Photos by Gordon Nicholas

Orville Peck Is a Lone Stranger Singing Country Songs From Behind a Mask

The queer cowboy and pseudonymous country singer discusses his evocative campfire torchsongs and debuts the music video for his latest single “Turn To Hate.”

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Mar 20 2019, 4:15pm

Photos by Gordon Nicholas

“Part of telling a good story is that each time you tell the story it gets a little taller,” Orville Peck says. Even over the phone, it’s the sort of subtle confession an interviewer ought to pick up on immediately during a conversation with any subject, especially one unwilling to share his real name.

The subtext lurking behind such a mischievously loaded sentence is one of stretched truths and potential lies, proffering a minefield of uncertainty about the veracity of any answers or information provided either before or thereafter. So, when the pseudonymous Peck claims he previously played in punk bands, that he worked as an actor and a dancer as well, that he self-identifies as a cowboy, one has reason to feel suspicious tingles at the other end of the phone call. Presumably older than 20 and younger than 40, about the only personal details he provides that seem unassailable are his current residence in Toronto and his love for the music of Reba McEntire. “When I listen to “Fancy,” I’m like, hell yeah ‘Fancy,’” Peck says with a laugh.

Narrative, one of the quintessential characteristics of the American-born-and-bred country music genre, suits him just fine. His debut album for Sub Pop, Pony (out March 22), contains a dozen gripping yarns sung boldly and populated by a motley crew of characters allegedly drawn from Peck’s own life. There are the star-crossed hustlers ominously careening across Nevada on “Dead Of Night” and the trio of select exes scattered like ashes on “Big Sky.”

“For me, this is just my expression and storytelling,” he says. “Mine is the only story I know how to tell.

Peck’s approach here bears a paradoxical consequence. By being deliberately concealing himself behind a stage name, that anonymity sets him free, giving him license to write and sing more honestly than if under his birth name. Whether riding on the back of a Harley-Davidson Knuckleback motorcycle or looking back with lament over someone left behind in Salt Lake City, the protagonist of just about all these stories is reliably him. “This album definitely is about love in a lot of ways,” he says. “It’s about heartbreak within myself rather than heartbreak over somebody else.”

Compounding matters further, Peck wears a mask. He wears several of them, all apparently self-made. Showcased in his promotional photoshoots and music videos, as well as in concert, they’re attractive pieces, with black leather uppers adorned with fringe veils to conceal the bottom half of his face. Paired a cowboy hat to complete the look, the striking result lies somewhere between BDSM roleplay and Lone Ranger cosplay. Regardless of the motivations behind his disguise, it leaves quite an impression.

“There’s a lot of theatricality to what I do and that’s purposeful,” Peck says of his enigmatic image and corresponding getup. “It’s ironic because, at the same time, I truly believe this project is the most sincere thing I’ve done artistically, the most exposed that I’ve ever been as a singer, as a writer, as an artist.”

A conspiratorially inclined journalist with a bit too much free time might comb through pages of Google search results in the hopes of discovering Zapruder-quality evidence of the artist’s true identity, it’s probably the least interesting thing about him. As fans learned from the utterly anticlimactic reveal of Burial’s real name and MySpace selfie over a decade ago, facts are typically more mundane than mystery. Though there are, and will continue to be, people on the Internet who claim to know the person behind Orville Peck, that's missing the point. Short of anything actually problematic being shielded by those beguiling bespoke masks, learning specifically which indie punk bands the man behind the moniker rocked out in has little bearing on the compelling contents of Pony.

As part of a long history of rockers going genre, most famously with glammy New York Dolls frontman David Johansen’s totally 80s transformation to lounge lizard Buster Poindexter, Peck gladly immerses willing listeners in his weird, Southern-fried world, as in the video clip for “Turn To Hate,” which debuts here today. In the video, directed by Peck and Carlos Santolalla, he performs amid a mechanical bull-riding competition, with controversial cowboy Mac Demarco as one of the many diverse folks vying for a fairly unremarkable-looking first place trophy. At one point, in convenient close-up, Peck utters the words “yee-haw,” once again opening his presentation up to interpretation.

Incidentally, the embittered song was the first one Peck wrote that would ultimately end up on Pony, which he recorded over the course of two distinct sessions in 2017 and 2018 at a recording facility on Gabriola Island, a picturesque setting in the Salish Seas of British Columbia. Citing a prior friendship with studio owner Jordan Koop, the seemingly unlikely locale choice has to do with his roots. “I lived in the Pacific Northwest for many years,” he says. “I’ve always got some rain in my boots.” He was joined in the second studio trip by Duncan Jennings of the Toronto-based rock group FRIGS, who currently serve as Peck’s touring band.

“You’re out in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean on this incredibly lush island,” Peck says. “I approach a lot of my music from a visual standpoint, an environmentally cinematic standpoint. Making the album there really made sense to me.”

A far cry from Nashville, the offbeat selection of Gabriola Island as a place to record a country album shows the misfit nature of Peck’s work. Yet despite perceptions that the culture is dominated by straight, white, conservative men, in his view the genre is in the midst of a bit of a cultural shakeup, one more inclusive of artists like him. “All the iconic symbolism and representation that goes with it, the iconography of the cowboy hat and the boots, it’s kind of the last massive genre to have really embraced weird, outsider, alternative aspects,” he says.

With a provocatively suited up Cardi B headlining the Houston Rodeo in homage to Tejano music icon Selena and Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves bringing her own unusual touches to the music itself, Peck is very cognizant of the noteworthiness of this overdue moment. “Granted, she’s still a white, heteronormative, pretty girl from Texas,” he says of the latter. “But the kind of stuff she’s singing about and the kind of stuff she’s making, alternative country or whatever you wanna call it, that’s a big step.”

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To ears less familiar with the outlaw crooners and Grand Ole Opry stars of the American South, Pony sounds closer to dream pop, shoegaze, even grunge. He expresses a certain enjoyment in how people describe his voice to him, typically explained in two-part juxtaposition of heterogeneous figures such as Chris Isaak meets Glenn Danzig or Roy Orbison meets John Doe. “I find it really fascinating,” he says, noting that the Misfits and X are two of his favorite bands. “It tells me a lot about the person, what their references are, and where they’re coming from.”

But these forced dichotomies don’t or can’t exist in Peck’s perception of himself as an artist. Despite what others project upon it, he insists Pony remains rooted in country music. “Just as I sing about all the places I’ve been and all the people I’ve met, it only makes sense that my past playing in different kinds of bands, making different kinds of music and art, that those things would naturally creep into the story I’m telling as well, because they are a part of who I am.”

Considering how he’s constructed and cultivated this identity, as real to him as real can be, there’s no sense or benefit in creating arbitrary categories or rule-based labeling to keep his stories straight. As he readies himself now to release and tour the album, such a thought process couldn’t be further from his mind. He’s reconciled all of these pieces of himself and these tall tales into one entity, that of a queer singing cowboy named Orville Peck.

“I don’t think I used to be a punk rocker and now I’m a country star,” he says. “I tend to see the similarities in those things rather than the divide.”

Tour Dates:
Apr. 11 - Ottawa, ON - The Dominion Tavern
Apr. 12 - Montreal, QC - Casa Del Popolo
Apr. 13 - Toronto, ON - The Great Hall
Apr. 14 - Hamilton, ON - The Casbah
Apr. 23 - Cambridge, MA - Great Scott
Apr. 25 - Philadelphia, PA - The Boot & Saddle
Apr. 26 - Brooklyn, NY - Zone One @ Elsewhere
Apr. 27 - Baltimore, MD - Metro Gallery
Apr. 28 - Richmond, VA - The Camel
Apr. 30 - Pittsburg, PA - Andy Warhol Museum
May 01 - Lakewood, OH - Mahall’s
May 02 - Detroit, MI - Lager House
May 03 - Chicago, IL - Empty Bottle
May 04 - Nashville, TN - The High Watt
May 06 - Columbia, MO - The Blue Note*
May 07 - Oklahoma City, OK - The Criterion*
May 08 - Austin, TX - The Mohawk
May 09 - El Paso, TX - Lowbrow Palace*
May 10 - Albuquerque, NM - Sunshine Theatre*
May 11 - Tucson, AZ - Rialto Theatre*
May 12 - Phoenix, AZ - The Van Buren*
May 13 - Los Angeles, CA - The Moroccan Lounge
May 17 - Portland, OR - Mississippi Studios
May 18 - Seattle, WA - Barboza
May 19 - Vancouver, BC - The Wise Hall
May 23 - Calgary, AB - Commonwealth Bar & Stage
May 24 - Edmonton, AB - The Starlite Room
May 25 - Saskatoon, SK - Amigos Cantina
May 26 - Winnipeg, MB - West End Culture Center
* w/ Lord Huron

Orville Peck's Pony is out on March 22 but it's available for pre-order now.

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