Three years ago, the closest Nicolette Larson was to a hit record was filing other people's albums in the bins at a Berkeley, Calif., music shop. Now, she's one of the hottest new female singers in pop.

She sang with Neil Young on his recent "Comes a Time" album, hit the Top 20 with her own single version of Young's "Lotta Love" and was named best female singer of 1978 by Rolling Stone magazine.

Thanks to her confidence and a slightly hippie-ish, take-it-easy philosophy, she doesn't even seem unduly nervous about her success.

"I've always wanted to be a singer," Larson said, brusing her long hair back over her right shoulder. "I'd watch singers on television and think, 'Boy, they're having so much fun.' But I lived in Kansas City at the time and it was nearly impossible to break into the music business there."

Larson's dreams of being a singer were fueled by a trip to San Francisco during the summer of 1973. She had a friend there who handled the lights and sound at a major club. Through him, she found herself surrounded by music.

"I got to see Tom Waits and Commander Cody and all sorts of bands." she recalled. "I'd get up every morning and say, 'California. California. I'm in California.' It was like Mecca."

Larson returned to Kansas City after the summer but vowed to move back to Cflifornia as soon as possible. "I still hadn't pushed my singing. The only times I sang was in people's living rooms and stuff. I knew the regular route you ook -- start out in a club in Kansas City and then move up to a bigger place and so forth -- was such a gamble. It seemed to me a lot of it came from just being in the right place at the right time.

"Looking back on it, I can see that if there was anything calculated about what happened to me, it was just I thought, 'If I put muself in or near a place where there was a lot of music going on, something could happen.' " California, she realized, was the place.

Something did happen once she was back in Berkeley. A friend who had heard her sing at a party suggested she try out as a backup singer in a band being put together by David Nichtern, composer of Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis."

Though the group broke up after a few months, Larson got experience on stage, including the chance to sing a few solos. Through friends, she then met Hoyt Axton, who also was looking for a backup singer. She toured with him for a year and then joined the Commander Cody group.

With Cody, Larson ended up doing four or five solos per set. Record companies responded. She singed with Warner Bros. last year and worked on the first album with record producer Ted Templeman, whose production credits include the Doobie Borhters, Van Morrison, Carly Simon and Van Malen.

"I was attracted to Nicky's voice right away," Templeman said. "I heard this little edge in her speaking voice that made me want to know what she sounded like as a singer. We put some things on tape and they sounded real good.

"But the key for me was that she had very good song sensibilities. She knows which songs are good and which aren't. That's part of being an artist. It's not only how you sound or how good your chops are, but -- especially if you don't write your own material -- whether you have ideas about gongs. Nicky has ideas."

Larson's debut LP, released in October, has received glowing reviews.

"I'm real happy at the way things are going," she said. "I've got a good producer, a bunch of good songs for the next album. I think it will hold up. The thing you've got to guard against is all the hype.

"I was doing some telephone interviews at Warner Bros. the other day and some people at the company came up and said how great the record is and how wonderful I am and all that.

"When that happens, I just try to run off somewhere and do something real normal: go the the grocery store and stand in line or take the dirty clothes down to the laundromat. That's the best way to keep in touch with reality."