ALEX Gardner can't decide. He can't make up his mind which is his favourite pop moment – and his dilemma is palpable when he almost forgets to tell me: "I bump into Alesha Dixon all the time."
He could nominate his very first day at the Xenomania – the hit factory behind Girls Aloud – based in the grand house where the real-life Alice In Wonderland (Alice Liddell) lived. "I was sitting on a sofa in the hall and in walked Girls Aloud," he says, blue eyes twinkling at the memory. "For a split-second, I wished my pals back in Edinburgh could have seen me, hanging out with Cheryl Cole. Then I thought: 'Nah, I'm glad they're not here!'"
In another encounter with the chart dominatrices, Sarah Harding asked him where she could get some meatballs. "She was wearing a floaty black dress and long pink socks beyond her knees," he recalls. Gardner is 18 and young men tend to remember such details.
But then there was the time, by this point hard at work on his own songs, when his jaw hit the floor with its loudest thud. "It was Kylie Minogue. A big guy was carrying her bag; she walked in behind him and said 'Hi'. I had to put down my guitar for a bit," he says.
Gardner regained his composure, however, to complete his debut album. He's got the looks, and – thanks to Xenomania – he should have the hooks. He isn't the only lad among a bevvy of beautiful women at the Kent-based pop lab but he is impresario Brian Higgins' first solo male act. Some are likening him to a young George Michael.
You hope the hype doesn't bury Gardner, back in his home city the night after a gig in front of his mum ("She cried") and still trying to perfect the sunglasses-indoors look. But just a few minutes in his company tells you he's no pop puppet. He didn't stay starstruck for very long; at Xenomania that's not allowed. And a few minutes was all it took the big boss to be convinced of Gardner's talent.
Higgins says: "I'd heard him sing some songs by a couple of the guys who work here and, to be honest, Alex didn't do it for me until I was persuaded to listen to one of his own compositions. It was terrific. Then he came in to Xenomania and, after hardly any time in the house, I told him: 'I'm not going to let you leave until we've made a great pop record.'"
Higgins is hard to please. The "guys" were Kieran Jones and Jason Resch. They had form, having dreamed up the backing track for Girls Aloud's The Promise in a mere seven minutes. But you don't get to be Britain's pre-eminent pop alchemist by making lazy, sentimental choices.
Higgins doesn't give many interviews, he's got a busy schedule involving his latest protg (Brooke X) and he's still to write his first chartbuster of the day. But Higgins wants to talk about Gardner. "Working with Alex was inspirational," he says. This is the man who, with his trusted team, has masterminded 20 of Girls Aloud's 21 smashes, who's sold 12 million records for Sugababes, Rachel Stevens et al, who likes to cram his choons with avant-garde surprises. "Inspirational" is high praise.
This "extremely personable lad", as Higgins calls him, is the product of the Edinburgh Academy, though Gardner couldn't wait to leave. When told that the school has a pop heritage, having produced in Manfred Mann's Paul Jones one of this correspondent's original heroes, he expresses surprise.
"Well, it didn't do much for me. None of the teachers thought I'd amount to anything and when I looked at my pals they were turning into their dads."
Gardner's own father is in law, a solid Edinburgh profession, but among his gang he had "the cool parents" who allowed him to pack his knapsack for London at 16. Gardner hoped that modelling, which he'd tried before, might be a side door into pop. "It was disastrous. I was working with nasty people and going back to a high-rise hovel – then I got mugged. I had a knife at my throat for half an hour."
On Edinburgh's rugger touchlines, the other Academy dads chorused: "We told you so."
Then came the breakthrough. Despite flopping at a band audition, he'd caught Xenomania's eye. "This woman called up and asked me out to the country. I phoned home: 'Dad, there's a man in a big house who wants to meet me.' I thought it sounded dodgy!"
After Cher's Believe, Higgins didn't need to work again, but for him, melody is life-sustaining. "Water is the more precious resource – but only just," he chuckles. What melodies are swirling around in his head right now? "Classic New Order as always, Kate Bush's Cloudbursting and Poker Face by the fantastic Lady Gaga."
Gardner thought he'd entered a fairytale world even before he knew of the Alice In Wonderland connotations. "The house is incredible. In every cubbyhole, people are making music – and in the summer they take their guitars into this beautiful, three-tiered garden. I guess that must have been a massive inspiration for Alice – it's the most amazing, peaceful, creative place."
Xenomania had started above a pine furniture shop but Higgins always believed that songwriting required blissful surroundings. "My fantasy had been to write songs in Paris. I got there eventually and out of that experience came All I Wanna Do for Dannii Minogue – my first top five."
Higgins was impressed by Gardner's work ethic. "I know I'm demanding, but we're not here to make up the numbers. My work ethic comes from my father who was so committed to being a GP that I barely saw him. Most people, when they're writing songs, trust their first instincts; I'm always suspicious of that. And I stopped composing at the piano a long, long time ago."
Like Phil Spector or Joe Meek but minus the lurid private life, Higgins is constantly trying to innovate. "To me, pop music is maths."
"Maybe I shouldn't be giving away Brian's secrets," says Gardner, "but he'd sing into a dictaphone in one corner and in another I'd do the same. At first I found him intimidating but he quickly became giggly and excited."
Then, with as many as 70 melodies amassed, Gardner would have to write lyrics to them all. Higgins again: "But 90 per cent of what we produce at Xenomania ends up getting junked – some people can't hack that." Established acts like Pet Shop Boys can feel like they're back at school. "Chris Lowe was surprised when I marked his work with gold stars. Neil Tennant admitted that egos had to be checked at the door."
So what went wrong in the hook-up with Franz Ferdinand, with whom Xenomania briefly collaborated? "Given they'd worked on new songs for three years, I expected them to have more urgency. But I still love them. Take Me Out is the best pop song of the past 15 years."
Now Gardner's about to fly. All his tutor says he needs is that other valuable commodity – "the time to allow him to develop". The star-in-the-making fixes his shades likes he means it and strolls out into the sunshine. v
Alex Gardner's single I'm Not Mad (Polydor) is out tomorrow with the debut album due in July www.alexgardnermusic.com