No lasting Damage: Questionable age-appropriate content aside, immersing herself in the music of her parents' generation has paid off well for Marling. She won the 2011 NME award for best solo artist, beating out Kanye West and Florence and the Machine. She also took home the 2011 Brit award (the UK equivalent of a Grammy), edging out Cheryl Cole and Ellie Goulding. Amy Winehouse and Adele won in previous years. But as shiny as these trophies are, Marling doesn't get the point of them. "The best part of winning those awards is that my mum loves them, but that's the extent of their relevance to me," she says. With her third album, A Creature I Don't Know (out Tuesday ), she's getting ready for her U.S. debut. Her haunting style of storytelling, intricate guitar work and intense vocals lead people to describe her music as wise beyond her years. While that sounds like a compliment, Marling doesn't see it that way. "It's patronizing," she says. "Age is relative. Experience is relative. And I think often intensity is confused with maturity."
Kudos all around: She has been getting plenty of nods from some big-name artists. Jack White requested that she record a rendition of Young's The Needle and the Damage Done as a single for his Third Man record label. Young himself invited her to open a few shows for him while he was touring the UK.
Inner circles: Marling got her start at 16 as a back-up singer with folk band Noah & The Whale, playing her first gigs at Communion in West London. When she decided to pursue a solo career, Noah & the Whale frontman Charlie Fink produced her debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim (2007). "Touring together helped us to save money, but we also had a shared interest in our parents' vinyl collections," she says. "So the London folk scene, we were just very lucky to have the circumstance and good fortune to work together." She's also close to Mumford & Sons. "We did this sort of culture exchange where we recorded with traditional Indian musicians for the Dharohar Project EP (2010)," she says. "They came on a small tour with us in the UK, and we went to India to play some gigs. It was completely mystical because their kind of music is so unnatural to our ears. But it was an amazing experience."
Steinbeck, not Snooki: You won't find references to Jersey Shore in Marling's work. She's more literary minded. Two songs from A Creature I Don't Know, Salinas and Sophia, were inspired by author John Steinbeck. Salinas is the name of Steinbeck's hometown in California. "He was obsessed with women, he put them on an incredible pedestal, even his male characters have female attributes," she says. Sophia emerged from a flow of ideas. "Steinbeck speaks to the idea of female as God's counterpart, and the goddess, Sophia, meaning wisdom, was a moral compass meant to keep a male deity in check. I think that's all very fascinating." But Marling isn't all seriousness. "All My Rage was meant to be lighthearted. I was sort of mocking life," she says. "I'm a lot more observational than personal in my writing. My writing is mostly a lot of questions without answers."
Handling the spotlight: If Marling hits the big time in America, longtime fans need not worry that she'll sign up for a reality TV show or hang out with the Kardashians anytime soon. "I need some isolation, it's necessary to me, that's just who I am. I need to be left alone," she says. "That's the time when I write."