When singer-songwriter, Pete Muller, was young, he, like many before him, took piano lessons. He was 10-years-old when he began with classical piano but some five years later, he told his parents he wanted to quit. Classical music wasn’t for him; the strict regimen and memorization didn’t speak to Muller in any artistic way. But, as luck would have it, a friend pointed him in the direction of a jazz teacher in New Jersey who would change Muller’s life forever. Since, Muller has earned attention from The New York Times and People for his songwriting. And we are happy to premiere his latest single, “God and Democracy,” here in American Songwriter Magazine today.
“I still remember my teacher,” says Muller, who splits his time now between New York City and Santa Barbara, California. “He gave me two cassettes. He said the first one will resonate pretty quickly and he said I’d fall in love with the second one over time. He was totally right. The first was Stan Getz and the second was John Coltrane.”
In a short time, Muller, as a result, transitioned from playing stodgy, at times-overly precise compositions to new ideas about improvisation and individual creative agency. This introduction changed his life, he says. And while the songwriter today writes more traditional Americana, folk or even rock music, there is always the slight bit of jazz flare added amidst his work.
“I have a strong opinion,” Muller says. “I don’t think kids are taught music well. They should learn how to create first and learn scales and things like that later. You should fall in love with music before you learn technique.”
As he grew older, Muller continued with music. He played in a jazz band in college. He wrote music for friends, including skilled, aspiring rhythmic gymnasts who would do their routines to his compositions. (Muller almost went to the Olympics as a music accompanist, but the friend who he played for finished fourth in a major competition, not first.) Simultaneously, though, he was distinguishing himself in another field seemingly even more rapidly. In high school, Muller was given his own math class – an independent study – because he was so much more advanced than anyone else. He would go on to found a major investment firm.
“There’s a common element between math and music,” Muller says. “Creativity. If you’re trying to write a song and figure out the right lyric, it’s often as much a mathematical challenge as anything else. You get to create the structure of the song but you still have to stay within its constraints.”
Living in New York City, Muller started a songwriting group that lasted five years. He continued to write music while also continuing to grow his firm. He went through a difficult breakup at one point and found that songwriting was the best and, perhaps, only way to properly process his emotions. Life continued and, later, Muller married his now wife, Jillian, and together they had two kids. In 2014, ten years after his latest record to that point, Muller wrote and released a new album. And he followed that up in 2019 with another LP, Dissolve, which saw several songs land on major charts, including Billboard. Now, Muller is writing his next record, which he plans to release in spring of 2021.
“Whenever I do something, I try to do it as well as I possibly can and as intensely as possible,” Muller says. “So, I go through different phases. Right now, I’m very much in a music phase and that’s taken most of my attention. I’ve been diving deep into songwriting and recording.”
For Muller, keeping both sides of his brain occupied is essential. Without both music and his company at each end of the proverbial seesaw, Muller might remain grounded or, worse, flung into the atmosphere never to return again.
“If I only worked on my business, I wouldn’t feel fulfilled,” Muller says. “But if I only did music, it would be frustrating and feel too small. Both are big parts of my life.”
Another big part of his life was Muller’s relationship to his mother, a Brazilian-born doctor. She was one of the first women to go to medical school in Brazil, Muller says, and upon coming to America and meeting Muller’s father, she stayed in the States and worked upwards for 60-hour workweeks into her 70s. From her, Muller says, he got his desire to care for others and his determined dedication. In a way, her passion for life and people, helped inspire Muller’s creative sensibilities – including those represented in his new single, which was co-written with his band mates, Missy Soltero and John Whooley.
“People are losing faith in things we’ve long believed in,” Muller says. “It feels like the foundations are cracking. But I didn’t want to write this new song like, ‘Oh, man. This sucks.’ I wanted it to be hopeful.”
If Muller’s work ethic is any indication of his level of hope, he’s clearly not lost faith in his abilities or in the world. Today, Muller is in the process of helping preserve New York’s famed recording studio, The Power Station, in partnership with the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Muller bought the building so that Berklee could have a creative outpost in the Big Apple. From the top floor, Muller is running a new charity to help small venues stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s also an avid poker player and longtime crossword puzzle creator for The New York Times. All of this, in large part, thanks to his appreciation of song.
“Music is a way of collaborating and sharing energy that nothing else can replicate,” Muller says. “But it’s also incredibly deep. It’s impossible to master. The better you get, the more you realize how complex a place music can be. Yet, the most beautiful songs also sound the simplest. I don’t want to get too out-there, but I think you touch God when you’re playing music, at its best. I love everything about it.”