Last year, the first of the covid19 pandemic, was challenging for almost everyone. Musician Viren Neel also had to deal with death in his family and questions about his own existence.
But out of that came his first EP, Sunset Lane, released in June.
The nine tracks, which explore the meaning of life, death, romance, the value of nature and adventure, are likely to fill lovers of oldies with nostalgia, while adding a refreshing collection of earworms to the playlists of many members of Gen Z. The album can be found on all music streaming platforms. including Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Music and Tida.
Neel, 21, said much of his inspiration came during brushes with deep despair that triggered what he referred to as a sort of spiritual awakening.
Neel said the experience reached an all-time high in the isolation of covid19 lockdowns after he had battled anxiety since 2018.
Contemplating the big questions of life, he said, led him to seek ways to find "grounding," such as meditation, breath work and mindfulness.
That mindfulness practice – taking note of what surrounds him and how he feels at any moment – is embodied by the album's title track.
His love affair with music began, he said, long before he knew it was love.
"Maybe it became even more of a love affair when I started piano at seven. That was the first instrument I started learning."
He could not recall the moment the thought of his future career came to him, but by the time Neel was ten he had started playing guitar, and by then, he said, the intention of becoming a musician was set.
He was not a member of the choir at Hillview College, but towards the end of his time there he performed at school functions, which was the start of his live performances. He later performed at Kaiso Blues Cafe and was on the 2018 lineup of the New Fire Festival.
Asked if he has family members in the music industry and whether he got their support, he said, "My father always wanted to be a musician. So he was happy to have a son who is a musician."
Family support inspired the name of the album – which is the name of the street where he grew up in east Trinidad.
"For everything I wanted to do in my life, my parents supported me to the best of their ability. They were always sceptical about me being a full-time musician, but over the last few years, especially after my first single Change, which was released in October 2020, the level of support increased."
They're also responsible for much of his musical tastes.
"The music my parents played throughout my life influenced my taste in music a great deal and even the kind of music I make. My parents are in love with music from the 1970s like Abba, the Bee Gees, and so I fell in love with it.
"But then I realised I liked stuff even older than that."
The 1950s and 1960s are among his favourite decades in music, and have led to much of his work.
"I am inspired by artists who created work from genres such as reggae, rap, but primarily the 1960s and 1970s. We're talking about people like Bob Dylan, who is my favourite artiste of all time, French singer-songwriter Francoise Hardy, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison."
In terms of his styling he said, "I'm going for the 1950s, summer on a yacht on the Amalfi Coast. I have a fascination with the lifestyle and power of that era."
On how he writes his music, he said: "Sometimes I will research, sometimes it is based on an image or sound that takes shape in my mind, like a vision of an evening driving along the North Coast road.
"In the recording process, I have an idea of the instruments and sound I want, but my brother and producer Ved Mahadeo helps me refine the sound with his skill." Ved, his only sibling, is self-taught and teaches others who are interested in learning music production.
"We brainstorm how we want the violins, cellos, drums and horns to sound – everything. It is a collaborative effort between me and my brother."
As for the lyrics, Neel said there are a couple he can highlight. In Change, he said, a favourite line is, "Time comes rolling by/People come and people die."
So do his lyrics say anything about his own spiritual outlook, his attitude toward work and life experience?
He said yes.
"All of my music is connected to my life and what I think is greater than this life. I was an atheist for most of my life, but last year I went through a spiritual awakening.
"It was a hard year. I lost a lot of close people over the past few years, and this awakening that stemmed from loss helped me complete this album."
The question of spirituality also arises when you look at his album art, which resembles Leonardo da Vinci's depiction of Christ – but with a twist.
"I loved the image, with the clouds and sun which represents Sunset Lane in the background. It gave off a powerful vibe.
"I was raised in a Hindu family, (and) despite me being non-religious, there is still some of that impact on my life. Looking at it now, it does resemble some kind of Hindu god, or some kind of god. But this was not deliberate."
Neel, a realist, isn't planning to put all his eggs in a musical basket.
"To be an artist, you can't just be an artist. There must be a bit of something else, because we never know how life will turn out. Fortunately, I have other passions in my life."
One is a passion for business – creating a business, putting soul into it and watching it grow.
He is doing a degree in international business at Arthur Lok Jack Global School of Business, but will do his last year at Florida International University. Neel is looking forward to expanding his international reach when he moves overseas.
Asked what benefit he sees in having a business degree as an artist, he said, "It is always good to have other skills. You can be a great artist, but art, at the end, remains subjective. Especially these days, I see where being successful in the industry is less about talent and more about business and marketing your brand.
"Music, of course, comes first – but the brand Viren Neel is just as important."
He said it is important to understand how to manage funds and how to approach the music industry as an individual – not depending solely on guidance from management.
"People say the people of TT do not support local, but the reception, for me has been great. Not doing soca, dancehall or reggae, the support I have gotten from people who may not even like that genre has blown me away. New people from across the country and even across the world showing my work love has been amazing."