"People sometimes ask me why I look so cross on my album sleeves," says Thea Gilmore with a merry laugh and a cheerful shrug. This is, after all, the superstar-in-waiting who is so unfazed by the clamour of growing acclaim that she's taken a day-trip from Nantwich to London just because I've broken a toe.
She wonders if it's because she's been too busy working on her albums - the 23-year-old's fifth album, Avalanche, is released next week - to transform herself into a sex kitten: "The trouble is you walk into a record shop and most of the pictures of women are in these coquettish, fuck-me poses. Just what is that about?"
So Ian Brown, the veteran label boss who has created Hungry Dog Records especially for Gilmore, hasn't tried to sex her up? "Ian Brown wouldn't be alive if he tried to do that to me," Gilmore ripostes with the kind of throaty growl that's far sexier than any Photoshop-ed album sleeve.
There's been a buzz around Gilmore's music ever since she self-released her first album, Burning Dorothy, on her own label, Shameless, in 1999. She financed it through odd jobs, family and friends, promoted it by word of mouth and endless gigging and sometimes sold it from her car boot.
It was a precocious debut, showcasing songs - she writes with prodigious speed - that were catchy, mature and, when barbed, well-aimed.
By the time Rule For Jokers came out two years later, it was clear that Gilmore was no teenage chancer, but a writer whose songs, bursting with an unusual energy, could not be held captive.
Though often made, the comparisons with Joni Mitchell or Suzanne Vega, are wide of the mark. Though these artists were very much present during her childhood in rural Oxfordshire (where her father was an equine chiropractor and her mother, a falconer, kept frozen dormice in the family fridge), there is a muscularity about Gilmore's work that has no adequate parallel in what's been before.
The truth is that Gilmore's self-assured songs and, as far as the major labels are concerned, jealously guarded independence, have combined in creating something that is a thing apart. The closest singer/songwriter to Gilmore - and only in terms of temperament - might be the American folkie Ani DiFranco, whose single-minded dedication to delivering music her own way has paid off in spades.
"I am a bit of a control freak," Gilmore says, "and I'm lucky in that I've got a very, very good core team around me that I trust. If I'd been on a major label, these albums wouldn't have been made."
And you can see her point. Not because her music lacks the necessary quality control, but because company business often gets in the way of the practice of making music. One song on Avalanche, "Heads Will Roll", addresses just this. "The big labels make a generic mush of offers that all boil down to one thing: you relinquish all control. Nor do you get any financial reward: an advance is just a loan, and you only get to make an album every three or four years. For someone like me, who's writing all the time, it's important that if I have 12 new songs, I can record them when I want. That's how I keep fresh; that's how I keep the people who buy my records fresh."
By cutting out the middlemen, and going straight to the stage, Gilmore's found out first-hand what works and what doesn't. She'd play folked-down versions of the Buzzcocks' punk lament, "Ever Fallen In Love With", or Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" and watch her audiences stir into recognition. The live environment invigorates her and she blurs her boundaries with confidence.
Avalanche is as intimate or dramatic as you want it to be. Its songs have the kind of adaptability and coherence that they could survive in the clubs that Gilmore began her performing life in, or the larger venues that are beckoning.
"When I put a record on, I want to be challenged," she states. "I want it to ask me questions. I don't want answers. Just questions."
British audiences will have the chance to ask their own questions when Gilmore and her band, led by her long-term producer and guitarist, Nigel Stonier, embark on a 14-venue tour, with a highlight at London's Scala, before heading out for a handful of US dates.
"If this is the big push forwards - whatever that means - I'm trying to ignore it," Gilmore says of the critical frenzy that Avalanche and its first single, "Juliet", are already creating. If any song encapsulates Gilmore's need for audience contact it's that song.
"Juliet was a bit of a tragic character. She's that kind of girl - you can spot them a mile off - who'll talk about themselves for hours. She sat herself down in front of me just before I went on stage once and poured out her entire life history."
Revenge came in the form of a song, a single and a video.
"I feel a little bad about it now. I hope she doesn't recognise herself - but apologise? Oh no. Never say sorry."
'Juliet' (Hungry Dog) is out tomorrow. 'Avalanche' is out on 11 August. Gilmore's tour runs from 21 Oct to 7 Nov, including a date at the Scala, London N1 (020 7403 3331), 4 Nov. See www.theagilmore.comReuse content