From busking in York to a top five single, Fame Academy's Alistair Griffin is bringing it on, reports Charles Hutchinson.

REMEMBER the guitar-playing singer and the girl violinist who used to busk REM, Oasis and U2 covers outside Bettys in St Helen's Square, York, in the late 1990s?

The violin player was Tash; the singer, Alistair Griffin. The same Alistair Griffin who entered the charts this week at number five with one of his own songs, Bring It On.

"It feels brilliant," says the 26-year-old North Yorkshireman, raised in Castleton, near Whitby, educated at York St John College and groomed in the Fame Academy goldfish bowl last autumn.

"The top five was what we were hoping for and that's what we got. It's up there with Mad World, Ozzy Osbourne, Mrs Beckham and Black Eyed Peas. Not bad."

Bring It On is also the title of the debut album by the Fame Academy runner-up. Released by Universal on Monday, the 14-track record features ten of Alistair's own compositions.

He had developed that songwriting craft in his York student days from 1997 to 2000, when he studied English Literature.

"I'd come to St John's the year before for an open day, and I liked how the college was in the city centre, and York always struck me as a nice studenty place," says Alistair. "I learnt to play and really got into music when I came to York. It all started with me and my friend Tash busking outside Bettys."

How did the shops and shoppers react?

"A few shops asked us to move on and Bettys never brought anything out for us to eat or drink," Alistair recalls. "People want to hear songs they know, and that's fair enough, so it's a hard way to introduce your own songs but we did get to play a couple of my songs - not any that I do now, though!"

After leaving St John's, Alistair moved to London.

"It was expressly for musical reasons," he says. "I answered adverts in the music press to be in bands but it didn't work out, so I came back to York and lived with my sister for a couple of years."

He formed the band Sugartown - a name inspired by York's sugar factory off Boroughbridge Road - and although Sugartown did not make the pages of the Evening Press, Alistair's songwriting ambitions brought him to the paper's attention.

In February 2002, "York musician Alistair Griffin, of Exhibition Square, suffered Euro-heartbreak in his attempt to fly the flag for Britain in the song contest everyone loves to hate". Fade Away, co-written by Alistair and Stuart Hanna, made the short list of eight for the British entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, but not the last four.

"We thought Fade Away would be good for Eurovision, but we have lots of other good songs and are still writing," said Alistair at the time.

True to his word, Alistair did not fade away. He missed out on selection for the first Fame Academy, but he and Stuart continued writing (two of their compositions, Oblivion and Something About Her, will appear on Bring It On). Then opportunity knocked in the hot-house atmosphere of Fame Academy's second intake.

"You step into these things with the hope of exposure and the chance to develop your talent," says Alistair. "You stand up there, you do your best, just as Alex Parks did, and there's only me and Alex who have been signed to record deals from Fame Academy - and that has to be the aim because it's increasingly hard to be heard in this business."

Alistair has signed a four-album deal with Universal, one of the big five in the ever-shrinking record company market. He knows the score. "The deal works on the strength of sales results. If you do well, you pick up another album, and all deals work like that now.

"Universal haven't set any specific sales target, but my exposure has not been that massive, so it's more like a slow burner with me, and they're happy for it to evolve like that."

Nevertheless the 'trappings' of fame are coming his way: sharing a Chelsea flat with fellow Fame Academy graduate James Fox; switching on the York Christmas lights with Berwick Kaler; appearing on Liquid News this Monday; recording A Lover's Prayer with Bee Gee Robin Gibb; and being the top prize - win dinner with Alistair Griffin - in a Whitby Christmas raffle.

Last month he sang at the Middlesbrough v Manchester United match. (Earlier in his career, he had contributed his song Stand Up to an album of football anthems for his beloved Middlesbrough). Tonight he makes his Top Of The Pops debut. "It's every musician's ambition to be on there, and I just wish Jimmy Savile was still presenting it," Alistair says.

Single in the charts, album out next week, will Alistair be playing live shows next? "I'd love to get out and play and show what I'm really about. I think I showed only 50 per cent of what I can do on Fame Academy, which is largely about cover versions when I'm principally a songwriter," he says.

"I want to give myself a fair hearing and as long as I get a fair crack of the whip, that's all I can hope for.

"Maybe I can go out and play so people can hear my songs. Maybe I can get to play in York, outside Bettys again."

Updated: 13:33 Friday, January 09, 2004