Miss Nisker, I didn't recognise you with your clothes on. It's the kind of puerile remark that pops into your head when you first meet Peaches, the Canadian electro-punk artist famed for parading around stages in a bra, hot pants and a strap-on dildo while spouting eye-wateringly explicit rhymes. I don't actually say it, of course. As one of the fiercest and smartest presences in pop today, I imagine she'd reach down my throat and rip out my tongue out.
Off-stage, 40-year-old Merrill Nisker is an entirely different proposition, modestly and modishly dressed today in a gold embroidered, bat-winged jacket and brown pin-stripe slacks. Settled on a sofa at her record company's headquarters in west London, she is on the promotional treadmill for her latest album I Feel Cream. If she's had enough of trying convince a string of journalists that she doesn't spend her days dragging hapless males into her cellar and making thongs out of their entrails, she's too polite to show it.
I Feel Cream is a compulsive and frequently brilliant piece of work that shows how, 10 years into her career, Peaches still has the capacity to surprise. Although, in this case, perhaps the most shocking aspect is its very lack of shock value.
Lest we forget, this is a woman whose second LP, The Teaches of Peaches – the title of which sardonically referenced her previous career as a drama teacher – came with song titles such as "Fuck the Pain Away" and "Diddle My Skittle". The sleeve had a close-up of her crotch, which was only just covered by fuchsia hot pants. Lyrically, the album also left little to the imagination. "Alright. Show me what you got/ Rub it up against my thigh," she instructed in "Hot Rod". Subsequent albums Fatherfucker and Impeach My Bush further cemented Peaches' reputation as a loud-mouthed sex-obsessed exhibitionist fond of stirring up conservative sensibilities.
By contrast, I Feel Cream is more textured and subtle. There is, naturally, a scattering of lewd numbers including "Trick or Treat", in which she advises the listener "Never go to bed without a piece of raw meat". But elsewhere, the forthcoming single "Talk to Me" finds Peaches berating a lover for his lack of oral skills. Not the sexual kind, you understand; just good, old-fashioned conversation. Then there's "Lose You", a melancholy lyric of loss and abandonment ("Wires are crossing, turning and tossing/ Tossing and turning, my insides are burning").
"First I should point out that I always thought of myself as mainstream in my own little bubble," explains Peaches. "In the case of 'Talk To Me', it's not like I contrived to make a song that would get on the radio, but I would be delighted if more people got to hear the rest of my work as a result of it. As for "Lose You", it's my "Fade to Grey". I'm a good singer but up until now I've always shied away from it. It was always about making a direct point, and I think I've made that point on three albums. So I'm allowing myself to be the variety show that I can be. People expect me to do the unexpected, so that's what I'm doing here. No one expects me to be vulnerable."
Peaches has never been about shocking audiences for the sake of it, so it stands to reason that, with three albums to her name, she should be broadening her horizons. Her music, she says, is "about feeling empowered and having fun. It's also about questioning standards and authorities. That has always been my point. It's certainly never been about hating men. On the contrary I try to include everyone in what I do."
Hers is a provocative inversion of the usual dominant male/submissive female routine endlessly trotted out by rappers. But not all who witness her shows grasp the ideological subtext. One US critic remarked "This sort of risqué, in-your-face performance art – beat-box, bad rapping, minimal synth and a film of a woman urinating – would have been pretentious and played out at New York's Mudd Club in 1979."
"It's not for everyone," shrugs Peaches. "[My act] is all about how you choose to interpret it. Some people see what I do as a joke; some people take it seriously as music; some people see it as performance art or a comment on gender politics; some people see it as just dirty. How it is viewed says as much about other people as it does about me."
But, despite her detractors, Peaches is now celebrated by indie hipsters, disco lovers and post-feminists alike. She has recorded songs with Pink, Karen O and, most memorably, with Iggy Pop. Her songs have appeared on the soundtracks to Lost in Translation and Mean Girls, as well as TV shows including The L Word and Ugly Betty. Her music is even studied as part of the Queer Studies course curriculum at the University of Toronto.
Now, of course, a new generation of young women is replicating Peaches' sexed-up electro-clash sound, while making it more palatable for mainstream audiences. Compare, for instance, the synth queen du jour Lady Gaga's stage show – save the odd dildo, there's not much difference.
"Sure, I feel like a pioneer," laughs Peaches. "I feel that the younger generation of girls is extending my ideas. It's amazing to be a pioneer of anything in pop culture, but a lot of people still don't know who I am or what I am about, so my work isn't finished."
Asked who she looked to for inspiration when she was younger, Peaches cites Wendy O Williams, the mohawked singer from the Eighties anarcho-punk band The Plasmatics. "She's was the most hardcore human performer. She was like a stunt woman, a punk rock singer and a conceptual artist rolled into one. She was amazing to watch, totally fearless."
As a child in Toronto, Peaches attended a private Jewish school where half her classes were taught in Hebrew. She railed against authority and loathed the lack of imagination displayed by her teachers. After graduating from Toronto's York University, she began an under-six's drama programme at the local YMCA in which she encouraged role-play and showed her charges that creativity went beyond donning sailor costumes and reciting lines.
If Peaches took anything from her teaching experience, it was that children are the most open-minded people on the planet. "They are uninhibited, they like to be challenged and, if they don't like what you're doing, they'll just come right out and tell you. I respect that," she says. While by day Peaches was nurturing the creative impulses of small children, at night she was honing her own craft, singing folk songs and jazz-rock numbers with figures from the Toronto underground scene. In 1995 she started the Shit, an overtly sexual art-punk outfit, with Jason Beck aka Chilly Gonzales.
At 30 Peaches finally had her creative epiphany. Tired of Toronto, she upped sticks to Berlin and set about creating her extraordinary alter ego, drawing on burlesque, theatre and rock and hip-hop influences. Peaches, she says, was conceived out of her love-hate relationship with pop culture. "I loved hip-hop, but hated it at the same time. It was the same with classic rock. I don't like to say that I was reactionary because there was more to it than that, but I guess that was what fuelled me."
When a representative from the small Berlin-based label Kitty-Yo saw her perform, he signed her on the spot and the following year she recorded her first album.
If Peaches hasn't quite attained the commercial standing of that other over-sexed mistress of provocation Madonna, she still punches well above her weight in terms of influence. John Waters, Bjork, Christina Aguilera and Karl Lagerfeld are just some of her high-profile admirers (her music frequently accompanies the latter's runway shows). Britney Spears even asked Peaches to write her a song though she declined.
"People ask me: does it bother you that your image is bigger than your music, and I say 'No', because it means that I can do what I want," announces Peaches. "I can make a film, I can produce a theatre production, I can do conceptual art and I can make music, all using my name. I've created a brand name for myself. So what if I haven't got rich doing it? If I could go back and calculate my career, I would do it exactly the same way."
"Talk to Me" is released on 27 April. 'I Feel Cream' is released on XL on 4 MayReuse content