Four years ago, singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch spotted k.d. lang in the frozen-foods section of his local supermarket. Seizing the moment, Murdoch -- whose haunting lyrics and minimalist folk melodies are reminiscent of Nick Drake's -- handed the Grammy winner a cassette of his work. Two days later, lang called asking for more. But Murdoch chose not to follow through. ''At that time, I wasn't ready,'' he says. ''I dropped it.'' Not an ideal promotional strategy, but the Scotland native (he moved to L.A. in '98) has found success in spite of himself. Last August, Nic Harcourt, a DJ at L.A. public-radio station KCRW, played Murdoch's demo (he requested it after seeing Murdoch perform) on the air, and listeners were so enthusiastic, the ballad ''Orange Sky'' earned a place on the daily playlist. ''When you get a series of phone calls on a song,'' says Harcourt, ''you're onto something.''
Alternative stations across the country picked the song up, and Murdoch was invited to perform at this year's Sundance Film Festival and SXSW. ''Dawson's Creek'' has used two of his tunes, and Britney Spears, Colin Farrell, and Lucinda Williams have dropped by his shows. But even though Murdoch is on the verge of breaking out, he remains unsigned and has yet to release a CD other than his self-produced EP, ''Four Songs'' (available at aleximurdoch.com). The troubadour has received some high-profile offers but is wary of so-called expert feedback.
''The amount of times you hear people in the industry say, 'Oh, I love this, but I can't do anything with it' -- as though they have exclusive ears,'' he remarks. ''I've started recording already, and the songs are ready to go, the band is great, and the sound is already there. So what's the point of signing now?'' Looks like big-label distribution and marketing clout aren't as important as this Scot's independence.