'If sex is boring to you, well, move on' – Peaches on gender, Jesus and Andrew Lloyd Webber

She's better known for waving a dildo around on stage than for singing about the son of God. So what's Peaches doing in a one-woman version of Jesus Christ Superstar?

You have to root around a bit to find parallels between the son of God and Merrill Beth Nisker, but there's at least one. "Jesus and I were both born again at 33," says the Canadian, wearing an electric green leather jacket, flicking back her unruly blond mohican and sipping on a smoothie that perfectly matches the outfit, generally not looking like a very convincing born-again Christian.

Now 46, she is more commonly known under the stage name with which she reinvented herself when she moved to Berlin at the turn of the millennium. As Peaches, a gender-bending electroclash artist famed for her hyper-sexualised lyrics, dildo-swinging live shows and unrestrained body hair, Nisker won fans around the globe including Iggy Pop, Pink, REM, Christina Aguilera and Beth Ditto – all of whom she has collaborated with since the "rebirth".

With a back catalogue that includes songs called Fuck the Pain Away, Diddle My Skittle and Shake Yer Dix, it may be understandable that Andrew Lloyd Webber wasn't entirely forthcoming when she approached him in 2010, to ask if she could put on her own version of Jesus Christ Superstar, Peaches Christ Superstar. "He probably thought I was joking, especially with the title," she says now, but insists that he needn't have worried.

"People thought I wanted to say something controversial about Jesus. But I am not making fun of it – I truly love that rock opera." Raised in a conservative Jewish household in Toronto, she was "more likely to listen to Fiddler on the Roof" as a child, but at the age of 14 she fell deeply in love with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 1970 musical, the falsettos of pained Mary Magdalene and the high drama of "soulful Judas".

"For me, the challenge was not to make a joke of it, not to go all Bohemian Rhapsody, but to try to convey emotion without all the ridiculous musical numbers that don't need to be there." Her proposal to Lloyd Webber was that she would perform it as a solo piece, accompanied only by a piano, with one costume change, and no dildos.

In spite of an initial rejection, her version did get its premiere in the end, partly thanks to the artist's savvy use of social media ("Peaches Christ Superstar crucified before opening night," she tweeted), and last year Peaches performed the musical at Yoko Ono's Meltdown festival. But as Webber's representatives only gave the thumbs-up 24 hours before the show, many missed it.

Next week, she will revive the show at the Brighton festival, with the backing of its original creators. "Tim Rice came to the show in London," she says. "He even walked up to me afterwards and told me how much he had enjoyed it."

In its inaugural performance, the piano part in Peaches Christ Superstar was played by Jason Beck, AKA Gonzales, one of a circle of friends from Toronto days that also includes Feist, a former flatmate. On YouTube, there's a recent clip of the three of them playing a gig at a Hollywood pool bar full of (in her own words) "boring people", which descends into an impromptu baptism. "There was this stupid pool separating the audience from the stage, and we just had to think of a way to bridge it", she says.

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Peaches is far too polite to admit this, but you get the impression that she's been struggling with metaphorical pools like this since her career has taken off. At her first shows, she says, people in the audience were still shocked: some threw lit cigarettes, others got turned on and snogged whoever stood next to them. "These days, they've YouTubed my shows before they come out. They know exactly what to expect."

After four albums with more and more collaborations, and more and more guest producers, Peaches Christ Superstar seems to come from a desire to strip things back to the basics, to go "back to the Borscht belt", as she says – a reference to the summer resorts outside New York where Jewish comedians like Mel Brooks sharpened up their acts.

I also wonder how much of a punch the Peaches of old still pulls now that gender performativity has almost gone mainstream, at least in the arts, with Conchita Wurst winning Eurovision and Hedwig and the Angry Inch a success on Broadway. Has sex become a little bit boring?

"If sex is boring to you, well, move on. There's this idea that women artists are always allowed one sex album: Beyoncé is on to hers now. But sex is the most confusing thing in the world! What does it mean: does it create life, or is it just for fun?"

Tim Rice was assured, at any rate, that Peaches's Jesus was appropriately chaste. The only thing he didn't like was that she had cut out Hosanna, the only song in the piece where Jesus preaches to its audience. (She calls it "Sanna Hoe", which may be a genuine mistake or a sly way of pointing out that there's a madonna-whore complex, and hence a sexual subtext, at the heart of the musical after all.)

"I don't see it as a religious piece; I see it as a person with a good idea trying to make good with humanity, who gets misinterpreted and crucified. I'm not into any organised religion, but I am into people being who they really are. And Jesus was a guy who had a really good idea. I mean, he was a bit crazy, and he went a bit too far. He was a bit narcissistic, but it's really interesting, his story."

• Peaches will perform Peaches Christ Superstar at the Brighton Festival on 19 May.


Philip Oltermann

The GuardianTramp

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