Buffett Watch

Musician Peter Buffett's Life Lesson from his Father Warren


There are several things that Peter Buffett is and several things he isn't. He's not as melancholy as the intelligent, pensive songs on his new CD, Staring at the Sun, might lead you to believe. And even though Peter Buffett has been making music professionally for more than two decades with 16 albums in his discography, he's not related to the musician Jimmy Buffett.  (Jimmy Buffett isn't all that melancholy either.)

Peter Buffett told me in a telephone interview this week that he is a very happy, laid-back guy. And while he's not related to Jimmy, he is the youngest son of that "other" Buffett, Warren.

During Peter's long career as a composer and instrumental musician, he's scored numerous theater pieces and commercials for big-name clients including Coca-Cola. He's contributed music to several movies and TV programs, gathering two Emmy Awards along the way.  He composed for the transformational "fire dance" scene in Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves (1990). And he created the well-received Spirit and Spirit - The Seventh Fire live shows celebrating Native American music and dance.

Despite all that, you probably didn't recognize his name.  Peter Buffett, at the age of 49, hopes to change that with Staring at the Sun, which he calls the most personal, and accessible, music he's made so far.

Personal, because it's only his second vocal album, after last year's Gold Star.  And personal because he says it reflects some difficult experiences over the past few years, from which he has now emerged a bit wiser.  He tells me that he worked very hard on Spirit, so hard that important relationships were strained, including his relationship with his wife of 11 years, Jennifer.  "It scared me," he says.  "What might have been?  What can happen when you push the limit?  What can you lose?"

You can hear that theme of loss, of missed opportunities and missed connections, of not being able to hear or see, in the new album. (After all, if you stare into the sun for too long, you'll wind up blinded rather than enlightened.)

In I Will Waithe sings, "I can tell you what I see/But I can't change your point of view."  In Broken Open: "I don't listen for the things you seem to hear" and "Maybe I'll never know the love that was always here."  And in Another Leaf: "Watch another leaf fall from the sky/Another year goes by/One more chance has died."

A line in the first song of the album, Reminder, feels to me like a theme for the whole CD: "You can't have what you can't find here."  (Mr. Buffett has graciously allowed us to make that song available as a free MP3 download here on Warren Buffett Watch. Right-click the graphic above and to the right and select "Save Target As..." You can also see a stylish video for the song, directed by animator Frank Anderson and featuring images of Edwardian-era actors Julia James and Erie Satie.)

But Buffett says that while his lyrics are first created from somewhere within himself, they become more "macro" than "micro" as they come to life.  He compares writing songs to creating a character in a play, which explains how he can be a "happy" guy singing somewhat gloomy songs about doubt and loss.

The Lesson Peter Buffett Learned From His Father

Buffett does have another role besides musician: philanthropist. When Warren Buffett said he would be to charity, he also funneled a billion dollars into Peter's NoVo Foundation, which is now supporting the International Rescue Committee's efforts in Liberia and Sierra Leonne.  (A trip to those countries inspired the song Anything on Peter's new album.  A video that he created and posted on You Tube features footage shot on that visit.)

I asked Peter his own question from the song: "Can we do/Anything?"  He says yes, but he feels its very important to respect and listen to those you are trying to help, and not fall into what he calls "philanthropic colonialism" in which people "make themselves feel good rather than doing good."  In the text of a talk posted on his web site, Peter says:

I was told of a project that focused on digging wells in African villages so women wouldn’t have to walk hours to get water. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well…it turns out the women liked getting away from the men. It gave them a chance to talk and enjoy each other’s company. Now those people are asking – “if you want a well dug, where do you want it?”

For Peter, the key is remove himself emotionally from the choices his foundations makes, not to satisfy his own "needs or desires .. at the expense of other people."

He told me it reflects the most important lesson he learned from his father: the value of what Peter calls "dispassionate consistency."  It's a trait that's reflected in the way Warren Buffett has been such a successful investor: make a financial decision based on facts and not emotion, and then stick to it.

Peter says that while he was enjoying a "great" childhood in Omaha, his father may not have been "playing catch with me in the backyard."  But he was doing something Peter now feels is even more important.  He was "insanely consistent" .. always coming home for dinner at the same time, always in the same good mood, always there.

Now Peter and his wife live in New York City, where they were initialized surprised by the widespread fascination with Warren Buffett as a "mysterious figure in a far-off land."  It wasn't like that for the many years they lived in Milwaukee.  There, he was Peter Buffett, the musician.

But, he says while people are curious about him as Warren Buffett's son, and the connection makes it easier to meet anyone and get invited places, ultimately people either like his music or they don't. It's "parent-neutral."

And while being Warren's son opens some doors, it can make it difficult to raise money for his music and theater projects.  "People assume we've got plenty of money, and that's not true."  (As the AP puts it, "The elder Buffett helps his three children but refuses to carry the weight for them."  three years ago that his father gave him Berkshire Hathaway stock in the 70s that would now be worth millions, but that almost all of it had gone to supports his career and other expenses over the years.  He takes no salary from his foundation.)

Peter Buffett is hoping to get some Adult Album Alternative radio play and make some money on his new CD, a prospect made easier by the fact that its on his own record label and by the new economics of the music business, which only require him to press a thousand or so copies of the disc.  Most of the sales are digital downloads on services like iTunes

Like his father, Peter Buffett may be dispassionate when trying to figure out how to deal with a complex world, but he is passionate about being successful at whatever he takes on. 

Questions?  Comments?  Email me at buffettwatch@cnbc.com