The masked man at the other end of this Skype conversation tells me that Orville Peck has always been around. He says there’s a photograph of the artist as a seven-year-old boy — Jurassic Park t-shirt on his torso, Stetson on his head, handkerchief over his face. That kid was unknowingly playing an antihero, a reluctant savior, an outcast. He was becoming a cowboy. “I never really understood why anybody would want to play Romeo when you could play Mercutio,” he says, the long fringe on his brown leather mask rattling back and forth and revealing glimpses of a stubbled, military jawline.
Orville Peck’s first album, Pony, is out via Sub Pop on March 22, and it’s premiering in full below. It’s a country record, built out of broken-glass heartbreak, tearful melodies, and sweeping, deserted drama, wandering from one blackened torch song to the next. Here, Peck sings about longing, meanness, and impossible loneliness in a harrowing baritone. He reaches back into the canon — towards Roy Orbison’s solitude and Johnny Cash’s outlaw fiction and Merle Haggard’s confessional verse — earnestly and in good faith. He grapples with life as an outsider, singing about sleepless nights in a “stark, hollow town” on opener “Dead of Night” before willing himself out of resentment on the excitable “Turn to Hate.” But he falls into despair and disrepair. “Kansas (Remembers Me Now),” an elegy that could have crackled out of an FM radio 70 years ago, leads into a stunning second half, crushed under the weight of the noise on “Old River,” the menace on “Big Sky,” and, eventually, the agony of the closing ballad, “Nothing Fades Like The Light.”
Pony is so beautifully true in parts to the genre’s down-and-out core that modern country radio, which now rewards frat-house euphoria and saccharine romance, likely wouldn’t touch the record — even if it wasn’t the work of an openly gay man who writes and records under a pseudonym and wears a fringed mask to conceal his identity. “Country radio probably doesn't give country listeners enough credit for what they're willing to listen to,” he says.
About that mask. “It's not me trying to make a schtick or trying to falsify something,” he insists. “In fact, it's just a way for me to be more honest.” He doesn’t want anyone to know his real name or his age — although late-20s seems like a fair guess — and he says he’s gotten good at avoiding questions about his particulars. He says that he’s lived in five countries — he moved around a lot growing up. He’s been based in Toronto for a little while now, although he wrote the first rash of Orville Peck songs while living in London. He played in punk bands and worked as an actor for a long time. He also studied ballet and, for two years, he studied mask. “I've just been a performer since I was really little,” he says, “so I always approached music and art and acting the same way — I always thought of them as the same thing.”
I know that you’ve played in punk bands before. I wonder what it was that made you think about creating a country persona and fully committing to it.
I've always been interested in so many different types of music. I played in a lot of punk bands and heavier bands because I think I grew up a pretty lonely kid, and I obviously felt pretty ostracized — like a bit of a weirdo. So punk felt like a natural path to go down in the sense that I kind of found a community there, and I could take out a lot of aggression in that way. But I've always been a huge fan of country music. It's always been in my heart. I grew up with my father playing me Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak, and I listened to a lot of female country when I was a kid, like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. The storytelling aspect of country really spoke to me, especially in my theatrical vein. You have these tough guys like Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard, but they're singing about these ultra-tender things, and they're wearing sequined suits and fringe. It just seems like a no-brainer for me.
So when was Orville Peck born?
I guess in some ways, Orville Peck's always been around. I actually found a photo of myself when I was seven years old. I've got a Jurassic Park T-shirt on and a cowboy hat and I'm wearing a handkerchief over my face. So maybe that's when Orville Peck was born. Ever since I was little, I was always enamored with Indiana Jones and Western films — this kind of antihero figure of the cowboy.
Has it always been as much a visual thing as a musical thing for you?
I find it hard to separate the two. I don't think it was necessarily a conscious decision, but I approach music, writing music, from a visual [standpoint]. I think of music cinematically. I’m a visual person.The times where I feel like I'm really drawn to something is when there's a fully realized concept — even if it's not something necessarily theatrical or people don't have to be wearing a mask or fringe or whatever. That isn't necessarily what I'm looking for. But it's pretty obvious to me when it isn't fully realized or maybe isn't fully committed. So for me, this thing that Orville Peck became is just how I see it being 110% of what exactly I wanted to do. I had a really clear vision for the aesthetic.
You said that there was a confidence aspect to it — this was finally the time when you felt confident enough to do it. How does the mask play into that for you?
It's something I still am kind of figuring out myself. It didn't really happen as a conscious decision either. I studied mask as a theatrical artform. You go through Kabuki and the Greek maskplay and all that kind of stuff. The thing I learned from when I studied that was that masks are... we kind of think of them as something that hides something or conceals something, but in actual fact it's something that exposes people in ways we don't realize. In a way it gave me the confidence to write extremely personal music. Lyrics and songs that are sometimes quite hard for me to sing about, because they're quite private and exposing. The mask definitely gave me the confidence to be a lot more open and exposed, even though it's something that covers me. It's been this amazingly liberating thing, because I feel like I'm finally making the type of music and the type of art that is the truest I've ever really done.
Mac DeMarco recently announced a new album called Here Comes The Cowboy, which sparked a conversation about last year’s Mitski album, Be The Cowboy. I wonder what it is you think about the return of the cowboy to popular consciousness. What drew you to it?
Beyond the pop culture iconography of cowboy stuff, which is something I've always loved since I was a kid. There's a solitude and a kind of tug-of-war that goes on inside of what I feel is the cowboy ethos, where I feel like it's a reluctant hero. Someone who relishes the adventure of being on the move and not tied down. Splitting the breeze, in a sense. Those are things that I really love, and they help make me feel good about being an outsider, because I feel like I can just jump on my horse and get out of town. There's a tug-of-war involved with that, where I deeply struggle with never really getting settled. I have a lot of past issues that I sing about on Pony — about relationships and the strain of never feeling comfortable within myself — never feeling comfortable within a relationship. And I honestly feel like these are things that a lot of people I know in our generation relate to. This generation that's stuck between the baby boomers and the really young millenials. We're this anxiety-driven generation, because we have all these expectations of our parents' generation, and we don't have the easy-going attitude of young millenials, so we're trapped in this anxiety: Are we doing the right thing? Can we achieve what we're supposed to achieve? Is it okay just to be an artist and to be free in the world? Those are questions that I struggle with a lot as I get older. I think I know a lot of cowboys. A lot of us feel like it would just be easier to get on our horse and go sometimes.
As a queer artist, how does the cowboy aesthetic play into that? What home do you find within it?
It touches on that in various ways for me. There's the obvious way — which at least I think is obvious. There is an innate sense of homoeroticism in cowboy culture. It's very male-dominant, If you want to take it to something really simple, [there’s] the Brokeback Mountain idea of two guys on the trail, lonely nights in the desert. Of course, I love playing with that theme. Cowboy culture's always been a tongue-in-cheek reference within the gay community. If you go to any gay bar in the world, you're bound to see at least one person wearing a cowboy hat.
But, at the same time, anybody who feels on the outside of society — there's an innate loneliness in that. All my favorite crooners and all my favorite country artists — heartbreak is misinterpreted a lot in those people. People talk about Roy Orbison being this heartbreaking crooner who sings these love songs, and of course he is. But the most heartbreaking thing about Roy Orbison is that a lot of his songs are about internal heartbreak, not necessarily heartbreak over a woman or heartbreak over a relationship. He wasn't very comfortable with his image — his physical image — and he had to struggle with that. A lot of the songs on my album, they're about heartbreak too, and they're not necessarily about people I was with.
I mean, I didn't even really feel like I fit into the gay community that much growing up. So there's kind of an innate solitude in me that I don't really know how to shake, even though I'm surrounded by many friends now and people who love me and care about me. It's just sadly kind of a part of who I am, and I struggle with it a lot. That's part of why something like the cowboy aesthetic in that kind of a metaphoric way — it's really relatable for anybody who feels like they're on the outskirts of town.
Were there movies that you watched growing up that influenced you, both emotionally and visually?
It was really varied. There's probably some ones that people might obviously be able to think that I like: David Lynch, John Waters, Gus Van Sant, [Alejandro] Jodorowsky. But at the same time, I also really loved Hollywood trash. The movies that really impacted me were definitely about antiheroes. I always seem to like the villain or the sidekick more than I like the hero. I never really understood why anybody would want to play Romeo when you could play Mercutio.
Is that what you think Orville Peck is? A Mercutio?
In some ways. I think a bit part of being a cowboy is being a reluctant hero. If you think about the structure of a Western, it's always someone who comes into town, doesn't want to help anyone out, just trying to pass through, and they end up having to save the day, falling in love with someone, and then having to say goodbye. It's all kind of begrudging. I think I've walked around this earth with quite a healthy amount of resentment towards society, and I think that's probably a defense for however I grew up. But it's funny, because now I'm in a position where I make music and I get a lot of messages or emails with people telling me that they really look up to me or my music really speaks to them or it really resonates with them.
I got a message from someone the other day. It was a gay guy who said, I grew up in Wyoming and my parents tried to take me to a gay converstion camp. They kicked me out of home, and I grew up in an atmosphere where I loved country music, and my father owned a ranch, and everything about my life was country. And I had to move away to New York and leave all that because I felt like, to be who I was, I had to actually change everything about who I was. He said, It's so lovely to have someone like you making this kind of music, because it really makes me feel like I belong where I'm actually from, and I didn't have to escape who I really was. I mean, of course those things are heartbreaking and incredible for me, to know that that's something that someone feels about something that I made. It's validating. But at the same time, it's a lot of pressure, and I just feel a bit like a cowboy in a Western where I rolled into town just hoping to mind my own business, and now I have to be nice.
I don't mean it to sound like it's pressure in a negative way. I guess I just didn't really expect that, for whatever reason. It's actually so wonderful, and it's actually really good for me, because I think it keeps me from having resentment towards people or towards the world. It's been a surprisingly cathartic experience, so far.
What were you expecting?
I don't know what I was expecting, to be honest. Quite genuinely, I don't know what to say, because I kind of was hoping that people were gonna like it, and I wasn't really sure what demographic of people that would necessarily be. I think it surprises me every single day, the varied amount of people that seem to like it, everything from crustpunks to Lana Del Rey gay fanatics to 40-year-old men who are married with kids and living in Jackson, Mississippi. It really runs the gamut, and I think that's something that's also, in this ironic, full-circle way is so funny to me and so kind of a perfect comedy. Because here I am, this person who feels so alienated and so ostracized my whole life, and I'm making this music about feeling that way and feeling like such a loner. And the reality is that I have the whole walk of life telling me that they like what I'm doing. It's this big, hilarious, insane validation that is just really comforting.
Would you feel comfortable playing on a country bill in 2019?
Absolutely. In fact, I welcome it. When I signed to Sub Pop, a lot of people weren't sure about what to brand me as. Maybe I wasn't even sure, because of course there's a sense of worry that country fans aren't ready to listen to someone like me or my point of view. But I think every genre of music so far has really embraced — especially in the last ten years — weirdos and outsiders, subversive culture. Rap music, you have Young Thug wearing dresses. Pop music of course. Country music has weirdly stemmed into this very pomp world, where I'm not even sure that country fans are that stoked about it.
For me, as a big fan of country — and don't get me wrong, I love the Dixie Chicks and a lot of new country as well as old country — I think that country radio probably doesn't give country listeners enough credit for what they're willing to listen to. I mean, a lot of the response at my shows, even in Europe, has been older, straight, white men, who are fans of country music That's the stuff that really reminds me [that] the stories that I'm telling in my songs [are] universal. My pronouns might be different to other peoples', or maybe the subject matter might be a bit more subversive than people are used to, but I think at the core of it, everyone seems to be able to relate.
Pony is out via Sub Pop on March 22. Pre-order the album here.