IT WASN'T exactly the most auspicious of starts to what Alex Gardner is hoping will be a glittering pop career. Within weeks of leaving his native Edinburgh for the bright lights of London last year, he'd been mugged, was living off beans and was desperately searching for a job.
But then his luck changed thanks to a curious invitation. "I was invited to the house where Alice In Wonderland was written," recalls 18-year-old singer Alex, a former Edinburgh Academy pupil who is being tipped as the music industry's one to watch in 2010.
The invitation came via a band Alex had auditioned for, but he had little idea what he was letting himself in for.
"I was bit apprehensive about being invited to this strange house in the country, but I did my research and found it belonged to pop producer Brian Higgins."
The Kent mansion is the former home of Alice Liddell Hargrieves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's children's classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but its present owner is no stranger to spreading a bit of magic himself.
Higgins' production house Xenomania has produced tracks for Sugababes, Girls Aloud, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Dannii and Kylie Minogue, Cher, Saint Etienne and now Alex, who is preparing for launch as Higgins' next pop wunderkind.
The passage from Edinburgh to Wonderland has been very short indeed for Alex, whose parents Richard, a solicitor with Drummond Miller, and commercial promoter Janet Gardner still live in Davidson's Mains.
"I left Edinburgh Academy at 16," says Alex.
"I saved up enough money for five months' rent in London and went for it. I had no idea what I was going to do but I was looking for something creative.
My parents were a bit sceptical to say the least."
And his parents' fears were quickly realised. Returning to his Paddington flat with two friends in his first week, they were mugged by six armed men. "They surrounded us and told us they were armed with knives so we gave them everything," says Alex.
"They took all my jewellery and a small amount of cash. One of the other guys was marched to a cash machine and told to enter his pin and they cleared him out."
It was a brutal introduction to the big city, but Alex soon settled in and began looking for work. He spotted an advert for a band and went for an audition. I really didn't fit in. They were twice my age with guitars and all I had was my voice, but we did a couple of songs and then I asked them to record one of my own.
"A few months later I got invited up to the mansion to meet Brian. He told me he had listened to my tape and realised I wasn't right for the band . . . which was a bit of a blow. But then he said I'd do better as a solo act. I was over the moon."
For the last year Alex has been going back to the mansion to write songs with Higgins.
"Although we're writing together, Brian always insists the songs are drawn from my own experiences, so most of them are about girls," says Alex.
Alex has now signed a worldwide record deal with Universal/A&M Records and has just completed a short tour with Paolo Nutini. And last night he played a homecoming show at Cabaret Voltaire in front of all of the friends and family he's been missing.
"The only song I've written that's not about a girl is about Edinburgh," he says. "It's called Where Were You? and it's a message to all my friends not to forget me."
For more info, visit www.myspace.com/alexgardnermusic