In a music industry overrun by female singers, it appears Reading has quietly produced a talented gem who could rival them all. Former Leighton Park pupil Laura Marling spoke to James Kell about her debut album, her haunting lyrics and her love of literature.

THOSE tedious turn-of-the-year polls to find �€�The Sound of 2008' seemed to bill the coming musical months as a straight duel between soul chanteuses Duffy and Adele. And they appear - initially at least - to have been bang on, with Duffy scoring a number one single with Mercy and Adele's 19 topping the album chart.

Both big-voiced wonders will undoubtedly continue to shift large numbers of units, sound-tracking dinner parties up and down the country for months to come.

But this only serves to make Laura Marling's bewitching debut, Alas I Cannot Swim, stand out even further.

Despite only recently turning 18, Laura's first folk-tinged offering is characterised by an almost precocious ruefulness ("I'll wander the streets, avoiding them eats, until the ring on my finger slips to the ground/A gift to the gutter, a gift to the city the veins of which have broken me down.") but in conversation she is chirpy and funny.

She talks openly about her own music as well as her other project, folk band Noah and the Whale.

"It's different I suppose, I really enjoy being part of a band, I like the anonymity of it. When it's just you there's a lot more scrutiny, so it's nice sometimes not to have that."

When her father gave her an acoustic guitar at the age of five, Laura was hooked. And his tastes have clearly had a large bearing on her influences, growing up as she did listening to the likes of Joni Mitchel, Neil Young and Joan Baez.

One of the first full songs she learned to play was Young's Needle And The Damage Done, which was a B-side to her single Ghosts.

She said: "It's not like I was five years old sitting on my dad's knee playing that song! But it was one of the first covers I learned all the way through when I was a bit older."

But there is also a very discernible Englishness to her songs, derived from her favourite authors which she lists as the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen.

But despite the lyrical richness and imagery in her songs (Tap At My Window is inspired by a Philip Larkin poem), English is something of a sore point for the former Leighton Park pupil from Eversley.

She said: "I failed GCSE English because I hated tearing apart a book. I hated having to write four pages about one aspect of a book or pulling characters apart. I always preferred to build characters.

"I wasn't really a school person, but I got on well with everyone in the music department. I used to spend a lot of time when I was in school in the music department and they were really encouraging."

Her singing voice itself is all oak and honey, sweet but dark, haunting and hugely arresting (particularly on stand-out track Night Terror).

In a recent interview with a national newspaper, Laura said that what she loved about a particular record by American singer-songwriter Bonnie Prince Billy was how "it was almost as if I shouldn't have been listening to it, as if I was invading his emotions".

When asked if she thinks people will feel the same about Alas..., she said: "Yeah, I suppose they could look at it that way, it depends what they're listening for really. That's just how I felt about this record, but I suppose someone could feel the same about mine but it really depends on them and what they hear."

The intricacy of the images in her songs has found further expression in a special Songbox edition of her album, which contains artwork, trinkets and even a board game linked to the songs.

It's perhaps indicative of someone who is on record as saying that "People don't appreciate music any more, they don't adore it."

Laura told the Chronicle: "I lost my copy of Tigermilk by Belle and Sebastian recently, and I absolutely love that album, so just I had to go out and buy the same special edition with all the extras on it."

As a thank-you to fans who forked out the extra money to buy it, the Songbox also contains a free ticket to a series of intimate gigs.

Due to demand, an extra London date this Sunday at Islington's Union Chapel had to be added to the Songbox Tour. And while Laura may not have had the radio ubiquity of some of Britain's other young female singers, the overriding impression is of someone determined to succeed on her own terms.