One of Fort Worth's best new bands -- Madràs -- sprang, like most great art, from profound emptiness.
Two years ago, reeling from the sudden collapse of a lengthy relationship and an acute longing for home, singer-songwriter Jeevan Antony contemplated walking away from music entirely.
He was convinced that his love of writing and performing thwarted his plans for a romantic happily-ever-after, and even attempted selling every piece of music gear he owned.
But his family would not let him abandon his passion.
His father urged him to remain focused on creating music, telling his eldest son, "I don't see you doing anything else with all your heart."
With encouragement from his younger brother Mathew and fellow musician Ben Hance, Jeevan sought refuge in an electric guitar.
The heartsick and homesick songs he began building, inspired by records like Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, became the foundation of Madràs, a project named for the Indian city of his birth (now known as Chennai), and a superb new album, Things Can Change.
It's a title freighted with particular significance, considering the project's genesis. Over the course of the record's 13 tracks, you can hear a young man, attending college more than 9,000 miles from home, grappling with his past and his future.
Few moments in life are as emotionally trying as your early 20s, a time loaded with uncertainty, new experiences and painful transitions. Haunting, raw-nerved lyrics -- "I was in love when I was younger/But now I am loveless/And I'm older" -- are tucked into gorgeous, ethereal swaths of sound, layered with echo, synthesizer and faint electric guitar lines. It's the sound of someone gracefully, if somewhat begrudgingly, accepting life's bitter realities.
What began as an intimate exorcism of the soul has blossomed into one of the best bands Fort Worth has produced in recent memory, and spawned a truly great record, rich with detail and atmosphere. It's lightning in a bottle -- a perfectly captured moment in time, beautifully realized and able to elicit strong reactions from those who hear it.
But the excitement surrounding Things Can Change -- the sort of album listeners want to push into the hands of everyone they meet, imploring them to listen -- is tempered by another of life's immutable realities: Just as you become comfortable with yourself and your surroundings, it can be time, whether you're ready or not, to move on.
Having graduated from Texas Christian University last spring with a degree in entrepreneurial management and anthropology, the now-23-year-old Jeevan's time in America is coming to an end. His student visa expires in August, and he's returning home to Dubai. Consider it a fresh psychic wound, and one that might yield more soul-searching music.
But even if the brilliance of Madràs is fleeting, the rapturous response afforded Change is, in its own way, therapeutic.
"Especially for me, a lot of the songs are very, very sad," Jeevan says. "I have a lot of people coming up to me and saying to them, it's hopeful, and it actually makes them a little happy. For me, I find it difficult to listen to the album because I know exactly what I'm talking about. [But] knowing it means different things, happier things to other people makes me feel better."
Little by little, that void, looming once more, is beginning to fill up.
Growing up in southeastern India, and later Dubai, Jeevan and his brother (the family is rounded out by sister Sneha, a TCU alum who works for KVUE, Austin's ABC affiliate) were immersed in music. While neither his father, Antony, nor his mother, Margaret, played an instrument, they encouraged Jeevan and his brother, who remain very close, to pursue what inspired them.
Jeevan's father, in particular, noted his son's enthusiasm for music. Even when Jeevan's mother fretted that her child was just going through a phase, collecting pedals and other gear, Antony remained supportive, telling his son to keep plucking away on his 12-string acoustic guitar.
When Jeevan accepted a generous scholarship offer to attend TCU (as did his siblings), and arrived here after stints studying in Melbourne, Australia, and London, his music evolved.
"When we were in high school, we had this band that was very different from what we do now," Jeevan says. "It didn't mean as much [then] as what it's meant for the past two years. It's been very personal.... This was the only thing I really wanted to spend time and effort on, so I might as well give it everything and not really hold back. Instead of coming off as some overly sensitive, insecure person, this was my art."
That clarity of focus is one of the first things you notice on Things Can Change. The album is a cohesive, consistent experience, conveying the riot of emotions he was processing.
"I spent a lot of time making sure it felt like a flowing experience, and that it was honest about what I was going through," Jeevan says. "It was more about being sincere than anything else. A huge part of this album is this longing for feeling at home with people or in a particular place, appreciating your relationships but at the same time, being bummed out that we're not as innocent as we used to be. We're wiser but we've lost out on a lot of other things that are important and mattered a lot to us."
Once Jeevan and his brother were settled in Fort Worth (20-year-old Mathew will be a junior this fall at TCU, pursuing his degree in mechanical engineering), the pair began writing music as Fou. But it quickly became apparent to Jeevan that he needed a second, separate outlet.
Characterizing the hard, heavy Fou's creative process as "us sitting in a room and whatever was blurted out" becoming a song, Jeevan sought stillness and space for contemplation.
"Madràs just felt right," Jeevan says. "I could sit back and think -- it was like poetry becoming a song."
With a handful of demos, including the stunning Older, Jeevan showed Mathew what he was up to. The brothers -- Jeevan's affectionate nickname for Mathew is "Sonny" -- freely offer each other the kind of unsparing criticism that is the particular province of siblings, unafraid of singling out what needs work and what seems promising.
"Usually, when we show each other ideas, it's like, 'Yeah, it's OK -- it's got room for improvement,'" says Jeevan. " Older ... was just a guitar track and vocals."
On Mathew's part, there was no hesitation with these new songs.
"Whenever he'd send me ideas [for Madràs], I'd be like, 'Dude, this sounds good -- keep working on it,'" says Mathew, who describes the initial sketches as showing a "very different side" of his brother.
Although personal feelings spurred the songwriting, Jeevan admits that working alone, initially, was disorienting.
"I feel like our background -- our family's very close -- all that bleeds into the music too and the way we work on anything together," Jeevan says. "Even when I started Madràs as a solo project, it felt weird not to have him be part of it. I needed him to be part of it."
While Mathew was offering positive feedback, Jeevan was also crossing paths with Fort Worth musicians like 29-year-old Ben Hance, best known locally as the frontman of Secret Ghost Champion. The two met at the inaugural West Berry Block Party last year, when Fou and Secret Ghost Champion were on the same bill at Stay Wired Coffeehouse.
"Both of us were waiting to talk to the other," Hance says. "At that point, I offered to record [Fou]. I was really into it. The singing was really pretty -- it seemed like there was a lot of focus on singing pretty."
Hance was equally impressed by the Madràs material. Earlier this year, he was invited to join Madràs, expanding the group to a trio. Mathew, who was studying abroad for much of 2012, returned to Fort Worth this month.
The June release of Things Can Change, featuring a handful of Hance's musical contributions, coupled with the band's impressive live performances, which inject a sense of drama and space to these intimate compositions, helped create buzz for the fledgling Fort Worth outfit.
For Madràs, and for Jeevan, the future would seem wide open.
But life, as often happens, is getting in the way.
A song before he goes
Madràs will soon enjoy a moment that's sweet for any young band, performing its first headlining set Aug. 4 at the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge on the Near Southside.
It will also be the band's last show in Fort Worth for the foreseeable future.
Jeevan Antony's visa to study in America expires just seven days later, and he'll be on a plane back to Dubai, where he'll begin looking for work as a copywriter. His hope and plan is that, sooner rather than later, he'll be back in the States and able to collaborate with his friends face to face.
"I'm really bummed about it, man, honestly," says Ben Hance. "He's more my friend than anything. I'm just going to be bummed he's gone."
In the interim, however, there will be a bit of a scramble -- Jeevan and Mathew would like to complete Fou's debut album with Hance before the trio is separated by an ocean and several time zones; Fou will play its final local gig Aug. 9 at Magnolia Motor Lounge -- but Jeevan says he plans to continue work on a new Madràs album, much as the first one unfolded, via e-mails and tracks being deposited in the online file-sharing system known as Dropbox.
"It's important to let the songs breathe," Jeevan says. "I'm glad we didn't release [ Things Can Change] when we were going to [initially] release it; it just didn't feel right. The second album -- we shouldn't rush it. We'll take our time, and let the songs tell us where to take them."
In a way, this chapter in Madràs' existence is fitting -- a return to the emptiness that first spawned those lonely songwriting sessions. Given that he never expected anyone to take much notice of what would become Things Can Change, Jeevan is gratified by any recognition.
"When I wrote it, it was like therapy," he says. "If a lot of people connect with it, they've experienced [those feelings] one way or another.... If 10 people buy it and really connect with it and feel something that's true, that's all right with me."