ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE 405 (NOW DEFUNCT)
When Sub Pop announced the signing of outlaw country crooner Orville Peck along with the unveiling of his arcane first single “Big Sky” in early December of 2018, I was immediately hooked. It is easy to gravitate to the obvious—a cowboy image and identity veiled by an obscure, fringed eye mask. But there is far more behind Peck’s mystifying essence. In fact, before signing with an immensely influential label like Sub Pop, Peck had never released an album nor an EP, and of course—there’s the seductive allure of the music itself—both of which are substantial enough reasons to keep an eye on this rising talent.
When listening to the mysterious nomad’s recently announced debut album “Pony,” it is clear the dusty roots of country music flows heavily through Peck’s bloodstream. Adopting and expanding upon an outlaw demeanor best illustrated by the likes of Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and Waylon Jennings decades ago and most recently, Sturgill Simpson, Peck renders the timeless genre with otherness. Though the masked singer-songwriter pays homage to the greats, Peck distinguishes himself by imbuing the deeply-rooted sound with emotional dissonance, shadowy flares of shoegaze-y guitars, cinematic crescendos, and vocals that combine the love-sickness of Roy Orbison with the menacing gravel of Johnny Cash. Although desolate badlands are a mere mirage of yesteryear and continue to give way to concrete jungles, the wild west throbs within the shrouded nomad’s heart, and his art—music, outfit, live performances and all—is an earnest reflection of this sentiment. In an attempt to get beneath the mask and inside his fascinating headspace, I spoke to the 10-gallon hat-wearing cowboy to discuss his debut album, where he places his identity and what it means to be a cowboy in the 21st century.
In other interviews you revealed yourself to be like the sort of like a mysterious nomad. You stated that you hail from many places, including five different countries and that you really don't like to settle anywhere for too long. So what is it about settling in one place that unnerves you?
Orville Peck: I moved around a lot when I was young and I've been traveling a lot since, and then throughout my young adult years, I played in bands and was always constantly on tour. So I think overall, I live with a pretty healthy amount of anxiety, and sitting in one place makes me feel nervous. I think it's a compulsion at this point—sometimes I battle with myself—wondering if I am just trying to avoid settling down. But for the most part, I think of this as a positive thing because I've been to so many places, lived in so many places, and met so many different people. It has really enriched my life as an artist and as a person.
Has moving around your entire life made you readily adaptable to any setting you immerse yourself into?
Orville: I think the older I've become, something I've noticed about myself that's a pretty strong quality is being able to kind of navigate different kinds of people, and that just comes from the numerous places I've been and lived. Exposure is an interesting tool that helps you open up, learn a lot about other people and in turn, allows you to learn a lot about yourself.
Aside from the music that you have consumed in your lifetime, are there any pieces of literature, movies, fashion designers, or anything of that nature that has influenced the way that you express yourself through your own art?
Orville: A lot of what has built Orville is definitely drawn from more than just the music in my life. I grew up in a household where we learned about various art forms—cinema and all different types of music. I'm a huge fan of film. I really like David Lynch, [Alejandro] Jodorowsky, and Gus Van Sant. At the same time, I also love old movie musicals from the forties, fifties, and sixties. I don't read as much now as I would like to, but I come from a family that read a lot, so I've read many, many books when I was young. I'm a fan of fashion as in style, I just don't really care about the fashion world per se. I was in it for a moment when I was younger, but I think especially in this day and age, a lot of its complete bullshit.
I'm glad you mentioned David Lynch as an influence because not only does the album portend a noir-like atmosphere, but the two music videos you've released thus far for "Big Sky" and "Dead of Night" are pretty surreal. I can't really place my finger on what either video means, but the Lynchian influence is evident.
Orville: The kind of aesthetic I like for cinema and I suppose art overall, tends to lean more surreal. But as much as I love something like Lynch or anything considered "Art House Cinema," I also really enjoy garbage Hollywood [blockbuster] shit [Laughs]. While there are obvious reference points that people can pick up on in my music videos that are Lynchian and so forth, there are a lot of pedestrian references scattered throughout my record too. They just aren't as current and people might not catch them. I'm also a huge fan of John Waters. What I love about him is that he's a perfect example of someone who's inspired by the funny, the mundane, and the things in life that aren't necessarily weird, but become weird and obscure in the end.
If there was a film that reflected your music or vice versa, a western would not do your music justice, however, some weird John Waters or Lynch film certainly would. What is so appealing to you about country music and what albums or artists initially drew you to the genre?
Orville: I've been listening to all kinds of music since I was very little. I know people like to say that, but I come from a very eclectic musical background. Country music has always really stuck in my heart. I do like contemporary country from the '90s, but not so much these days. The kind of country I've always been really drawn to is "outlaw country," like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and then of course the female equivalent— Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.
Country music has this very theatrical element it and I love how it can be very robust with storytelling. It is essentially just folk music if we consider "folk" in its truest sense, which is all about telling a story. Even though some of the tracks on the album stray a bit from the country sound and have other influences, I wanted each track to capture real situations from my past and from my current life by emphasizing the traditional country music way of telling a story. I think that's why country music really resonates with people because even if the story is slightly different, I think it'll eventually connect with a lot of people.
I like how you used the word theatrical to describe some country music. I feel like your song "Hope To Die" really captures that as it gradually crescendos into this very cinematic explosion.
Orville: When I'm in the studio, I feel like I'm a very visual person. So when I'm trying to get a mood across, I want that song to be exactly like you said— "cinematic." [The track] "Hope To Die" is a perfect example of this, where I envisioned this scene where everything is in slow motion. I find it more helpful to look at music through this visual lens first and foremost because I can assess the mood and what emotions a song is going to evoke in other people. I'm glad you picked up on that because I definitely try to approach music with that mindset.
Let's dive into the album's content a bit more, what is the significance behind the record's title, "Pony"?
Orville: Well for me, "Pony" has a lot of different connotations regarding country music. To me, it has a gay connotation. It has a sad, lonely connotation. It has a connection to something that like a 16-year-old girl wants for her birthday, but it also has a connection to something a cowboy has a take out back and put down [Laughs]. It has a lot of different layers and just made sense for the album.
Can you take us behind the decision of releasing a "Big Sky" as the "Introduction" of Orville Peck to the world?
Orville: I got asked a question awhile back, “If there was biography being made about me, what would I want it to be called?” I said "Big Sky" because I think that song and maybe "Dead of Night" probably sum up who Orville is and the big themes within "Pony." I think "Big Sky" speaks a lot about regret and the inability to sit still, not really understanding why we react to things the way we do. It even speaks to the absence of feeling something we think we should be feeling.
Yeah, it seems as if "Big Sky" serves as some sort of a launching pad into who you are without completely revealing who you are.
Orville: "Big Sky" is a very, very personal song to me because it discusses tumultuous, failed relationships of mine and then me moving on from those relationships. It doesn't seem like a typical first single because it's obviously very much a ballad and is very stripped down. But I think that track is kind of a good 101 to what Orville Peck is about.
Now, I’d like to talk a little more about outlaw country. You don't really hear it anymore and It's no secret that its rebellious nature has been kind of compromised for pop-leaning radio hits, especially within the last decade. That being said, what would you say is missing in today's popular realm of country music?
Orville: Definitely. However, as much of a fan of Merle Haggard, I can also get behind listening to [Carrie Underwood's] "Before He Cheats" [Laughs]. I do enjoy a lot of pop-country, like I'm a big fan of Kacey Musgraves who's obviously very popular right now, winning CMA's and stuff. But it is very interesting with someone like her because she is bringing this new rebellion to mainstream, huge label country radio. This whole idea of her singing about smoking weed or like getting her nose pierced is pretty rebellious for mainstream country [Laughs].
Artists like Musgraves is starting to kind of open up something new, even though she seems to be this all-American white girl. But I think for me, what I find missing in country music today, is that it just doesn't feel very country anymore. It just feels like people singing pop music with a Texan accent [Laughs]. Don't get me wrong, I do love pop music and I have a lot of respect for pop music. I just think a lot of today's popular country music doesn't feel very—country.
People frequently ask me the whole "why do I make this kind of country music?" question, and I just don't know why someone wouldn't want to. I love the sound of banjos, slide guitar and I think those sounds complete the fantasy of what country music is, without them the story is incomplete. Because those elements are often missing, I'm left to make up for it.
You mention elements like banjo and slide guitar, which were elements made synonymous with outlaw country. Would you say that your music is reviving or reliving that country outlaw attitude from long ago?
Orville: Probably both. I'm not the only person doing it. People like telling me that it's something very new and has never been done before. But I’ve simply taken elements of different genres and specific musicians that have inspired me and put them into one big cattle [Laughs].
Again, there's something about old country music that's really ultra-personal. Whether that be of my past, things I've done, and things I've experienced, I would hope my music is just as exposing. I think that vulnerability and rawness are also missing from a lot of country music these days. If you look at older singers like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, those women were singing about pretty crazy shit, especially for the time—referencing things like mental illness and alcoholism. I think the content used to be a lot more significant, which is why I really tried to make this album personal—so that it resonates with other people. I think the more personal a story is, the more it will resonate.
You mention how very personal and revealing country music should be, yet there's seems to be a darker flare to "Pony" that even surpasses the essence like outlaw country. That being said, would you, to an extent say there's a bit of goth-country to this collection of songs?
Orville: That’s a fair assessment. I'm a big fan of like the eighties, gothy synth bands. I grew up playing in a lot of punk bands, which brings in a tongue-in-cheek element to the album, but underneath it all, my music comes from somewhere pretty damaged. I really love artists like Nick Cave and Patti Smith, who both probably influenced Pony and pushed it over the edge of just G-rated country.
I would like to dive into the story and significance—if any—behind your leather-and-fringe eye-mask without revealing too much of your true identity.
Orville: There's not a huge amount of significance and symbolism. Hmm, maybe that's not quite true, because It's not that I don't want people to know, I just think the fringed references are obvious enough for people to kind of piece it together themselves and understand, which may be more rewarding than just reading it. So I think I'll probably pass on revealing too much [Laughs] because I just don't want to take that away from someone who wants to know.
I think I may have any idea behind the imagery of the mask, but I think I enjoy not really knowing for sure, myself.
Orville: I will say, the look of it is based on two or three, obvious references that I think people could figure it out.
I know you don't want to necessarily discuss into the significance of the look of the mask itself, but I did notice that each of the two videos that have been released for "Big Sky" and "Dead of Night," you're wearing two variations of the same mask—one of black and one white. Was it intentional to include both variations?
Orville: I just like to include different ones. There are about 14 different masks now. In fact, I just made one with all chains. When I perform live I usually try to rotate them in and out to keep it interesting. There are a few I haven't worn yet because I can't really play the guitar while wearing them [Laughs]. There's even one that hangs almost down to my feet.
Will you ever reveal your true identity or is it essential to like the mystique of your sound?
Orville: It's funny because the mask seems to be this weird, mysterious phenomenon and people think I'm like dead set on holding something back. I see the mask as part of me...people always ask me what I'm trying to hide, but I'm not necessarily trying to construct any type of mystery or allure—it just goes with the story of who Orville Peck is.
It's interesting because after my live shows, people bring up the mask and I'm like "Oh yeah, the mask!" I really do forget that I'm wearing [the mask] sometimes. I guess it's not a real point of interest to me. I think when people first see me performing with it, they tend to think it's maybe some shtick or costume piece. Of course, in some ways it is, but as the show goes on, people eventually forget about the mask and that I'm wearing these quote, unquote "crazy outfits."
I'm a firm believer that masks don't actually hide anything at all. Masks actually expose a lot—and in this case—allows people to connect way more with me than If I wasn't wearing the mask. Wearing it lets me stay honest and not hold anything back if that makes sense. If anything my masks are actually way more exposing than anything.
I guess I never really considered the concept of masks in that way. So, when you're covering yourself like that, you can be who you are, who you want to be without any fear of judgment almost.
When you aren't wearing the mask, does anyone ever recognize you as Orville Peck?
Are there any plans of maybe selling variations of your mask as merchandise so people can wear them to your shows?
Orville: Hmm, nope [Laughs].
Has there ever been any worry that maybe your image will overshadow or distract listeners from the music itself?
Orville: I don't necessarily think that everything has to be theatrical or always has to be over the top and that people have to be wearing these crazy costumes. But there have been many times where I'll go out to see a band and I'm let down because I just don't see a fully realized effort or show a lot of times. Sometimes I'll go see a show and I'll be like, "oh, you know, the music is right and I see your references," but then I just want people to go a step further from whatever it is they are doing.
I guess if your aesthetic is like wearing jeans and a tee-shirt and you play in like Oasis or whatever, then that's great, that's fine. I don't think everyone has to be wearing an Orville Peck mask, but if you look at a band like Oasis—who I'm actually a big fan of—they created an entire cult-like following solely based on their shitty personalities [Laughs]. However, it does go without saying that I'm glad my music holds up on its own, regardless of the outfit.
I think if someone listened to an Orville Peck song before they even saw the mask, the cowboy hat, or any of that stuff—I feel that my music could stand alone. To me, the outfit and the show is an added bonus. If I'm [performing] a song and then look out to the crowd, there should be some vibe where you can really sink your teeth into.
Even with a lot of great bands, their performances can be underwhelming. The music could sound great, but then it just stops there—the experience often leaves out that "show" element.
Orville: I'm seriously considering adding a scent to my performance [Laughs]. I think shows need to be a full experience, however, that may look. I'm someone who appreciates going out to a show and being left to pick my jaw up off the floor because of something that was fully performed. I'm not interested in... doing something halfway—it's 100 percent or nothing. No matter the genre of music or whatever it is you do, it's clear when something hasn't been given 100 percent.
When you come to do a show in L.A., I'm expecting some incense burned during your performance.
Orville: [Laughs] we're going to get some horses in there too.
Considering that country music's identity has been traditionally and culturally monolithic with its stereotypical pieces of Americana, like the pickup truck, the high school sweetheart, the bottle and the gun, etc; what does it mean to create country music as an LGBTQ artist?
Orville: I still think my music has everything to do with the things you mentioned and maybe even more. My aesthetic in general involves the pickup truck, the high school sweetheart, and those types of things, but the exciting part is taking all those elements and not necessarily reinventing them or trying to turn them on their head. Actually respecting and admiring those things allows us than to just do it our way.
Sometimes people expect that when they're going to talk to me about country music that I'm not going to be into like mainstream country or I'm not going to be into this or that. I have such a huge love for country music and so I don't see myself as someone from the outside coming in and stirring it up. I feel in my heart, I am already a part of that and I'm just doing it my way. I love everything stereotypical about Americana, country, all that stuff. So to me—however, I identify—country music is just a part of who I am—they aren't separate to me.
What does it mean to be a cowboy in the 21st century?
Orville: [Sigh] Well, It's a lot of anxiety [laughs]. I think I've been one all my life, so being a cowboy doesn't necessarily mean having a hat or horse. I'd say a lot of us are cowboys, especially at this moment. Being a cowboy in the 21st century has a lot to do with remembering yourself and also forgiving yourself.
As someone who has always felt a bit like an outsider to everything, I feel like cowboys are kind of like the reluctant hero to a story, which is something I definitely relate to because I have a very dichotomous personality. On one end, I love freedom, the adventure that comes with being able to travel a lot, and not needing to conform to sitting at a desk. At the exact same time, I struggle with finding normalcy and never really feeling security—it's a constant battle in my head and is actually what the song "Turn To Hate" is about.
With being a cowboy or having the spirit of a cowboy, it's becoming harder and harder in this day and age to find things to believe in and anchor ourselves to. At least for me, I find myself easily getting jaded, which is why I sing in the song "Don't let my sorrow turn to hate." As I navigate other people and navigate my own emotions, I have to make sure that resentment doesn't build within me. So in that sense, I know a lot of cowboys. I think in all of us, there is a spirit of solitude and just packing up and running off into the sunset, which seems like an easier option than having to deal with the shit that's going on around us right now.
Who would you say is the model cowboy?
Orville: Hmm, I have a couple in mind. It sounds so cliche, but I feel like James Dean was very much a cowboy-spirit figure. Aside from the characters he played in film, I think in real life he exemplified the dilemma of having this drifter spirit and trying to kind of make that fit in the world around him, especially in the industry that Hollywood was and is.
With a lot of people I really respect in popular culture, a lot of them are not typical cowboys with a hat and horse. Someone like Nina Simone was pretty incredible. She was like a really crazy cowboy who even had a gun, so she fits the mold perfectly [Laughs]. But she was also somebody who by nature, was forced to live as an outsider. Given the day and age she lived, she was such an incredibly poignant woman who wasn't afraid to sing and speak her mind. I think she definitely lived her life as a cowboy.
Even with the little background information regarding who Orville Peck is, what do you hope listeners are able to take away from your music?
Orville: My focus with this album was telling stories about me. So, I just really hope people will listen and relate to some of them.
Orville Peck’s debut album “Pony” comes out via Sub Pop on March 22nd (2019).