To cap it all off her album "The Garden" which has only been out six weeks in the US is already a blossoming best seller.

It is an extraordinary achievement, in any terms. And it comes to a woman who knows what it's like to struggle. Merril Bainbridge is no overnight sensation. She's been writing songs a long time, ever since she was a teen, "very emotional things I now find very funny"; even earlier she formed a trio with school friends, and earlier still was a child on a stage with a dream at school concerts.

For years after those school days the dream took on the hard-edged reality that making it in the music business wasn't the "gimme" it might appear. In hometown Melbourne, she slogged it out week after week in the bars, folk clubs, halls, pubs, anywhere there was an audience for her poetic and lifely songs.

When Ross Fraser and John Farnham signed her to their newly-formed Gotham Records in 1994 that dream had a chance. Now it's very real, and taking on very different dimensions. Nobody prepares you for the onslaught of fame.

Fraser, one of Australia's foremost producers, first heard Bainbridge when he received a tape in the mail and was taken aback by the simple combination of voice and guitar. "I could hear her voice clearly and I could hear the lyric and I could hear the melody. It didn't need any production and that was the charm of it, that it almost had a folk feel." He played it to Farnham, a man who loves a song and a melody, and they agreed to get her in. Not that much later Merril Bainbridge found the home she had been looking for.

The timing was right then, just as it is now. "To be honest I thought we would have had more chance of success in Europe with Merril," he says. "What has happened in the States has been a bit of a surprise but then I look back at what happened here. It's one of those songs that once it gets on the radio, people remember it. And, yes, the time and the place were right for Merril to succeed.

"But this is also the story of a woman who never set out to give herself a style. She just did what she could and these things sometimes fall through the cracks and sometimes they hit."

Fraser is proud of Bainbridge in a very obvious way, mostly because she hasn't changed or weakened in the face of the current wave of hype and "overnight sensation". "That she certainly isn't," he says. "She struggled through her early career. She used to have a day job; it was the same old thing. Your parents can't see you are going to make a living out of being a singer, so she had to do it at night.

"She worked during the day as a seamstress and at night she'd go out and sing in a cover band and get home at 1am. Luckily, she had a good boss. if she came in an hour late she didn't get sacked. That's the story: she had a desire to keep going.

"Then she took a really hard decision - to give up her day job and try to survive doing jobs like backing vocals - that's where she met Siew doing some backing vocals at a commercial studio he managed - while sitting down and writing her own material whenever she got a chance.

"Siew used her on a couple of things, saw something there and helped her develop, becoming her manager and producing 'The Garden'.

"But Merril's been there, she's starved, she's lived off a Vegimite sandwich a day and she's come up against those 'blonde singer things' that they all face and got through it. And she's still that girl from Fitzroy. She's not an industry person. She doesn't hang out at industry functions and get her picture in TV magazines every week. She just doesn't like it and doesn't feel she that needs to do it. Merril's the kind of girl who says 'if it doesn't work on my terms, it doesn't matter'."

In her terms, she's living with "my mouth zipped on". She can still laugh and does frequently despite a US PR jaunt that took in 30 cities in 40 days, then folded over to the UK and Europe where the pace was slightly, but not much, slower. By December she was back in the US where they're screeching and hollering for Merril Bainbridge. There she presented an award at the Billboard Awards and then there performed at Madison Square Gardens supporting Sheryl Crow. The Gardens, one of THE gigs in the US.

That's a few days hence still from when we talk and Bainbridge is eyeing off the remainder of her British itinerary. "Manchester now, Liverpool later on, London tomorrow, it isn't slowing down," she quips. "In America we were doing three cities a day some days. We'd get up at 5.30am and go right through to 11pm. We just had to keep going to get through it all.

"The great thing for me was I could see results as the days passed. A lot of people don't have that luxury. They don't get that result. They work, they get out there and they just don't see it pay off. Those people really have my sympathy now; it can be so cruel, so hard, then."

It's typical of the woman that much of what she says is couched in terms of awareness, of staying focused, of the need to keep laughing, reminding herself there's more to life than just this extraordinary sensation and experience, to stay "earthed".

It was just a year ago, a couple of days before the ARIAs that she was curled up on a couch at the Sebel Townhouse, a nervous bundle of energy, looking tired, a little displaced, a chunky silver cross catching the late afternoon sun, black leather jacket and top contrasting. Sometimes she would look at her feet tucked underneath her as she spoke, then she'd lift her eyes and appraise.

Here was a blend of the archetypal; the soft folkie muse twirling the spirit of Joni Mitchell and her hippie fusionists who embraced jazz, pop and unspoken (and unbroken) spirit and made her the great white female singer/songwriter of her times, and the etherealism of a Kate Bush - that languid grace and enchanted space that transferred itself to song and floated in heavenly perfect pop.

Then her identity was still a question. What Merril Bainbridge would emerge? "This has all been unbelievable," she said, as an opener. And you know she meant it. What of all this then?

She giggles, "Honestly, there isn't a word. But things are different from then. I guess this time I'm determined to enjoy myself. It all happened very quickly in Australia. It was such a crazy time and everybody was so excited. To be honest much of it is a blur.

"But I went to the US thinking whatever happens I'm going to enjoy myself, so despite the schedule I had a look round and enjoyed every step. After all, it's not every day a girl gets to be top 10 in the States."And she laughs some more.

"But, you know, I can honestly say that neither the girl the dreamer nor the woman never sat down and thought this far ahead. It can make you go crazy if you do. I just take it step by step, day by day. Doing this or that, then 'okay, what's next?'.