Nursing home assistant hits the big time in US pop charts

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Martina John, a nursing home assistant whose only taste of the big time had been her gospel choir's tour of Germany, had no great hopes of stardom when she recorded some music with friends in her bedroom in south Manchester, a few years ago.

Her low expectations seemed justified when their CD was rejected by In the City, the music industry convention in Manchester which has launched Oasis, Radiohead, Suede and others. But after a chance encounter with an MTV presenter, her world has been turned on its head. John, or M-Tina as she is now known, finds herself in the company of Madonna and Justin Timberlake in the US charts after one of the songs, composed that night at a mews house in Sale, stormed in at No 2 in the American R'n'B/hip-hop charts.

The success echoes that of the Scottish singer Sandi Thom, who, after setting up a webcam in the basement of her London home, reached No 2 in the charts with her debut single "I wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)." But 22-year-old M-Tina's success is attributable to much more than just the internet.

The key to her new-found fame was a family holiday to the US during which she met the MTV presenter Topaz, whose record company Tri-Storm has influence in leading US radio stations.

Within two weeks, the presenter called M-Tina in Manchester, offering to hawk the song, "Submerge", around the powerbrokers of American music. Such was the response that he decided to release the track on his own label.

The song was remixed in New York by Commissioner Gordon, a producer renowned for his work with artists such as the Fugees and Amy Winehouse. When launched, the airplay it received on US independent radio stations such as Power 102 saw it reach No 8 in the main chart. The chart success has come through a combination of shop sales and downloads.

"It certainly wasn't what I expected," said M-Tina, a taxi driver's daughter, amid a round of interviews at UK radio stations yesterday. "I've always liked singing and it was certainly a good night of vibing when we put it together but we do owe so much to that meeting with Topaz."

Her boyfriend, Scott Graham, provided some of the equipment for the recording. Graham and another of their friends, Jermaine Dalrymple, co-wrote the song's chorus , while M-Tina made up the verse lyrics as they went along. "We were just ad-libbing, as we do," she said. "Scott had done a lot of the writing and we were just developing it." Graham describes M-Tina as a singer with a little of Aretha Franklin's power and Janet Jackson's silky voice. "I met her four years ago and I've always said she has a special talent," he said.

"It's just a shame that we had to go to America to find success. There is so much talent here in Manchester and the UK which goes undiscovered."

The trio will soon travel to the Virgin Islands, where their record company is based, to film a video for the song. "We have had a lot of attention from major labels since this has happened," said M-Tina, who has left her job at the nursing home in nearby Levenshulme.

"Everyone wants to know who we are. But I can't see me driving up [Manchester's] Deansgate in a limo just yet."