While most of the artists short-listed for this year's Mercury Prize celebrated at a glitzy ceremony in London, Victoria Fifield was working as a temp in an office in Aberdeen. Like students everywhere, Victoria, who is studying graphic design at Robert Gordon University, needs to earn a crust during the summer months. However, a phone call from her fellow musicians in the group Basquiat Strings alerted her to the fact that her life had just taken a very interesting turn.

The classically trained quintet, formed in 2003, are on the shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize for their jazz-influenced album Basquiat Strings with Seb Rochford. They were named this week alongside established acts including the Arctic Monkeys, Dizzee Rascal and soul singer Amy Winehouse.

Violinist Fifield, 26, confesses: "We had our suspicions before, but we couldn't say anything. I didn't want to tell anyone and then for it not to happen; that would have been a bit embarrassing. I still couldn't believe it, though, when I got the call. It's fantastic. We're all a bit shocked."

The Mercury Music Prize, set up in 1992, is known for championing quirky groups as opposed to chart-toppers - which gives it some credibility with the music cognescenti. It is open to British and Irish acts who have released an album in the past year, and covers all genres.

The winner, to be revealed on September 4, will be presented with a cheque for £20,000 - and inclusion on the shortlist is usually enough to give artists a major boost in terms of profile and sales. Gennaro Castaldo, spokesman for the music chain HMV, agrees: "The publicity that will be generated from now through to the awards ceremony will ensure that all the nominated artists get a lift in album sales, and lesser-known nominees have the platform to introduce themselves to a new and wider audience. Whoever wins can expect a significant boost to their careers. Previous winners such as Ms Dynamite in 2003 and Antony and the Johnsons in 2005 recorded five-fold increases in sales of their nominated albums."

Basquiat Strings is led by cellist Ben Davis, one of Europe's top jazz players, who studied at London's Guildhall and Canada's Banff Conservatoire. He was put in touch with Victoria Fifield through a mutual contact she describes as "a musical match-maker" before he expanded the group to include violinist Emma Smith, viola player Neil Catchpole and Richard Pryce on double bass. All five attended music colleges in London and are still based there, with the exception of Fifield, who is based in Aberdeen. Davis's diligent habit of sending copies of all their reviews to each member of the group meant they were aware just how well the album was being received.

"We were all like, Wow, another good one,' so there has been constant praise for the album, which we weren't expecting. We thought the reception might be a bit mixed," says Fifield.

The Mercury Prize judges described the album as having "the lyricism of a string quintet and the groove of a great jazz drummer" and called it "an innovative and enthralling album". Fifield explains that while all the compositions and arrangements are done by Davis, there is a lot of flexibility and there are improvised sections to which everyone contributes. Clashing egos are often part and parcel of being in a group, but she insists this isn't the case.

"I don't usually get nervous before a gig and I sometimes wonder why I'm not. I think it's being part of an ensemble. There is a really good group feeling, and everyone wants everyone else to play their best. There is no one person who is wanting the limelight, and that definitely helps."

This flexible approach helps explain how the band teamed up with BBC Jazz Award-winning drummer Seb Rochford - whose band Polar Bear were nominated for the the Mercury Prize in 2005, and who also hails from Aberdeen.

Having been introduced to jazz by his late mother, he played percussion in the orchestra at Aberdeen Grammar School before attending Newcastle College, where he gained a first-class degree. His musical journey also included being trained by Ron Forbes, one-time tutor to Evelyn Glennie. Acclaimed for his technical ability and versatility, Rochford has been an esteemed name in the jazz world for years.

For Fifield, the Mercury nomination will hopefully bring her talents to a wider audience. She appeared as a budding musician in The Herald in 2000 when she was awarded £1000 from the Virtuosi Society, an arts charity that gives bursaries to students. She then took her first degree at the Royal Academy in London, where she was the only person to study classical violin along with jazz. "I sort of did two degrees at once," she says with a laugh. "There wasn't much overlap between the two, apart from in my head." Her musical heroes reflect her interest in both genres: Keith Jarrett, the American pianist and composer who has enjoyed success in both classical and jazz, violinist Mark Feldman and jazz guitarist John Abercrombie.

Despite the fact her brother Fraser is also an accomplished musician, she says she didn't grow up in a musical house. "I started learning the violin at school, as a lot of kids do, I suppose," she says. "At first, music was just a new hobby, and as time went on I started listening to music and developed an interest in areas of music that maybe aren't normally connected with the violin. I always liked classical music, and I used to play a lot of folk music and ceilidh bands as well, and within that there was some improvising involved. And I guess from that I moved into jazz."

She had planned to spend the summer working in an office during the week and gigging at the weekend. In addition to playing with Basquiat Strings, she plays with the Graeme Stephen Sextet and her own band, Devotion. She describes herself, with another laugh, as "quite busy". Things look set to get even busier. But first she has to finish the photocopying.