Last October, as Laura Marling was about to take to the stage at the Soho Revue Bar, the venue's manager ordered the musician from his club. Unfazed, the singer took her acoustic guitar to the alley outside and, flanked by two sex shops, serenaded the bar's decanted punters with her haunting folk songs.
Today, Marling is putting the finishing touches to her delicious debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim. The elfin chanteuse shrugs off that night's events. But then, she has nothing to be ashamed of. Her only wrongdoing was that, at 17, she was legally too young to have set foot in the joint.
Fortunately for the singer, most venues are less strict and in the time since Marling's first gig, two days after her 16th birthday, the young artist has played lauded shows everywhere from the banks of the Seine to the muddy channels of Glastonbury. She signed to Virgin, and produced two EPs last year – April's London Town and October's My Manic & I. Marling's strikingly assured television debut on Jools Holland's Later in November further spot-lit the youngster's talent and vindicated her decision to drop out of school in 2006, quit her family's Oxfordshire home and set up on her own in west London. "Convincing my parents was the hardest thing," says Marling. "I think they thought I'd leave school and lose all moral responsibility!" She laughs, her slight frame shaking under layers of oversized jumpers.
Tours supporting indie-pop warblers Kate Nash and Jack Penate mean that Marling has been unfairly pigeonholed as an inheritor of Lily Allen and Nash's kitchen-sink pop. But it's an erroneous comparison. Strains of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Kate Bush at their most delicate linger in Marling's hook-laden alt-folk, her beguiling voice and affecting vignettes marking her out as a precious, timeless artist. With her blond locks, porcelain features and fragile figure, Marling exudes youthful innocence. But her music is imbued with the confidence, skill and depth of one twice her age.
That's perhaps because Marling has had years to hone her elegant, vintage sound. In fact, she began playing her father's guitar when she was three. At six, she was given her own six-string and started lessons. But despite her natural aptitude, peer pressure kicked in when Marling started secondary school and she gave it up. "I just couldn't be bothered with the guitar any more," she explains sheepishly. "I was a lazy teenager."
Marling's rift with the guitar ended with the arrival of The Libertines. "Like every other teenager, I thought they were the coolest thing ever," she says. Inspired by The Libertines' debut, Up the Bracket, and her older sister's copy of Ryan Adams' Gold, the 13-year-old penned her first songs. "They were literally the worst thing you'll hear in your whole life," she says, cringing. At this point, Marling's music-loving father decided to expand her musical horizons. "I played my dad my Libertines record and he just said, 'That's crap – listen to this,' and shoved loads of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell records down my throat."
Marling had a musical epiphany: "I'm really grateful that he played me all that music," she says. "It led to so many other things." Marling began to devour the music of alt-folkies like Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and New York anti-folk heroes Jeffrey Lewis and Kimya Dawson.
It's easy to see how those artists helped mould the singer's style. But Marling's music is still very much her own. Hers is an old head on young shoulders; the songs on Alas I Cannot Swim are richly spun tragedies tempered by a Blakesian world-weariness that implies the wool has long been pulled from her eyes. Marling's world is an imperfect place where hope is defeated by reason and dreams are pierced with cynicism. "I do feel incredibly cynical for my age," she admits. "Maybe it's because I have two older sisters, but I've always thought it's better to be too cynical than to over-praise yourself and life in general. It's better to be safe than sorry."
But beneath that cynicism, Marling's album is littered with bittersweet stoicisms. On her new single, "Ghosts", she sings: "It's not like I believe in everlasting love," but it's a line that's infused with melancholy. She wants to believe, she just can't bring herself to. "It's like believing in the tooth fairy," she sighs.
Religion is another recurring theme in Marling's songs. She's seduced by the notion of a God, but, despite herself, remains unconvinced. "I always wanted to have faith," she says, "that dependence on something absolute. I usually wear a cross, not because I believe in God, but because it helps me to think there's someone watching out for me.
"A lot of things scare me," she continues, her blue eyes peeking through her choppy fringe. "I pretty much live my life in fear" The thought of losing control terrifies her; she doesn't drink and, she says, being around anyone doing drugs freaks her out. She's as scared of success as she is of failure. But what frightens her most is the prospect of loneliness. "I wish I wasn't 17 because you have to fit in and it's hard," she says. "I can feel myself drifting from my friends as our lives grow further apart. And there's no sympathy for me. I've dropped out of school, I'm the weird one. The thought of being out at a club in a big group of people is my idea of hell. But I love my friends, and at the end of the day I don't want to be alone."
Beneath the measured insight and fiery promise of her music, Marling is still a normal teenager who wants most of all to belong. Success, she knows, is no substitute for friendship and she shies away from the faux over-familiarity of peer-to-peer sites. "I hate MySpace," she says. "I feel terrible every time I read a message. People are, like, 'We love your music, write back,' but I don't know what to say."
Marling smiles softly. Shy and naturally reserved, she insists that in some ways she'd love to keep herself tucked away from the limelight. "One day I'd love to move back to the countryside and be really chilled out," she says. "Maybe be like Tom Waits and just play like four gigs a year."
But for now, Marling is clearly excited about what lies ahead for her in 2008: "I never forget how lucky I am to be doing what I'm doing," she says, a big grin spreading across her lips. This month, she plays a string of dates in the alt-folk Mecca, New York, and once she's back, on 1 February, Marling turns 18. She'll be celebrating her birthday with a gig, aptly, at the Soho Revue Bar. There's no stopping her now.
Laura Marling's single 'Ghosts' is released on 28 January on EMI; the album 'Alas I Cannot Swim' is out on 4 FebruaryReuse content