Alex Butler has always stood out from the crowd. Standing six foot six in his Cuban heels, he's classically tall, dark and handsome. There's his taste for sharp Sixties suits and oversized retro specs. And then there's the unicycle...
Growing up in Newcastle, Alex was torn between two careers. He could have run away to join the circus, like his acrobat grandma who taught him how to walk the tightrope. Or he could concentrate on his music.
It is the circus people's loss -- and our good fortune -- that the 20-year-old singer-songwriter chose music.
The adventure began when Alex was studying for his A-levels and sent a demo of two songs to Radio 1. "I wasn't expecting a response," he admits. "I just sent them off to the email address on the BBC website. Then, a few weeks later, I was sitting in a history lesson when my phone rang with an Unknown Number.
"It was someone from Radio 1 telling me that Nick Grimshaw and Annie Mac liked it so much they had picked me to be the Up-and-Coming Artist on their show and wanted to interview me. So a couple of weeks later I was talking live on Radio 1 and listening to my songs being played to millions of listeners."
Alex needed no more encouragement to pack the unicycle away for good and shelve his dreams of the circus. Instead he put together a three-piece band and hit the clubs and bars of Newcastle with his trusty duck egg blue 1960s Fender Stratocaster and a head full of catchy songs charting the real-life dramas of the lads and lasses in his life.
"Whenever anyone in my life says something interesting or poignant, I note it down," he explains. "Especially when people have had a drink -- that's when the emotional trauma starts to flow. Then I'll go home and turn it into a song the next morning."
Turning their teenage dramas into authentic slice-of-life lyrics, Alex Butler taps into an English tradition that runs through the entire 50-year history of pop from The Kinks through to the Arctic Monkeys.
Like theirs, his songs sound instantly authentic and believable. And that's because all ten tunes on Alex's forthcoming debut album are about real people and their real lives.
This is, of course, the universal subject matter of pop songs since the birth of rock'n'roll: boys being boys, girls being girls - and the things they do when you throw booze and teenage hormones into the equation. No surprise, then, to learn that, while his lyrics come from life in Newcastle today, he takes his musical inspiration from the past. "All my influences in music -- and fashion -- come from the 1960s," says Alex, who has his stylish Mod-style suits imported from Italy and listens to his music on vinyl.
He got his musical genes -- and his first guitar - from his dad, a well-respected session bass player in Newcastle, though the genes go right back to his great-grandfather, who played the drums ("and the skulls") in a 1920s musical troupe that included a ventriloquist.
Listing his biggest influences, Alex answers with a who's who of classic tunesmiths - The Beatles and The Beach Boys, The Animals ("The best band ever from Newcastle!") and Elvis Costello -- along with the classic rhythms of Tamla Motown and Trojan reggae.
You hear his influences in the jagged ska riffing that underpins songs like Can't I Have Her and Why Don't We Go Home Together -- the song that first caught the ear of Radio 1. You hear them in the Alan Price-referencing organ melodies of Only See What You Want To See, and in the Spectorish wall of sound and Beach Boys-style harmonies of Stole Her Away. There's even a country-flavoured tune, Seems So Sad.
But the biggest influence of all came from the first album he ever bought ("and still my favourite") - Phil Spector's classic compilation Wall Of Sound. Classics like Da Doo Ron Ron and River Deep (Mountain High), You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' and Be My Baby, instilled the golden rule Alex uses in his songwriting. "I think a song has to have a very prominent catchy melody," he declares firmly. "Lyrics are important but they come second -- first you need to be drawn in by the tune."
Like much else about Alex Butler, the idea is old-fashioned. But difficult to resist.
* Alex Butler's debut album, (TITLE A or B) recorded in David Gray's north London studio The Church with producer Tristan Ivemy (Frank Turner), is slated for release in the spring of 2011.