“Hold on to what you want,” Pete Muller declares on his captivating new album, More Time. “And hold on to what you’ve got.” It’s a balancing act the dedicated singer/songwriter and innovative business leader has been navigating for most of his life.
“I have these two sides,” Muller explains. “One part of me is a very practical, analytical thinker, and the other is this creative artist who can’t help but express what’s going on in his soul. For a long time, I thought I had to choose between the two, but I’ve realized that I can love and nourish both sides of myself, that it’s AND, not OR.”
More Time is proof of that. Recorded in Memphis with producer/engineer Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price) and featuring a duet with Lisa Loeb, the collection marks a dramatic leap forward for Muller, who grapples here with the push and pull of responsibility and desire, predictability and adventure, commitment and temptation. Muller writes with a candid, often daring vulnerability, baring his innermost hopes and fears with unflinching honesty, and his delivery is compelling to match, fueled by stark vocals and vivid storytelling.
Where Muller’s previous work leaned more towards carefully arranged folk and roots, More Time is an expansive, hard-hitting slice of rock and soul, a shift that comes in part due to Muller’s remarkable evolution as an artist and in part due to the all-star band Ross-Spang assembled for the sessions, including celebrated bassist Dave Smith (Al Green, Wilson Pickett), famed Texas guitarist Will Sexton (Joe Ely, Roky Erickson), Memphis organist Rick Steff (Lucero, Cat Power), longtime Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, and a host of local legend horn players and background vocalists. The result is an ecstatic, freewheeling exploration of what it means to be human in all its messy, mixed-up contradictions, a sometimes-exultant, sometimes-pensive meditation on discovering—and becoming—the people we’re meant to be.
“I love the puzzle of putting together words and music in a way that evokes feelings that might otherwise be too difficult to express,” says Muller, who also writes regular music-themed crossword puzzles for the Washington Post. “Even when I’m singing about the saddest or most difficult experiences, I find I’ve always got this big smile on my face because I’m just so happy to be doing it and connecting with other people. It might seem like an unexpected juxtaposition, but it’s authentic.”
It's easy to hear that authenticity on More Time, which opens with the driving “And (Hold On).” Pairing certainty and insecurity in equal measure, the track wrestles with questions of fate and free will as it sets the stage for a record all about the choices we make and the choices that make us. “When the time is right you’ll know it / At least that’s what they say,” Muller sings on the soaring bridge. “Keep the faith or you will throw it all away.” The aching “Turn Away,” meanwhile, struggles to find the line between accepting what can’t be changed and changing what can’t be accepted. The cinematic title track contemplates the lure of sin and transgression in the face of knowing what’s right, and the effervescent “Enjoy It While We Can” finds contentment in letting go of over-analysis and learning to live in the moment. “Enjoy it while we can / Don’t try to understand / Is that God I hear laughing at all our silly plans?” Muller sings, allowing himself a chuckle at his own expense. “Let’s enjoy it while we can.”
“I was immediately drawn to the passion Pete brings to every performance,” says Ross-Spang, who encouraged Muller to embrace a looser, grittier approach in the studio built around live takes and free-flowing improvisation without the rigid constraints of a click track. “Joy truly abounds in his music, and working with Pete reinforced those same feelings in me. I consider myself very lucky to have helped capture that feeling on his new record.”
Joy is palpable throughout the songs on More Time, which are often built around playful grooves and punctuated with lively horns. The buoyant “Best Of Her” is an ode to vulnerability and the rewards of letting your guard down enough to love and to be loved; the rousing “See You Shine” embraces all the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make us who we are (while also celebrating the bliss of finding others who vibrate on the same frequency); and the funky “Walk On Water” recounts the exhilaration of learning to surf, turning the experience of riding the waves into a metaphor for transcending the ordinary. But it’s perhaps the album’s closing track, “Run Out Of Love,” that best encapsulates the collection’s spirit, with Muller and Loeb duetting about our limitless capacity for affection. “Even when you think you might be giving too much,” Muller sings, “There ain’t no way you can run out of love.”
“You can get tired, you can get exhausted, but you can never run out of love,” he explains. “The more love you give, the more it comes back to you.”
It’s a lesson Muller learned during his decades walking the line between art and business. Born in New Jersey to immigrant parents, Muller began playing piano as a teenager, picking up regular gigs as an accompanist while excelling enough at his academic studies to earn acceptance to Princeton University. A math whiz with a preternatural gift for numbers, he found himself fascinated with the connections between technology and finance, and within a decade of graduating, he’d helped revolutionize the field of quantitative trading, which in turn transformed Wall Street as we know it.
“Once I accomplished everything that I’d set out to do in the business world, I realized that I hadn’t nurtured the artistic side of my life,” Muller explains. “There was a six-year period where my focus was so intense that I hardly touched my piano. My work was a single-minded obsession.”
Feeling spiritually drained, Muller began drifting away from his work for a period of equally intense focus on his music: busking in the subways, playing small clubs and cafes, and writing his own songs for the first time. After releasing a pair of early albums, he married, moved to California, and became a father. While he eventually returned to the business he’d founded, he remained as dedicated as ever to his craft. In 2014, he recorded his third album, Two Truths and a Lie, which introduced him to Avatar Studios (a New York landmark previously known as The Power Station, where icons like Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan had recorded). Upon learning the studio was under threat of being sold and redeveloped as condos, Muller decided to use his resources in partnership with the City of New York and the Berklee College of Music to save, renovate, and re-launch the space as a world-class recording and educational facility. He would go on to record his next two albums—2019’s Dissolve and 2022’s Spaces—there, launching a whole new chapter of his career that would find him sharing bills with artists like Joan Osborne, Jimmy Webb, Livingston Taylor, and Paul Thorn in addition to landing festival slots everywhere from Telluride to Montreux.
These days, Muller is more content than ever, embracing AND over OR as he splits his time between the East and West Coasts, carving his own unique and inspiring path through the pair of vastly different, yet ultimately complementary worlds he’s created for himself.