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Gabriella Cilmi is excited to see her debut album, Lessons to be Learned (including her latest single, the incredibly catchy Sweet About Me) on shelves in stores. "It's very cool," she says.

The album debuted at number 3 in her Australian homeland, and number 8 in the UK (where she has been living for the past year), and charted at a respectable number 13 here in New Zealand.

"It was a long time coming and a lot of hard work," she reveals. Small point worth mentioning: since she's only 16, the "long time coming" refers to the fact that the Italian-Australian songstress was signed to a record label when she was just 13.

"My family's Italian, and every year we go to this festival," she says, explaining her big break.

"People get up, they do their thing, although most of them are just auctioning off jams and chutneys for charity," she says, pausing to have a laugh. "One of my uncles pushed me up to sing. I did Jumpin' Jack Flash and I think only one person there liked it. But he happened to work for Warner Brothers so that was a bit of a blessing."

Indeed. Cilmi (it's pronounced "chill-me") is a rarity in that, at 16, she is interested in music from the 1970s, rather than singing trumped-up pop on the Disney channel.

"I just grew up with things like Janis Joplin, The Sweet, T-Rex, Cat Stevens - and I just love all that stuff." She tells me that if she could start adding covers to future albums she would want to take on The Doors' Moonlight Drive and "anything by Led Zep". Odd, but reassuring choices for a precocious teen.

"I'm pleased to have started out young; it means I have heaps of options, different paths that I can go down," she says.

The rising star has played support slots for James Blunt, The Sugarbabes and Rufus Wainwright so far, all of which have "been a blast, such good exposure and experience". She returns home to Australia in October for her first national tour. "And we'll be doing New Zealand shows, too," she adds. "I can't wait."

So what does she do in the little spare time that exists in between shows and promo stopovers around Europe?

"My homework! Don't laugh; I have to email it through most days."

Gabriella Cilmi's album, Lessons to be Learned, is in stores now.