Pulling up outside the train station of the sleepy Surrey town of Ockley, Lou Rhodes is all smiling eyes and sheepish apologies. "Sorry about the mess," she says, her embarrassed tone suggesting she's only just remembered the children's toys strewn across the back seat of her battered grey Volvo - and she may be entirely unaware of the small, empty bottle of organic apple-juice lodged securely behind her seat. But then, these days the single mum has more to think about than the tidiness of her car.
Rhodes' summer has been hectic. As well as looking after her two young boys, her schedule has been packed full of festival appearances - when we meet, she's only just returned from one and is off to play another this weekend. After 10 years fronting successful trip hop/drum & bass duo Lamb, lending warmth and soul to their frazzled electronics with her feline presence and haunting vocals, the Manchester-born siren is no stranger to summer nights spent on stages. But since the release of her debut solo album, the enchanting Beloved One, Rhodes has found herself thrust into the arms of an eager new audience.
The daughter of a folk singer, Rhodes first tasted the limelight singing Joni Mitchell covers in folk clubs as a teen. With her critically-acclaimed solo album, she's come the full circle, swapping the pounding synthetic beats of Lamb for softer, homespun sounds. To her surprise, Rhodes has been quickly embraced by the folk elite - indeed, she was invited to play among female folkie luminaries such as June Tabor, Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy at the Barbican's celebrated Daughters Of Albion concert last February. "The folk world is a really tight knit community," she says. "It's all about heritage and it's quite hard to be accepted. But there I was, with all these folk legends and they made me feel as though I was with family."
But it's not just the folk world showering Rhodes with plaudits. With its stirring personal tales and rich organic melodies, Beloved One has also earned her a much deserved spot on this year's Mercury Prize shortlist; inviting mainstream interest and raising her profile considerably. "The day the shortlist was announced was such a great day," remembers Rhodes as we pull into the petrol station-cum-post office that is Ockley's village store. "I didn't dare be hopeful about a nomination because if you hope for things like that you could end up being really disappointed, but I was so thrilled to make the shortlist. And that afternoon I won the mums' race at my boy's school - he was so proud!"
Rhodes' achievement (the Mercury nomination, not the running rosette) is all the more impressive given that she started her own label, Infinite Bloom Recordings, to release it. "I didn't want anyone else getting hold of it and making it something else," she says sincerely. It's clear how close the record is to her heart. "Beloved One is a really honest, really personal record that embraces all of what I am right now. I'm not a young girl any more - I'm not up on the electronic music scene and I'm not going out to clubs every night. I'm a mother and what drives me now is something different - something deeper."
After stocking up on milk and apple turnovers we head for Ridge Farm, the commune where Rhodes and her boys have lived for the last two years. Set in 13 acres of lush rolling grounds, the farm used to be a residential studio - indeed Ozzy Osbourne's old Rolex apparently lies at the bottom of the garden pond, having been thrown in after a debauched recording session. These days, though, the peaceful 17th- century farmhouse is a rather calmer place, with its communal dinners, organic vegetable garden and chicken coup (currently uninhabited thanks to a hungry local fox). It's all a world away from the club-centred days of Rhodes' previous London existence. But the singer's life had changed irrevocably even before she and her boys first stepped foot on Ridge Farm's restorative grounds.
At the tail end of 2003, Rhodes' 10-year working relationship with Lamb's beat-meister Andy Barlow "ceased", she says. "But I wouldn't say things fell apart with Lamb," she continues warming the apple turnovers in the toaster, "I think of it more as an evolution." The break-up had been on the cards for a while. "Lamb had always been about the interplay between songs and technology. But I slowly found myself wanting just the acoustic elements and of course that wasn't Lamb. Musically we wanted different things. He's a very talented producer but I just wanted simplicity. And for me it became more and more obvious the way I needed to go."
After the dissolution of Lamb, it slowly became clear that the other major relationship in Rhodes' life - with the father of her two children - was also coming to an end. "My relationship with the boys' father was very complicated from the word go," she says, her buttermilk voice softening even further, "but there was a lot of strong feeling there and a lot of love and that's why we struggled on for as long as we did. Obviously with children you don't take separating lightly..." She pours two mugs of Earl Grey and serves up the piping hot turnovers. "I don't know," she smiles thoughtfully. "In some ways I think we were too alike. But I don't believe in keeping something going for the sake of it, just because it was great. I think it's lovely to acknowledge that something was absolutely brilliant and then move on."
Right now, revelling in the August sunshine and tucking into the sticky sweetness of her afternoon treat, Rhodes is philosophical about the demise of the relationship. But at the time, the decision to call an end to the seven years she'd spent with her children's father left her broken and floundering. "I had nowhere to go, I just packed up my van and took off with the children," she remembers. Upon hearing of her predicament, a friend living at Ridge Farm invited her to stay at the commune. On her arrival, her van broke down in the driveway. That didn't really matter, because although Ridge Farm is a far cry from the comfortable four bedroom house she'd shared with her ex in London, Rhodes stayed.
"This has been an amazing place to rebuild - to find myself again," she says. Arriving at Ridge Farm, Rhodes realised that for years, she'd been putting on a façade. "People always assumed I was this really sorted person - that I had this really amazing life. But the truth is that my life then was falling apart. Really, it couldn't have been harder. And for the first time, I felt as though I couldn't do it on my own any more."
Comforted by strangers, Rhodes took off the brave face she'd long worn and let down her defences. "Coming here I realised what a relief it was to allow yourself to be vulnerable; to fall back and allow other people to catch you." Rhodes let her emotions flood out and into her songs. "That outpouring was such a luxury!" she says. "It felt like I'd been let off a leash. It was such an amazing freedom to be able to pour everything out; let go of every emotion and feel secure that my feelings would be held safely like that."
Fired with inspiration, Rhodes decided she wanted to write and record some songs at the farm. "It felt like the right thing to do," she says. As the farm no longer had a functioning studio, she fitted an old barn with her own equipment and laid-down the album's tracks in three weeks.
Rhodes says that the song-writing and recording process was a cathartic release for her. Having learned to surrender herself to her emotions, she channelled them all, unhindered, into her music. That's what makes her album so vibrant and alive. Beloved One, burns with unrestrained passion. Raw and at times painfully honest, its personal songs are tarred and tainted by her turbulent times. But despite Rhodes' heartbreak, like her, these songs smoulder with hope.
Rhodes insists she's no romantic idealist - "You have to shovel through the dirt to find the pearls in any relationship," she says. But she can't help feeling optimistic about love. "I'm far too heart-led, I know that," she laughs wrapping her delicate cardy tighter against a cool breeze, "but if you can't go there - if you can't allow yourself to really feel love - there's nothing else worth bothering with as far as I'm concerned. Some people from an early age get hurt and give love a wide berth. But for me it's like: 'Shit, I got hurt there, but I'll dive right in again.' And I'll keep diving in because in a way love is the only thing that's real." Rhodes' zeal has been rewarded and she's now in a new relationship: "I'm with my beloved one," she says clearly consumed with love.
The last few years have proved a testing time for Rhodes. "Making this album and finding myself again after the demise of my relationship with the father of my kids has been like coming home in so many ways," she says brightly. "I don't recognise the person that I was two years ago. For a long time I'd been denying what I am and so much of me had opted out or got lost along the way. But I've learnt I'm an emotional junkie and that's okay. And acceptance of all the things that run you is so important. How else are you really going to experience life? I don't have to pretend to be someone else any more."
"The first song on my album, "Each Moment New" is like my mantra," she continues. "It's how I want to be - like the song says: 'live each day by day and feel each moment new.' Throw myself into life and let it wash over me."
It's clear things are finally falling into place for Rhodes. The Mercury nomination has boosted both her confidence and her album's sales, and her label, Infinite Bloom Recordings, is also starting to take-off. "Signing bands is like a treasure hunt," she says her grey eyes wide with pleasure. But most exciting of all, she's finally moving out of Ridge Farm. Not that she's had enough of communal living - her new home is within the grounds of a Somerset commune: "It's the best of both worlds," she gushes. "I'll still have the company and support of others, but," she grins cheekily, "I also get my own kitchen - I can't wait!"
'Beloved One' is out now.