In the flesh there is something rather delicate about Dot Allison. As we sit and talk about her life and work - mostly work - in a chic-ly anonymous Soho coffee house I can't get the image of bird skulls out of my head - those sliver-thin parcels of bone you see washed up on the seashore. To look at,

Allison has some of the same fragility about her. She is small by nature and today is wrapped up in a black jacket and red scarf tied around her neck accentuating her Scottish paleness. Her hair appears more chopped than cut, but still neatly frames her avian face. She's hunched up a bit, too, struggling with a head cold and maybe feeling sorry for herself (or is that a solely male response to a bout of minor illness?)

Anyone with even a passing familiarity of Allison's CV, though, will know that fragile is the last thing she is. Since the release of Morning Dove White, the swoonsome first (and, it soon became clear, final) album of White Dove in 1993, a chill-out classic notable for Allison's distinctive breathy vocals, she has been battered by the vagaries of the record industry and bruised by the real world. But here she still is, talking about a new record - only her third in ten years - and a career that is increasingly of her own making.

''If I've any frustrations it's that twice I've signed up to what looked like independent labels but then I've ended up by default on a major and working with a team of people who didn't sign you and maybe don't identify with the music,'' she says. ''In the studio in the past there has been record company pressure to work with certain producers and there have been opportunities to go down a pop route.''

That's a road she has not taken, as her new album We Are Science testifies to. Musically it is a world away from the beatific beat of Morning Dove White or even the upmarket pop of Afterglow, her solo debut in 1999. More chilling and chilly than chill-out, it's a dark, disturbing affair some distance removed from the ''Pop Idol culture'' she so obviously detests. ''I'm not prepared to cheese it up and try to get more mainstream success,'' she says adamantly. ''I'd rather make something that I'm happy to stand on a stage and sing.''

She describes We Are Science as ''psychedelic'', although it is far from hippy-trippy. If anything the sheen of cold electronica (think Joy Division, think early Talking Heads) that dances around some of it echoes the current taste for the early eighties that can be found in everyone from NY boho hip things Fischerspooner to pop queen Kylie who is set to release her Brits-debuted cover of New Order's Blue Monday.

Allison doesn't welcome the comparison with the world's favourite Aussie. Understandably so. Ms Minogue, not even in her short-lived indie incarnation, has never released anything as dark as We Are Science. It is not a feel-good record. ''I like moodiness in music and I like emotional, dark lyrics and melancholia,'' says Allison. ''I'm aware of positive emotions but I feel more driven by negative ones. They're the ones that I have more urgency to express.''

Well, so she says. But ask her about the source of the record's darkness and she clams up. Later Allison admits she's shy, but I get the impression she is also remarkably self-contained. That skull of hers is not easily tapped. A woman with muso tendencies, she happily talks about the sound of the record, but probe her on the content and she is not so forthcoming.

Take the title. What does it mean? I ask her. ''It could be about physical love, it could be about psychology, chemistry.'' Yes. And which one is it? ''I suppose I don't want to say what this has to be about. I just like the ambiguity of it.''

Right. Let's try a different tack. I tell her that listening to the album I can hear anxiety and frustration. ''That's interesting,'' she replies. Pause. She won't be drawn.

This much I can tell you. Some of the songs are autobiographical. Wishing Stone, a bitter little unrequited love song, for example, draws directly on her own past, but that's as much as she'll say. ''It's hard to put into words,'' she finally offers. ''Sometimes music can bring a tear to your eye and you don't even know why. It's pulling on something that is so deep in it's almost not cranial.''

Dot Allison grew up in a house in Edinburgh with two pianos, each with missing keys. Her father was a biochemist, her mother a music teacher. She has a twin brother who turned her on to Joy Division and Iggy Pop, though Blondie were her favourites. ''Debbie Harry was cool. The coolest, the coolest,'' she smiles, 15 again for a moment.

As the song goes, music was her first love. ''I played piano and my aunt was a professional musician so I was always surrounded by music,'' she says. Yet, despite the example of the distaff members of her family, she originally followed in her father's footsteps, opting to study biochemistry at Glasgow University. ''I think it's probably because I didn't see myself as a good enough classical musician,'' she says, ''and so getting a career in music at that time didn't seem like a reality-based aspiration, whereas I was good enough at science to get on to the degree course and I really enjoyed it as well. It was just something that seemed more of a likelihood.''

Such sensible middle class reasoning.

''And it was also about not knowing how the hell to start,'' she adds. ''How do you break into music when you're 17? You don't have access to recording studios and you're skint.''

Acid house saved Allison from a career looking down a microscope. It was the late eighties in Glasgow and the soundtrack of the time came courtesy of Primal Scream and The Orb. ''I would go to clubs to hear this mental music that was very much off the beaten track at the time, so fresh and new-sounding,'' she says. ''It felt like the rules were being broken that needed to be broken so badly because we were eighties-ed out of our minds. It felt like an evolution. It felt like some kind of strange religious underground. It was feeling like a new movement was happening and you were there and it was special and thinking it felt like something big.''

She started making contacts, meeting people. She played keyboards in a band but it took her a while to get up the courage to sing. ''I had to get over my shyness. When I first went to record a vocal I had to have somebody in the booth with me patting my back because I was so scared.''

There was no need. When Morning Dove White saw the light a couple of years later Allison's voice swam beguilingly across its surface. She also sounded sexy as hell. Or maybe that's just me. Can music be an aphrodisiac?, I ask her ''I absolutely think it can be, yeah. People daydream to music. Certain songs get certain wheels turning in your head and they might be romantic ones or they might be sexual ones or sad, emotional ones - lost love or whatever. But yeah, sex or sensuality, whatever you want to call it, I'm sure is part of that.''

Not always a good part, though. Allison suddenly found herself being painted as an ''incipient sex kitten'' in the music press. No doubt it was her long blonde hair that provoked such a typically male Pavlovian response. Even as I ask it I know it's a crass question, but is her current Joan of Arc bob a conscious change of image? ''It was nothing to do with music. I remember really pissing off London Records when the first album was about to come out when I dyed my hair red. It was 'what are you doing?' When the video we shot in New York came back they apparently leapt out of their seats. But it shouldn't be about my hair.''

It shouldn't be, but she knows it often is. ''You've got to be vigilant,'' she says. ''That pressure is always there, particularly when you do shoots, because they can be engineered in such a way for a certain style of picture. And it's just a shame you've got to be on guard. You've got to be prepared to piss people off because a lot of the time they'll say 'we think you'll look good in this top' and you're like 'Well I don't want to show off my midriff and why should it be about my midriff?' I think it's a shame that a lot of 18 year olds - like Mysteeq - are under pressure to do the mandatory bikini shot for the cover of FHM or something like that. And they're so easily manipulated at that age.''

This is inarguable. And yet from Elvis to Enrique Iglesias, pop has never been slow to sex things up. It's part of the game, isn't it? Allison is not convinced. ''The Chemical Brothers are pop stars but you wouldn't get someone saying to them 'Oh, do you want to put something tighter on?' It just wouldn't happen. And they just wouldn't get asked those questions.''

One Dove fell apart in 1996, worn down by record label politics, internal bickering and Allison's increasing sense of frustration. A solo career beckoned but her plans were almost immediately pushed off the road. In the same year she was a backseat passenger in her mother's car travelling along the motorway when another car crashed into the back of them. The collision could have killed her. Instead, it confined her to a wheelchair for months.

Maybe that's where all this melancholy comes from, I suggest, but she says not. ''There's a court case still going on. Until that's over I suppose I won't get any closure on it properly, but I don't think about it a lot and I don't have any anger about it. You become accepting and try to move on as quickly as possible.''

She started with her solo debut three years ago, but despite the chance to work with the legendary lyricist Hal David the result didn't totally please her. ''It was taken into a big studio and it kind of got some of the edges polished off of it.'' She says she was too timid to put her foot down in the studio. Now that she's got her own that's no longer the case. We Are Science is utterly, triumphantly anti-glossy.

Allison tells me she'd love to do the score for a movie. ''I'd like to do a Lars Von Trier film. Or Wim Wenders or someone like that.'' When I speak to her a few weeks later she says she's got her wish, though the film is a Hollywood movie helmed by the British director Simon De Selva. She can't talk much about it, but she's excited.

She can't reveal much about her vocals for the new Massive Attack album either. She has recorded two songs but doesn't yet know if they will be included. Still, the experience was amazing, she says. ''No matter what comes out of it, it was an honour to be asked.''

These days she lives in Hackney with her musician boyfriend Richard Fearless. She says she misses Scotland but there's so much to do in London. The galleries and all that. Frankly, I'm not convinced she ever visits them. She's in the studio every day. Apart from the odd bar job when she was a student - she once worked in the Cul de Sac in Glasgow - she has only ever worked as a musician. Music is all consuming. It's her escape, she says. And what is she escaping from? ''From the here and now. There's a human need to escape from the here and now, I think. Some people get drunk, I've got music.'' She likes the idea that music provides a soundtrack to her dreams. ''It does. It amplifies them.'' It gives you everything you want from life, I suggest. ''At the moment, yeah.''

The taxi's arrived. It's time for her to go. We walk out into a chilly Soho. It's early evening now. I'm heading home. She's probably going back to the studio. Back to dreaming.