Lori Carson doesn't really think of herself as a singer-songwriter. She's more a writer-songmaker. She's studied with poet Audre Lorde, has taken several classes in fiction writing, and this fall the 30-year-old New Yorker is enrolling at Columbia University to work on her prose.

"I do approach my songwriting like a prose writer," she says. "I sit down at my old manual typewriter and do a lot of writing and rewriting. The lyric part is definitely my favorite."

She started writing songs at 14 or so when she got her first guitar. She said she couldn't play anyone else's music very well so she started making up her own -- your basic teenage stream-of-consciousness ballads. "Expressing that adolescent angst," is how she explains it. "And I continued writing that way for a long time." Her first album, "Shelter" (Geffen), is a compilation of works she composed from ages 18 to 25, and listening to it is like hearing a girl sing passages from her diary:

I met you in my neighborhood

and you knew the people I knew

and my family loved and trusted you

so you'd be the one ...

Carson first performed her prose at Folk City in Greenwich Village. It was an open mike night. She says she was so nervous that "I could barely keep my fingers on the strings and my voice came out a whisper."

Her first band was a seven-piece extravaganza with horns, saxophone, electric guitar and bass. "I was fighting the idea of what a performance should be," she says. "I would be singing gentle words in my gentle voice and then there'd be eight bars of blasting saxophone."

She has since trimmed down her presentation, "eliminating things," she says, and turned her focus to complementing her fragile, angelic voice with acoustic guitar, cello and accordion. Eventually, she says, she'd like to add some drums and a few other things to develop the sound into something a little bigger and a little deeper.

But in the long run, she says, she'd like to concentrate on the written word -- maybe pen a few short stories. "I know I want to be a writer," she declares. "I want to keep doing work that is meaningful."

Lori Carson is performing at the Birchmere tomorrow night at 8:30. Tickets are $5.99 and available at TicketCenter outlets. For information, call 549-5919.