Pilau talk and humble pie

Nigel Kennedy has given up Vivaldi and become a composer himself.
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One becomes so used to encountering defensiveness from interviewees that when Nigel Kennedy came over to meet me, beaming with simple, joyful delight, I had to resist the urge to look over my shoulder. But no, it was me he seemed so pleased to see. "Brilliant, cool," he enthused alertly, commiserating about the weather - so wet and windy it had broken my umbrella. Would I like coffee? Biscuits? Murky tea? (He showed me the muddy contents of his mug conspiratorially).

We were in the Virgin Radio building in Soho, where Kennedy and his backing musicians were preparing to play live from his new album, Kafka. It is the first time Kennedy has released a whole album of his own work, although he has composed music since he was a teenager; it took an ex- girlfriend who was a sound engineer, he says, to persuade him it was good enough.

This claim shows surprising modesty, for the album is excellent - full of insidious, lyrical violin melodies which lodge in your memory and nag for repetition. The millions who bought his previous eight albums of the great classical composers should love it - good news for Kennedy's fans, good news for EMI, and good news for him, after four years out of the limelight as classical music's overhyped enfant terrible.

Those years were a chance to regain his sanity after extricating himself from the clutches of John Stanley, the former Bay City Rollers manager who in 1989 made him a star overnight - and an object of derision to much of the classical-music world - with a pounds 100,000 marketing campaign and a now-infamous recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Time has not, however, improved his notorious dress sense. Despite the weather he is wearing baggy shorts which, together with his ludicrous haircut, purple socks and Doc Marten's, make him look like Billy Bunter.

The schoolboy impression is reinforced by Kennedy's slangy vocabulary and mangled vowels. But it rapidly becomes clear that his manner and appearance are a decoy concealing rigid discipline and a razor-sharp intelligence - hardly surprising, of course, in one of the world's best violinists. When his band start to jam, radiating enjoyment, it is Kennedy who decides they "might as well run the song through for discipline's sake", Kennedy who asks for the coke machine to be turned off because of its hum, and Kennedy who cuts the chat with the words: "less gossip, more music".

The plan was, the PR man told me, that Nigel would take me to the Red Fort in Soho (possibly London's most luxurious curry house) and we would do the interview over dinner. His reception at the restaurant quelled any suspicion that the world had forgotten Kennedy since he abruptly retired from concert work four years ago in a bid for musical and personal freedom, complaining: "It has bugged the shit out of me for a long time that the subscription concerts I do are mainly for rich, upper-class people."

Admittedly, our waiter didn't recognise him at first, but as soon as he realised his oversight he rushed over to apologise. We then had the undivided attention of three waiters, who came over to check that we had everything we needed every five minutes, and each time Kennedy would reply with unfailing courtesy that we did.

The middle-aged couple next to us, meanwhile, were casting surreptious peeks at our table and finally the woman could restrain herself no longer. "I'm sorry to interrupt your discussion," she said, "but can I have your autograph?" She laid out her linen napkin and waited expectantly while Kennedy looked at it doubtfully: "On the napkin?" "Yes," she said firmly, at which one of our waiters blanched and trod away heavily to get some paper. "Do you like Nigel's music?" I asked. "Oh yes!"

In the midst of all this I was trying to interview the man described as the best violinist to come out of Britain in the last 30 years, but the Kennedy charm is so total as to be almost impenetrable. For example, he obviously had a miserable childhood after being sent at the age of six to board at the Yehudi Menuhin school just as his mother, a piano teacher, remarried and moved from the south to Solihull. But when I ask him about the school's repressive regime, he deflects the question with a smile: "Today I'm not feeling as though I've been repressed much in my life. I'm in an optimistic mood."

He isn't much more forthcoming about the period three or four years ago when he discovered he had cysts in his neck and went into hospital for an operation which could, at worst, have ended his career. (He will have to cover the scar with a plaster for the rest of his life.) It was after his hospitalisation that he fired John Stanley. "It was embarrassing," he admits of that event. "But I don't like anyone else to tell people things for me and I don't like to hide behind other people. I was being shown loads of interview requests from the Mirror and the Sun and not being shown the requests from Gramophone magazine and jazz magazines and the so-called serious papers, and that showed me a perspective on the projects I was being asked to do, maybe they weren't coming to light."

When you ask him a serious question he straightens his face politely to look serious as well, but I never felt I got below the surface. He was much more interested in asking me about myself and eating his food. He ordered only vegetarian dishes, explaining that he no longer eats meat, but when my chicken arrived he lusted at it from the far side of the table. "Have some," I urged, but he refused. "I'll just have a sniff," he said and closed his eyes with pleasure. "Brilliant, man."

He no longer drinks, either, and at the end of the night (it was a Friday) was planning to run "about 10 kilometres". He gulped orange juice and lemonade from a pint glass and when I ordered a second glass of wine looked faintly disapproving. "Do you get hangovers? Really? All the time?"

Kennedy married a nurse, Joanna, at 20; their marriage ended seven years later, around the time that he acquired his neo-punk image by mislaying his tails in New York and going on stage in black clothing bought at Camden Lock. At the height of his fame Kennedy was going out with Brix Smith, a wild Californian rock guitarist. Now, at 39, he is with "Eve". But when I ask him about her he explains in the politest possible way that he doesn't talk about his private life. "I like to draw a line."

He will say, however, that he is careful whom he sees - this is part and parcel of his impressive ability to stay in control, despite his reputation for being the opposite. "I'm a little bit cagey about it all, who I meet. I have so little time to see friends I don't want to waste time with people who are going to say: 'I was hanging out with that bloke the other day.' Not that they're bad people" - he can't bear not to make this qualification - "but I want a life, something coming back to me which means something."

Kennedy is late for the French film he is going to see, so we go to the door. It is still pouring with rain, but the waiter stalks into the street and beckons imperiously for the chauffeur. Kennedy drops me at the tube. "Thanks very much," he says enthusiastically. "When's it coming out? Sunday? Cool. I'll look and see what damage you done."

! 'Kafka' (EMI) is out now on CD, record and tape.