When the gothic pop singer Kyla La Grange, 26, played at the British Fashion Awards last year with her band, she managed to sing over Kate Moss's speech by mistake. This was a nightmare moment for the shy Cambridge philosophy graduate turned singer/songwriter, who wears pigeon-wing tiaras and has been compared to Kate Bush, but who has to force herself out of her shell to perform.
"I don't know if I'm the most suitable candidate to be a pop star – I'm very neurotic and pessimistic. It took an especially long time for me to feel comfortable performing, but I just love being able to put intense emotion into a song and then sing it," she says.
Described by US Vogue as "heart-swelling", La Grange writes epic, melodramatic songs about possession and obsession, mostly inspired by one of her ex-boyfriends.
Looking slightly depressed as we meet for coffee, and wearing a black lace sheer top and Barbour jacket with her long hair cascading down her back, she says, "I'd love to write a happy song, but I don't know if I can. All my songs are so intensely personal. I'm drawn to the depths of despair. I'm not a happy person naturally as I suffer from so much self-doubt and insecurity."
The Watford-born La Grange – who has been dubbed the "Watford witch" and a "folk princess" who is "vying for Florence Welch's crown" because of her big, enchanting voice – released her debut album, Ashes, this week. It includes her third single, "Vampire Smile" ("I'm a vampire smile, you'll meet a sticky end/I'm here trying not to bite your neck"), a must-have for Twilight fans, which she wrote as a 19-year-old. Her latest, "Walk Through Walls" is about wanting "desperately" to be close to somebody – "but you can't, knowing it wouldn't end well". In the video, she dances in a red, flapping Kate Bush-like dress.
It was while at Cambridge University (she graduated in 2007) that she finally plucked up the courage to perform at open mic nights, taking along her guitar. "I felt like I should go off and get a proper job when I left Cambridge," she says. "I didn't know if I could make it as a singer, but I thought, 'Well, I may as well try'."
She released her raspy-voiced debut single, "Been Better", last year – but La Grange is still finding herself as an artist. She enjoys designing her show venues with fairy lights, trees and ivy and performs in bare feet. Her biggest performance to date will be at London's Scala in October.
So far she has just been warming up – including a recent performance at the Armani Summer Party in London, playing with Friendly Fires. "I feel more confident on stage, so I can appreciate how enjoyable the performance side of it is now," she says. "But I still much prefer sitting in my bedroom late at night writing songs than doing a gig."
La Grange's Zimbabwean dad and South African mum moved to a council flat in South Oxhey, London, to avoid apartheid, when her mother was pregnant with her. They soon moved to Watford (where they now run a swimming club) and sent La Grange to a local primary school, where she was reclusive. "I didn't fit in and loved hanging out on my own," she says. "I had no knowledge of pop culture – or English culture – so I had no way of communicating with other kids. I was only allowed to watch two TV programmes at home: Gardeners' World and Have I Got News for You. I don't mean this to sound like a sob story. It's just I realised I prefered to be on my own."
Her home was full of "trees and plants growing all over the walls" and artefacts that her parents had collected, including "nude sculptures and monsters' heads" which she uses onstage to cr eate a magical forest look. Her dad, who taught photography at Rickmansworth School, has since allowed her to use his nude, arty photographs, taken in the 1970s and 1980s, for her single artwork.
From a young age she attended Watford School of Music to learn violin and trained in classical singing – but as a teenager she began writing songs in her bedroom at home, where she still lives.
When she left university, she had no idea of how she wanted her music to sound or what her look would be – although she was a Cat Power fan. "I just had a bunch of songs that I wanted to record. At that time, MySpace was a good way to get my songs out there." She met producer Marky Bates, who has worked with Faithless and Dido; he recorded some of her songs, including "Vampire Smile".
Her philosophy degree hasn't influenced her music, she says. "I don't write songs in an analytical, rational way, but from the depths of extreme emotion and general despair." Her lyrics are about the human condition – primarily the fact that she falls in love too easily.
While discussing her angst pop, she explains that she has to get all her feelings out, or her head "feels like it will explode". Signed to Sony earlier this year, her first album deals with four failed relationships that she herself ended and an "all-consuming crush" that she had on "an entirely inappropriate person". Her second single, "Heavy Stone", also released last year, includes a video of her crying black tears. The lyrics "Don't hold me in your soul like a heavy stone" are about "not wanting somebody to be weighed down with thoughts of me" – but she says her second album will be more about "general woes" and "people burying their heads in the sand".
Now in a new relationship, she hopes she has matured since the days of all-consuming liaisons that can burn out. "The age of 19 to 25 is a weird time because you feel like you are still a teenager, but you're not. I think that I thought I was more grown up, and knew how I was when I fell in love. In reality, I don't think I did. You feel you owe people something for hurting them and that has been a common theme in my songs."
She doesn't want to get lost in the competitive and commercial side of making music. "It is very scary, because as soon as you start thinking about the need to sell records or to be on the radio as a measure of success, then you get into very tricky territory," she says. "If you don't sell a lot of records, you are left with nothing. For me, a measure of my own success will always be how proud I am of the songs on my album."
Kyla La Grange's debut album, 'Ashes', is out now