NEW YORK — It's hard to imagine a more pop debut than Vanessa Carlton's.

Her piano-infused "A Thousand Miles" became an anthem of 2002, garnered her three Grammy nominations and helped her sell more than 2 million copies of "Be Not Nobody," her first album.

But as she releases her sophomore set, "Harmonium," Carlton prefers to define herself as out of the mainstream.

"I am kind of an alternative to kind of the very popular hip-hop stuff and other really mainstream pop artists," says the 24-year-old singer-songwriter, sitting in a studio at New York's famed Hits Factory. "I'm an alternative to the Simpson girls."

Carlton has done well by defining herself as the alternative to commercialize pop; with her first album, the brunette was cast as one of the emerging anti-Britneys — female artists who wrote their own material, played their own instruments and rejected the role of pop's oversexed vixen.

Carlton hopes to cast herself next as a career artist, instead of the hot singer of the moment.

AP: You were among a rising group of female singer-songwriters considered an alternative to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Do you feel you were lumped in with other artists?

Carlton: I did, but I thought that the trend of that time probably helped propel me forward. When you're part of a trend, it tends to be easier to kind of break through, and at this point now I'm just kind of standing on my own, and it feels nice to be one of the few people that are doing what I am attempting to do. I'm not really scared by it at all. To walk the bold path is not something that I'm not afraid of, and if I'm releasing a song to radio, and it's the only song on radio that sounds that way, that to me is a plus as opposed to me being concerned that I'm not fitting a preconceived mold.

AP: You say this record is more serious — why?

Carlton: It's a darker-themed album. (When) you're a writer and you're 16 and 17 years old, you kind of like go through a diary stage where you're kind of mostly narcissistic and dealing with yourself, and writing for me is a very selfish thing, where as it's solely about comforting myself. And just as you grow up, you kind of start to absorb your environment in a different way, you develop a different perspective.

AP: What was the whirlwind like when you were nominated for the Grammys?

Carlton: It kind of went over my head. . . . It was almost too easy. I was working for years and suddenly it came, and as much as someone could say, "You worked for four years, five years, and it all comes and it feels so good" — it's all going at such a fast pace that it doesn't feel easy, it just feels like it's whipping through your fingers as it's happening and there's no real way to absorb it or appreciate it, and that was really what was happening. Now I don't think it would be like that. (But) the Grammys to me was dealing with the battery pack strapped around my leg, making sure I could hear my vocal and the piano at the same time.

AP: Did you enjoy it?

Carlton: Being at the actual Grammys? No. I enjoyed the attention . . . but it's one of the most stressful awards. I couldn't even get a cup of water backstage.

AP: Do you think this album is more of a mature record?

Carlton: I think the album is a reflection of a more womanly point of view on the world. There was something kind of innocent and girlish about the first record . . . But with that said, I tend to have a very wholesome image. I don't really strip or do anything like that.

AP: You haven't done the Maxim layout?

Carlton: (laughs) No, and I don't have a desire to, because the bottom line is I feel womanly and sexy and confident . . . I feel like taking off all of your clothes (is) doing it to get attention from men, and I don't feel like I need to fight for it. I feel sexy in pajamas. I think as a woman growing up in this society, it's really easy, dangerously easy, to kind of fall into the trappings of what your image should be, how you should look. The expectation for women has gotten about out of hand. I try to separate myself from the whole thing.