Vanessa-Mae: The long journey of a wunderkind

Violinist Vanessa-Mae has often been described as a "child prodigy", here she attributes success to "anal retentiveness"... and her "rocker granny".

As she strolled into our private interviewing room at Bangkok's prestigious Dusit Thani Hotel, violinist Vanessa-Mae brandishes an enchanting smile and duly apologised for being an hour late.

"Everyone's just so tired, because we've only arrived from Taiwan late last night," she chirped before settling down wearing a tasteful short summer dress with revealing shoulder straps.

Some music critics have called her a "wunderkind" and a "child prodigy", something which has stopped bothering her.

"Sure, I was probably more mature at age 12 than many of my peers, but I never saw myself as the reincarnation of a certain genius violinist," she explained, hinting at the fact that some writers have implied as much, because she shares her birthday with 18th Century Italian "devil's violinist", Niccolo Paganini.

For her, it was simply a personal challenge when she started playing the violin at age four, and she's tried to "do my thing as well as I could ever since."

Displaying her famous dimples, she recalled that it was only at about age 14, as she began to develop her own style, that the press came up with the "child prodigy" notion. Performing music was not in her genes since birth, she insisted, although her mother is a trained musician.

"It purely was a hobby. In fact, I first played the piano and only took up the violin when my mother re-married and we moved to London," she said.

Initially pursuing both instruments, she soon abandoned the piano in favour of the violin.

"My piano teacher was stricter than my violin teacher, and you know how you are as a child when someone's constantly breathing down your neck. I wanted to capture the attention of that more relaxed violin tutor instead, because it inspired me in a 'perverse' kind of way, even though I was only six years old," she says, giggling.

It was obviously a marvellous decision, because since then Vanessa-Mae has left a mighty imprint on the music world. Not only has she successfully covered and rendered a lot of classical pieces, but she even went a step further by marrying classical music with pop and rock elements like in her first best-selling album, "The Violin Player".

With this bold an unprecedented move, Vanessa-Mae created an entirely new genre of "fusion music", a style that has become practically synonymous with this unpretentious young woman and has helped her sell millions of albums around the globe.

But she readily admits that her energy-laden concerts, during which she routinely whirls across the stage and let her enthusiastic nature spill over into the audience, impart "a good deal of showmanship".

"I'm coming from a quite pure classical background, which often adheres to hard and fast rules. Still I find music is there for the taking. It should inspire and entertain at the same time. In order to achieve that, these rules can sometimes be broken or amended, hence my on-stage attitude," she elaborated.

No wonder she was voted by FHM readers into the magazine's annual "100 Sexiest Women in the World" list in 2001, an honour which she dismissed with a wink.

"I was not very convinced abut the relevance of that poll. There were some people who were more beautiful and had larger boobs, but were positioned after me. Other more 'undesirable' people were in front of me. So, I found those poll results a bit of a joke," she asserts.

Asked about her three most positive character traits, Vanessa-Mae replied somewhat hesitantly that she was "faithful" and a "perfectionist", but, giggling once again, bailed out on the third, "because there isn't really one". Positive character traits are generally bound to be counterbalanced by negative ones, and Vanessa-Mae didn't have to think long to come up with those.

"I'm impatient and extremely 'anally retentive'. Is that the right word? I mean, it sometimes bothers me if things don't go as planned. I don't want to let go, although I know that there occasionally must be a not-so-ideal compromise. You only learn that as you get older," she confided.

During the course of that learning process Vanessa-Mae has always had the support of her family. While mother is managing her only child's career with careful consideration, even grandmother takes an active role.

"She's a true 'rock 'n roll' grandma, you know. When we do bus tours, she's never shy of spending each night in a bunk bed," Vanessa-Mae declared with genuine affection.

Mother apparently also had a successful hand in keeping her daughter away from vices, because Vanessa-Mae "absolutely abhors smoking" and only drinks "about two or three units of alcohol a week".

"My mom put a cigarette in my mouth when I was four. I guess that has put me off for life," she smirks.

However, her eyes turn a little sad when she is asked about her father, a Thai national, with whom her Singaporean-Chinese mother split up when Vanessa-Mae was still a toddler.

"I met him at least once a year until I was about 10 years old. Then he suddenly moved away from Singapore without telling anyone, and we have lost contact. I think he's just not very interested in being a father. To be truthful, a daughter needs her father."

Nevertheless, it seems that Vanessa-Mae's four favourite hobbies - her music, her family, her boyfriend, and alpine skiing ("I'm trying to spend two months skiing every year!") - are keeping her fairly busy to get over this most regrettable loss.

Has she ever jammed with another musician?

"Yes," she replied, "Prince called me once and it was the most frightening moment of my life! He asked me to come and jam with him without faxing me the music scores first. I had never done that before, but I accepted the challenge. It turned out to be a rather jazzy session, and despite my initial concerns I enjoyed it greatly," she beamed.

Her recent album, "Choreography", once again breaks new grounds by presenting yet another ingenious and creative approach to music.

It features some "really experimental yet chilled-out pop and dance tunes incorporating different music styles ranging from tango to afro dance," as she put it. While the album contains a couple of classical renditions, a further eight tracks are original compositions, some of which were either written or co-written by Vanessa-Mae, proving her extraordinary versatility.

"'Choreography' is like a journey. I wanted to show that the violin really can be the leading instrument in such a broad variety of music styles, not just classical music. Still, the album is not simply dance music. It's rather more organic, and with that classical touch to it. I want listeners to accompany me on that journey," she explains showing off her lovable dimples for a final time.

A long and interesting journey, indeed, and the reluctant wunderkind has mastered it beautifully so far with an astonishing career, boundless love for music and an unshakable zest for life.