. I think it's better try different things rather than get locked into a particular sound."
Crucial to the Goldfrapp sound is a sense of theatre. Music, she says, is as much about setting a time and place as an atmosphere. "It's a visual thing for me," she explains, brushing purple polished nails through her hair. "I like to listen to music that takes me on a journey. It's like going to see a film. The best movies are the ones that make you forget about where you are. I'd feel I hadn't done the job properly if people couldn't conjure up mental pictures with the music."
Gregory and Goldfrapp first met through a mutual friend who felt that they'd have a lot in common. "It was a real insight on her part," she smiles. "He was a godsend. Both of us have diverse musical backgrounds and we were both interested in hearing the same kind of sounds. I had spent a lot of time recording with boys who'd listen to the same loop about a thousand times. I thought there must be more to music than sampling a loop. Will wasn't the slightest bit interested in all that stuff. With him I felt I could do absolutely anything."
Gregory had already heard a tape of Goldfrapp singing "Human", the first song on Felt Mountain. After their first meeting the pair sent tapes of their favourite songs to each other and had long phone conversations about their musical aspirations. By the time they got in the studio, they knew exactly what they wanted to do. The first track they wrote was "Lovely Head", a song which has since been used on film soundtracks and television adverts.
Goldfrapp grew up in a small town in Hampshire, the daughter of bohemian parents who would drown out the surrounding neighbourhood with opera at weekends. When she was eight she was sent to a convent school, a memory which she clearly cherishes. "I thought I was in a film," she says dreamily. "I loved the nuns, they were so passionate and strong. I was really in awe of them."
At 12, deemed "academically retarded", she was moved to a state school. "There were a million people in the classrooms and the teachers didn't seem to give a shit about you. It was awful."
Goldfrapp refers to the next few years as her "difficult phase" and although she won't go into the details, glue-sniffing and car theft were allegedly among her extra-curricular activities. At 16 she finally abandoned school, and her parents, and headed for London.
"At the beginning I didn't care what I did, I was just so desperate to get out. But after a while I decided I wanted to sing. My family were dead against it; in fact, they thought it was ludicrous. The more they complained, the more I wanted to do it." She started off doing poorly paid jobs and living in squats and bedsits. At 18 she decided to go to art school where she developed a taste for performance art and a keen sense of theatre. Three years later a friend invited her to Antwerp to sing with a contemporary dance company run by Andy Goldberg.
"Those were quite formidable years," she recalls. "There was a lot of discipline involved. I learnt a lot about how to use my voice and about sampling and using technology. It was a whole side of music that I hadn't been introduced to."
After several years spend singing and travelling around Europe she returned to London where was introduced to Orbital, the dance duo who later recruited her singing talents on their 1994 album Snivilisation. But it was with her subsequent collaboration with Tricky on his ground-breaking 1995 album Maxinquaye that she made her mark.
"I learnt a lot from him," she remembers. "I remember [going] around to his house to record `Pumpkin', and he and Martine [Tricky's partner and singer] went down the chip shop and I got left in the hallway with a microphone. I just got on with it, recorded all the stuff and he said, `Yeah, that's great,' even though I'd made up the lyrics on the spot. It was from him that I learnt to follow my instincts." After two years touring with Tricky and continued guest vocals on a series of dance records, Goldfrapp started to scout around for a more long-term partner.
"I just didn't want to sing my words on other people's music anymore," she reflects. "I think it was because I would be giving too much of myself away to someone else and a part of me wanted to keep that back. I guess I also wanted to do something that felt more permanent, something people might remember me by."
I ask her if she's ambitious. "I'm not sure," she ponders. "Am I? My friends tell me I am. I suppose if I was really ambitious I would have gone off and signed a big record deal by now. There have been offers but it's never seemed right. Now I like to oversee everything, I like to do things my way. It's not about making a name for myself. I want it to be good and I want it to be right."
The single `Train' is out now. `Black Cherry' is released on Monday on Mute…