If you listen closely to the debut album from Peter More, you will hear ghosts. There’s the presence of his grandmother, an arts patron, whose legacy enriches his creations. There’s a sister-like figure from his youth, whose sudden passing sparked his lust for life. And there’s the lingering sting of a relationship’s lost promise. The indie roots-rock artist, however, is not one to eulogize. All these apparitions are very much alive in his debut album, Beautiful Disrepair.
You may have caught the Austin-based More performing alongside Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (or on tour with Grace Potter, or supporting Leon Bridges). But if you didn’t, no matter: Beautiful Disrepair also happens to be the first full-length produced by Fagen. At turns contemplative and rousing, it’s a precisely executed work that manages to feel uncomplicated.
Its first two singles evince this: the blues-rock sing-along “In the Basement” (about religious “fundamentalist fiction”) and the hushed, Latin-tinged “Caddis Moon” (an evocation of insects flittering above a moonlit river), the latter heard in the Ava DuVernay-produced series Queen Sugar. “The hands of time are always waiting down the line,” he sings on “Beautiful Disrepair,” setting the album’s emotional pitch. “So let it shine all that chaos in your mind/You’ll be just fine if you do.”
A soulful nonchalance underscores much of Beautiful Disrepair, perhaps because it came together so fatefully. More’s previous group, the Brooklyn folk-rock band Oh Whitney, had drifted apart in 2011, despite being booked to play the Joshua Tree Roots Music Festival. Looking back, he says, “I had this feeling I shouldn’t cancel it. It gave me a reason to get a new group together.” The ensemble he assembled for those shows (guitarist José Juan Poyatos, bassist Diego Noyola, drummer Adrien Faunce) would become More’s band. That led to a two-month-long residency in Brazil, where they laid the foundation for “Caddis Moon” and the album’s exquisite title track, a meditation on mortality. “That,” he says, “was a turning point.”
Seeking a fresh start, More then relocated to San Miguel de Allende, a lush, colonial enclave in central Mexico. It’s a second home to the frontman, a Fort Worth native, who had visited the city since childhood. His free-spirited grandmother was an interior-design enthusiast who built a home there in the 1950s. She collaborated with artisans to create a fabled space that friends and family would visit for years to come.
Art enveloped More. Classical-piano great Van Cliburn was close to the family. His bohemian mom was friends with Ron Tomlinson, who taught him to oil-paint and sculpt at age 11. And his father introduced him to Bob Dylan songs on the guitar. “What’s cool about San Miguel is that there are a lot of renown musicians there,” says More, who’d later jam with locals during summer visits. “There’s a communal aspect to the town. People love collaborating. I fell in love with that.”
In college, More studied visual art and art history. He decided to pursue music his sophomore year, after learning that a dear friend, who was like an older sister to him, was terminally ill. “When we were little, I’d play songs for her. When we said our goodbyes, I played her a song, too,” he says. “I realized that to love something and not pursue it…that’s such a waste of this short life we have.”
More began writing songs during a trip to Madrid where he met, and collaborated with, flamenco guitarist (and future bandmate) Poyatos. He’d continue composing over the years during a somewhat nomadic existence that brought him to Puerto Rico, Brazil, Mexico, and Texas. The enticingly languid “Cuando” captures the spirit, plight, and resilience of the places he’d visited. It also features drums from Rick Shlosser (Van Morrison, James Taylor), one of More’s mentors who co-produced Oh Whitney’s only album.
His travels culminated in a chance meeting with Fagen and his musician-wife Libby Titus, while they vacationed in San Miguel. After hearing a live version of “Beautiful Disrepair,” the couple asked More and Poyatos to sit in with Fagen at a local show, then invited them to Woodstock to attend Levon Helm’s final Midnight Ramble concert. A few months later, Fagen emailed More to say that he’d love to help out with an album.
They recorded Beautiful Disrepair—working around Fagen’s various projects—in San Miguel de Allende, Fort Worth, New York City, and Woodstock. The band would come into the studio with demos, and Fagen built on what he heard. “Donald is very much about the importance of the first live takes; otherwise you lose the soul,” More says. “But he’s not big on a kick drum being slightly off or a harmony being flat.” His sharp ears dazzled the group. (Listen to the alt-country “Cohabitate,” for instance, for a stunning exercise in key-and-guitar harmonies.) “We’d start with the lead vocal track, sit at a piano, and he would map out the harmonies,” More recalls. “Then we’d record it. When he played it back, we’d be like, ‘Holy shit!’” This is how More’s ghosts were so vividly resurrected.
The producer likewise expanded their sonic repertoire. “Country Love” began as an offhanded homage to the genre. It became a bright barnyard stomper after Fagan added pedal steel and fiddle from Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm), as well as vocals from Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter). Meanwhile, “Beautiful Disrepair” includes the earthy lap steel work of the late jazz-guitarist Ken Basman, an expat elder statesman in the San Miguel music scene. And for the ethereal-avant folk “Fireflies,” Fagen recruited jazz-guitarist Adam Rogers to help break the space-time continuum (“Feeding fireflies means the sun is pushing past the moon/Another life come sliding out the womb…Back on the banks of Avila old/The gypsies danced as he walked down the road”).
“What’s cool is that no one had an ego about things. We were four best friends who had the good fortune of having Donald take us under his wing,” More says. “He felt like a cool uncle who wanted to get the most out of the songs we had written, from arrangement ideas to singing harmonies and playing keys throughout the album.” In the case of “What You’re Looking For,” Fagen performed a feat of aural Jenga—moving the chorus, sharpening the groove, tweaking the arrangement—while never compromising the song’s sentiment. The lilting “Not in the Cards” and the bluegrassy “What We Used to Be” follow in kind, with More ushering the break-up songs across different genres.
“In my mind, there is no specific theme to the album,” More says. But if there is a commonality tying his songs together, it’s emotional and physical wanderlust. “Definitely a lot of different places, different dynamics,” he says of Beautiful Disrepair’s sprawl of experiences, wherein he confronts moments of sadness and disappointment to make peace with them.