The Big Interview: Alistair Griffin

Alistair Griffin
Alistair Griffin
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With exactly six months until the Tour de France arrives in Yorkshire, Alistair Griffin talks to Sarah Freeman about penning an anthem for the Grand Départ.

Alistair Griffin insists he hasn’t got a five year plan. “Truth is,” he says. “I haven’t even got a five minute plan.”

However, while he might look little different from the university student who used to busk on the streets of York back in the mid 1990s to supplement his student loan, the laid back image isn’t quite the whole story.

In the last 18 months his songs have provided the soundtrack for numerous sporting events, from Andy Murray’s historic Wimbledon win to golf’s British Open. His work has been featured on Sky’s Formula One coverage, the UEFA Champions League and the London Olympics. In between he’s also finessed a recipe for award-winning lemon curd (more of that later) and penned an anthem for this year’s Grand Depart.

“A lot of musicians wouldn’t thank you for describing them as commercial, but I don’t mind. I am and always have been. It’s what I do.”

You tend to make your own luck in the music business and after a decade or so of plugging away, often writing songs for other people, it does seem like Alistair’s star is finally in the ascendancy. It was his song What If? which the BBC chose to accompany the blood, sweat and tears montage following Murray’s victory over Djokovic on centre court, a decision which further swelled his fan base. It was, he says, flattering, but he also knows that it’s not a story he can dine out on forever.

“Once you get a bit of momentum you have to do everything you can to keep it going because it can quickly dwindle away. I was told at the last minute that my song had been chosen but obviously it would only be used if Murray won. Needless to say I was willing him on just that little bit more than I would have done otherwise.”

It’s exactly a decade since Alistair had his first brush with fame and it wasn’t an entirely happy experience. One of the contestants on the second series of Fame Academy, it was promoted by the BBC as a more serious alternative to the talent shows which had already proved rating winners for ITV and promised the winner a £1m recording contract with a major record company.

Alistair made it to the final, losing out in the end to Alex Parks who had been the judges’ favourite right from the start. Perhaps understandably he’s reluctant to talk much about his time in the Fame Academy house. There’s no mention of the show on his website and as he sips his tea it’s obvious he’d rather chat about anything else.

“It was at a time when these programmes were really in their infancy. Now everyone accepts X Factor, it’s part of the schedules, but back then they were looked down on and when the BBC launched Fame Academy it was seen as dumbing down. Look, it was a great opportunity. No one forced me to do it and I got to work with Robin Gibb, who was my mentor on the show. He was amazing and he looked after me afterwards. I got to write with him, I got to see all the awards on his mantelpiece. Programmes like that paint people in a certain light. I get that, they have to make a TV show, but it wasn’t really me.”

At the end of the series, Alistair released the album Bring It On, which went to number 12 in the charts. His appearance on the show also secured him a number of gigs and TV appearances, but he counts his real success as the fact he was still able to make a living out of music once the attention had died down.

“If you look at all the people who go onto those shows very few end up working in music. I was always a songwriter and I guess that’s what made the difference. I’ve never stopped playing, but I’ve also been able to write for other people.

“Yes, you’re on your own a lot, but I prefer doing my own thing to being in a band. As the singer you’re often left with the responsibility to make everything work. A friend once described being in a band as having four girlfriends and he was dead right.”

Alistair grew up in Castleton near Whitby and his talents weren’t exactly obvious for a young age. While his two older sisters had piano lessons, he says by the time it got to him his parents had given up on fostering any musical ability in the family. It was in the end quite by chance that he picked up a friend’s guitar and decided he’d learn how to play it.

He left home for York St John University where he studied English Literature in the mid 1990s. At the time Britpop was providing the soundtrack for Cool Britannia and everyone wanted to be a musician. In the years since he’s carved out a bit of a niche for writing rousing, emotionally wrought numbers and this year finally secured airplay on Radio 2 who championed The One, his duet with folk singer Leddra Chapman.

“I’m 36 and people have been saying I’m too old for this business since I was 21, but I think things are changing. Yes, the music industry is still looking to for 17-year-olds who can emulate Ed Sheeran but it is a lot more flexible than it used to be.

“Having said, that getting any record played on the radio is a mysterious business. The only thing you can really do is bring down the odds and I try to play in London as much as I can to ensure I’m on the radar. It’s not just me punching to get on the playlist, there’s a hundred and other musicians out there. Leddra had already been played on Radio 2, so that helped, but it’s not something you can really engineer. Maybe it will make it easier for me to get the next single some airplay, but I wouldn’t bet on it”

The last decade or so has been one of massive change for those involved in music. The internet has revolutionised not only how people listen to songs, but the relationship between fans and artists. There’s little room these days for the kind of stars who like to remain aloof.

“There are some people in the music business who refuse to engage in Twitter. They don’t want to give away that much of themselves. I understand that, but if you don’t someone else will. Someone from Made in Chelsea is about to do a mini-tour of the O2 Academies. You might say, they’re not a proper singer, but you know what? They’ll probably sell out.

“We live in an instant world and music is a casualty of that. Artists can’t afford to be away for a long time. You have to play the game. The way people consume music has changed and that has had a knock on effect. On the plus side it means anyone anywhere can release music and build a small fan base, but it has also meant that the art of writing an album has been devalued.

“I think everyone who’s a musician wants to write an album, but when most people just download track one, three and five, then record companies inevitably put more pressure on artists not to go down that route. Instead of releasing an album of 13 tracks each year, they’ll say why not release three EPs of five tracks each.

“That’s fine, but there’s something about buying an album and letting track eight grow on you. There’s one song on my album called Silent Suicide. Admittedly it’s not the cheeriest of titles and the record label did try to persuade me to drop it, but you know what? It’s the one song that most people ask for at gigs.”

Despite what current listening habits might tell him, Alistair is prepared to ignore them for now at least. He’s currently making a new album which he’ll record in a studio on a farm in Strensall in York and there’s another he’d like to do with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band provisionally entitled Brass is for the Masses.

“They’re on the Grand Depart song and it’s been great working with them, a real privilege. I think we both had to adjust to working with each other, but I’ve got nothing but praise for them. The sound they make is incredible.”

He’s also just signed up to the Pledge Music site which basically allows artists to raise money for specific projects from fans and in return they get limited edition merchandise and exclusive access to tracks. Alistair is hoping his own page will be up and running not long into the New Year and he’s already drawn up a list of exclusive items. Alongside the usual original lyric sheets and VIP tickets, there’s also tea for two at Bettys and a signed jar of his prize-winning lemon curd.

Jam making is not the pastime of your average musician, but then Alistair likes to do things a little differently. Armed with a recipe from his Auntie Ness’s he’s been entering the curd into the Danby Show since he was a teenager. He’s finished in the runner’s up spot a few times, but the overall accolade has so far eluded him and he’s unlikely to have much time to devote to seeing off the opposition in the coming months.

“The Grand Depart is going to be massive. I come from a big cycling family so, personally, I can’t wait. Each year my sisters organise a coast to coast ride in aid of Marie Curie Cancer Care. I turned up at the start line one year having not done any training. I’d spent the previous three days in the studio and just walked onto the bike, which wasn’t very clever. For the Tour de France I’ll be more than happy to sit on the sidelines.”

Given the way his career is going, it’s a position he won’t need to get used to for long.