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Laura Marling - Sweet taste of success for a shy songstress

Laura Marling's triumph at the Brits introduced a prime-time audience to a hugely undervalued treasure, says Gillian Orr

It doesn't happen too often that someone who has just won a Brit award makes a point of introducing themselves to the audience when they go on stage to collect it. "Thank you... my name is Laura," said 21-year-old singer-songwriter Laura Marling, visibly nervous and baffled after winning Best British Female Solo Artist at this week's ceremony. "This is really weird," she managed, before shuffling off the stage at the first opportunity.

The formal introduction may have been unnecessary for Marling's many fervent supporters, who have closely followed the folk star ever since the release of her hugely acclaimed debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, just days after her 18th birthday in 2008. They grew in force when her second album, I Speak Because I Can, came out last March to ecstatic reviews.

But for much of the British public, it was the first time they had come across the pale, shy songwriter. As one of the only winners who wasn't asked to perform, the next day the tabloids reported on a "little-known folk singer" scooping the prestigious award. One popular newspaper website even ran the headline "Who IS Laura Marling?"

When Boy George opened the envelope to reveal the winner, he too looked visibly surprised, parting an incredulous "Wow!" He was the first in a long line of celebrities ready to heap praise on the unassuming singer that night. For many of those who take a keen interest in the music industry, and indeed for plenty who work within it, Marling's win was the highlight of the evening: a triumph of talent over titillation.

You only had to look at Marling to see the gulf between her and some of the other women who were nominated or performing. Compare Marling's understated appearance on the podium to that of the crass Jessie J, who gushed and cried on receiving the Critic's Choice award which ordains a promising future star, despite already knowing that she had won. And while other women at the event pranced around in flashy dresses and revealing one-pieces, Marling had chosen a simple pair of black trousers and a nondescript, unfussy white top, bought from the high-street store COS, to wear. She wore minimal make-up and had pulled her hair back in a simple bun. While I'm certainly not suggesting that every pop star should start wearing jeans on stage, it was heartwarming to see someone so modest rewarded so handsomely.

Laura Marling - Cross Your Fingers

For it was a somewhat unusual decision to award Marling the top prize and out of character for the populist Brit awards, which so often favours commercial success and fame over musical integrity. While the female solo artist winners for the past five years (Lily Allen, Duffy, Kate Nash, Amy Winehouse and K T Tunstall) certainly weren't totally bereft of talent themselves, they were all platinum-selling artists with much, much higher profiles.

Almost every one of Marling's fellow nominees seemed a more likely choice to triumph, the favourite being the seemingly unstoppable nation's sweetheart, Cheryl Cole. Let's not forget that the awards show goes out on primetime ITV, a channel which Cole is one of the faces of, with her role on The X-Factor. And whilst Cole regularly spawns derivative No 1s, Marling's highest charting single thus far has been "Devil's Spoke", which shot in at No 97. Marling's victory over Cole has been compared to Belle & Sebastian winning the best newcomer award over the hugely popular Steps in 1999.

Of the other three nominees, even Rumer or Ellie Goulding would have made more traditional Brit winners. Rumer has enjoyed a stellar year as a Radio 2 and housewives' favourite, while Goulding already has the Brits' seal of approval, having won the Critics' Choice award last year (and the voting committee is often keen to stand by acts that they have previously supported). Perhaps only Paloma Faith would have made an even less likely winner than Marling, but sales of her album, Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?, have far exceeded Marling's I Speak Because I Can.

Of course, Marling is hardly a stranger to award ceremonies. After all, she has been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize twice, losing out to Elbow in 2008 and The xx last year. But this is the first major award she has won, and many would argue that it is long overdue, for Marling is widely considered to be one of the country's finest songwriters, her emotional, mature outpourings belying her tender years.

Having been raised in a musical family in the village of Eversley, Hampshire, she was an early fan of artists such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and the young Marling left school at 16 to pursue music. Evidently precocious, she was once even refused entry to her own gig because she was underage.

The first time she heard Bonnie "Prince" Billy's "I See a Darkness" was a momentous occasion and a turning point for her songwriting. "It was like a shock to the system," she told an interviewer. "It was almost as if I shouldn't have been listening to it, as if I was invading his emotions."

After moving to London and setting up home with friends, she began recording her debut. Having read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre three times before going into the studio, some of the dark, gothic imagery made its way onto Alas, I Cannot Swim, a set of deeply personal and confident songs delivered in her arresting tones.

She grew in prominence as one of the leading figures of the nu-folk scene, alongside the likes of Noah and the Whale, Mumford & Sons and Johnny Flynn.

Having been in a relationship with Charlie Fink, the front man of Noah and the Whale, who produced Marling's first album, he was left heartbroken when she started going out with Mumford & Sons' frontman Marcus Mumford. Noah and the Whale's achingly sad The First Days of Spring is Fink's devastating response to the break up.

While most of those involved in the nu-folk movement denied such a scene even existed and that it was just created by an over-zealous music press, friendship, romance and camaraderie certainly permeated the group. They would often all go to the Bosun's Locker, a tiny venue in Fulham that no longer exists, and watch new acts or play themselves. This group spirit was perhaps most palpable at Laura Marling and Friends, a concert put on at the Royal Festival Hall in 2009 which featured performances from Alessi's Ark, Pete Roe, Peggy Sue, Cherbourg, Johnny Flynn and Mumford & Sons among others, and was a seminal moment for the movement.

By the time she released I Speak Because I Can last year, a slightly more confident Marling emerged. While still shy, she was no longer the girl who couldn't take her eyes off the floor when she performed. "What I've figured out in the past couple of years is that you can be shy," she said at the time, "but you can also step it up a notch and, you know, be on the level with people. I think the shyer, more insecure people, the really artistic ones, with loads of integrity, loads of pride, often get things done by being an arsehole. It might kill them inside, but that's the only way they can do it. Everybody who is creative has that to an extent. I think I had it in my head that it was okay to not talk to anyone unless I needed to, and that I could get away with that. But, actually, part of being a good human being is communication and respect. I think the point that I'm trying to make is that you can be good and kind and easy enough to be around without compromising your artistic integrity. Why did it take me so long to understand that?"

It is yet to be seen if Marling's Brit win on Tuesday will send her career rocketing, but, whether she likes it or not, it has certainly brought her to wider attention. And while it was a much-deserved victory for Marling, it was also a sweet moment to see honest, striking and intelligent songwriting triumph over hype, record sales and column inches, which so often characterise those who walk away with a statuette from the Brit awards.