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Now You See Him

The Magic of Orville Peck: For this country talent, there’s nothing to unmask.
By Eli Enis|
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Photographed by Wunmi Onibudo

Orville Peck is who he appears to be. The masked country singer/songwriter has only revealed tidbits about his life prior to Pony, his debut record that he released through Sub Pop back in March. He claims that his name is actually Orville Peck, but he’s dodgy about it when asked straight-up. He says that he used to tour in punk bands up until about five years ago, when he stopped to pursue acting full-time in London. His age is unknown to fans and followers. He tells me that he’s always wearing one of several fringe leather masks that he dons at all of his performances and in press photos. Few people know what he looks like underneath. However, he’s cagey when I ask about his self-imposed crypticness. To him, it’s not that special.

“I don’t think I’m doing anything different than any other artist has done in the past,” he tells me over the phone. “Yeah, I wear a mask. But that’s just part of my aesthetic. Because I’m making a reference to, obviously, the myth of the cowboy and references to spaghetti westerns, as well as rodeo performers. I’m not creating a persona. It’s not like I’m playing a character. This is just my expression as an artist.” 

“To me,” he continues, “that’s like asking, ‘why did David Bowie wear crazy outfits?’ Or why did Prince wear his hairs . . .I’m not trying to create any kind of enigma, I’m not trying to construct falsities.”

Quite the opposite, actually. Peck stresses that almost all of the stories he tells on Pony are transparently biographical. “So if anybody feels like they aren’t getting the full story from me, because I wear a mask or because they think there’s some illusion there, I would really recommend that they listen to my music. And they’d probably get to know me a lot quicker than they would think.”

Pony is a country album, through and through. There are songs about lonely nights spent on the dusty trail, rawhide and buffalo, the fleeting nature of rodeo stardom, and a whole lot of heartbreak. Peck emphasizes that the music he makes is not intentionally different from the vast catalog of country subgenres he grew up listening to. But to many of the ears he’s been reaching by signing with indie stalwart Sub Pop (think: Nirvana) Peck’s breed of outlaw country may sound entirely new. 

His smoky, robust tenor has been compared to legends like Hank Williams and Roy Orbison, and the album’s minimalist instrumentation harkens back to the genre’s early era. But songs like the stark “Big Sky” and the tumbling “Buffalo Run” are doused in the amount of reverb that would normally turn up on a shoegaze or goth-rock record. Peck wanted a synthy style of production that pulls more from the ’80s, whereas he attributes the songwriting itself to the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s.

“I come from a very diverse place as a fan of music,” Peck says. “I grew up listening to punk and country and soul and girl groups and classical music. Genuinely everything. So I think my palate for reference is quite large and I think I definitely like to draw on that as an artist. I think that’s how to be a clever artist and how to be a good artist. It’s to know what inspires you and take things from that and make it your own.” 

Peck also identifies as a queer person, and he sings openly about male romantic desires throughout the record. That’s another aspect of his person that has turned the heads of the uninitiated, people who he says aren’t familiar with country’s rich history of underground artists who are queer, feminist, and/or people of color. 

We recently chatted about the genre’s recent evolution, how the boundaries placed on country come from misunderstanding, and country’s legacy of strongly subversive flare. 

Could future Orville Peck records sound completely different than this? 

It’s possible. I think country is going through a transition at the moment where people are still just trying to police what makes a country sound or what makes a country album, or whatever that’s supposed to mean. The country I know, which I know as a massive umbrella that has so many subgenres and sounds working underneath it. . .I will always make country music. Whether that’s gonna be something that sounds like Hank Williams or something that’s gonna sound maybe different than that, I don’t know.

Are you interested in using the boundless movement in country as part of your creative ethos?

It’s funny, in some ways I’m a real purist about stuff and I’m kind of like a stickler for anything that’s going as newfangled. But that’s the thing; I think what I’m doing isn’t new. What I’m doing is really an ode to all kinds of country that I grew up loving. So maybe that has created something new, which is great. But it’s not really my intention to come in and try to be a rabble rouser and to try and subvert country or whatever. I’ve always thought that country’s subversive, anyway, and I’ve always thought that it’s extremely diverse. 

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What do you think is subversive about country? 

I mean obviously not all country. There have definitely been voices in country that are ultra-conservative, of course. It’s a genre that’s been dominated by white men for a long time. But there’s even people within that world. Willie Nelson and the whole outlaw country movement, I thought was extremely subversive. People like Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan’s country albums, or Neil Young. Or even older than that if you think about Gram Parsons or Flying Burrito Brothers or Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton. These are voices that had subversive subject matter in their songs–voices that didn’t necessarily just comply with what the Nashville song was looking for at the time. We look back on them, and in retrospect they look conservative to us now. But Johnny Cash singing about shooting people dead and watching people die and going to prison? Those weren’t conservative things at the time. They weren’t normal. That was a subversive artist who created a legend and a fantasy about himself being this outlaw without having even served any time in prison. 

Within the underground there’s always been people of color, queer people, gay people, women, feminists. Those people have always existed in country and in cowboy culture as well. So that’s not me re-writing anything. It’s just nice that I’m actually getting exposure about it. There’s been so many people who’ve done just what I’m doing who’ve gone completely unknown. 

Since the album came out, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” became a huge phenomenon, and there was the whole Billboard controversy regarding how that song is defined. Do you have any thoughts on that song and what its popularity means for country music as a whole?

I think it’s a great tune. I can’t get it out of my head. I also think that the controversy over whether that sounds like country music or not, I can’t speak to whether it’s country music or not–to be honest with you. But I think it doesn’t sound any different than any of the music I hear on country radio every day. Every country song now is some white guy with a click track singing about a truck, and it’s pretty much a trap beat. I don’t really see how that’s any different? It’s just because the guy’s black. That is really what it comes down to with that argument. Beyond all of that, if there is gonna be a subgenre of country music that’s trap country, why not? 

Whether it be because of your label or your history in other genres, etc., is it a struggle for you to prove yourself as a country artist? 

The thing is, nobody can get anything on me about country because I know country in and out. I know the history of it, I have a very well-versed knowledge of country music because I’ve been listening to it since I was very little. 

So the references and the music that I make, I never think it’s anything far from country whatsoever–because I understand it. But the people who seem to criticize it, they’re always people who know only one or two country artists. They’ll come back at me and talk about Dolly Parton, or the first one they can think of. So it’s not a struggle for me; in fact, I invite it. I invite the conversation because I know I’ll always win. . .I feel very much embraced by a lot of the country community and country artists, and I receive a lot of, sometimes thrilling, emails and messages from people I’ve always looked up to as country musicians and artists. 

“That’s like asking, ‘why did David Bowie wear crazy outfits?’”

What are some of your favorites and/or surprising pieces of fan mail you’ve received? 

Two extremes: The things that I find really touching are when queer people or trans people, or people of color–marginalized people–talk to me at the show and say like, “Oh I grew up in a really, really super-conservative, ultra-religious part of the world, and my parents disowned me, and I had to leave my city and my state. But I grew up loving country and that was still part of what my culture was, and I feel I’ve never fit into it and no one ever represented me.” So them saying that I represent that for them is so touching, because people feel that I genuinely allow them to be who they are. That’s a really intense compliment. It’s kind of an intense thing to take on and deal with but it’s super, super touching and I find myself getting very emotional when I meet people who tell me that.

And then on a personal note, for myself. When I meet these ultra, seemingly cis, white, straight males, sometimes in their seventies and eighties, coming up and introducing me to their wives and telling me that this is their [grandkid’s] favorite album. And telling me that they saw Hank Williams. Just crazy, the other spectrum. The complete opposite side.

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