Blue-eyed crooner Orville Peck recently cruised into listeners’ hearts with his two singles “Big Sky” and the recently rereleased “Dead of Night.”
His debut album Pony will be released on the iconic Seattle-based Sub Pop record label on March 22. With minimal information floating around about the artist or his past, we got down to the nitty-gritty with Orville about his new record and what we can expect from the future with this sometimes heart-breaking, and often heartbroken cowboy.
Peck speaks about his queer experience of love with such intelligence and sensitivity, it’s the perfect Q&A to publish on Valentine’s Day. Take it all in after the jump, and don’t blame us if you develop a crush!
There’s not much information out there about you, Orville Peck, how would you introduce yourself, biographically speaking?
Well, since I was little, I’ve moved around a lot. I’ve lived in five different countries. I’ve lived in like fifteen different cities. I’ve been everywhere on the continental US and most of Europe, a lot of Africa. I was born in one of those places obviously, but I just think the experiences that have shaped my character are rooted in so many different places. I mean, obviously I was born in one specific place but I feel like it’s not important.
How does that nomadic background play into who Orville Peck is now, and what you are trying to convey with your music at this point?
Well, I think it’s a huge part of my music. I was with someone from my label recently and we were joking about how many cities I sing about by name on my new album, and I think I mentioned at least eight or nine different cities throughout! So I think it definitely translates.
I mean the kind of aesthetic that people talk about me having, those are all things that are drawn from experiences I’ve had in different places. Every song on the album is true. I really consider these to be personal stories, because that’s what I think country music is at the heart of things, its really about storytelling.
There’s only one song that isn’t about me, and is a reference to a story that isn’t specifically about my life. Every other song is extremely personal.
Country music is an extension of folk music as you said, and the tradition of storytelling. Like any other genre, there are certain classical tropes people can reinvent and make their own. How do you feel you play within the confines of those traditions with these songs?
I mean I like all kinds of country music. I like classic country, and I like new country. I even like stupid pop country, but the kind of country that really appeals to me as an influence on the music I make is outlaw country or like sixties, and seventies kind of country. I think especially that kind of country stayed within a pretty particular framework.
The subject matter tended to be this monolithic, archetypical type subject matter. For me, I can reference all of those potentially tired or pedestrian references or subjects, you know, like, cowboy heartbreak and all that stuff which seems to have been done a million times, but put through the filter of my personal history where I like to think it pushes it somewhere new, or even just successfully exists within that traditional framework!
The thing that really appeals to me about country music from that era is that all those stories are really relatable. Even though the details might be interchangeable or personal to the singer, I think people seem to really connect to the storytelling element in country music. That relatability Is something that I really like.
As you’re introducing yourself to the world at the moment, do you find the conversations around the mystery about you as an artist are limiting your ability to talk about your music or does it enhance that conversation somehow?
I think it’s liberating in a weird way because as opposed to other bands that I’ve played in, or projects that I’ve been a part of where I was talking more about biographical information, that now the focus seems to really fall on the music, because there’s not that much else I’m willing to really talk about! So for me that’s my favorite thing, because like I said, I just really made an effort to make all of these songs ultra-personal on this album.
I tried to deal with things that I think a lot of people have experienced, like the complexities of relationships, the complexities of feeling unsettled through the literal imagery of travelling a lot. Also, a lot of the songs on Pony are about not feeling settled as a person, and questioning whether you’re on the right track or you know, questioning if the decisions that you make are going to affect you further down the line.
Are you making the right decisions about the people you cut out of your life or say goodbye to, or are you letting the right ones in as well? I think those are things that everyone can relate to.
I feel like our generation is so confused and lost in this weird way, because we’re not really part of like the baby boomers who had this clear focus and we’re not really part of like the younger millennials who just never had the focus in the first place, so they don’t really worry about it. I think I’m part of this anxiety-generation that’s stuck in between all of these things.
That’s definitely something that I’ve battled with my whole life, and I think part of me traveling all the time and feeling that kind of need to move and move on is definitely a part of that. That anxiety can be negative, but I think it’s definitely brought a lot of adventure into my life and I’ve met many incredibly odd and amazing people.
Has the anonymity thing lead you to explore anything about your story you hadn’t intended to?
I mean I get asked a lot about the mask and what it means in terms of connecting with people, as if I’m hiding or trying to create some mysterious character, but I genuinely forget about that aspect of it, because as far as I’m concerned the mask is just part of who I am. I think it plays a significant role in my aesthetic, of course, but at the same time I think its the least interesting thing about my music.
I find when I do my live shows, that at first people seem to focus on the mask, but eventually they tend to forget that I’m wearing one at all, because the music becomes the central focus. I think that masks in that sense can actually be more revealing, rather than obscuring something or hiding something. I think it actually forces a lot of stuff to be exposed. I sometimes wonder if I would have been able to be as exposed and personal about this stuff I sing about if I wasn’t wearing a mask!
It’s sort of similar to the idea of being liberated by wearing a blindfold, where it heightens the awareness of all the other senses you might be taking for granted, isn’t it?
Yeah. I see it as something very powerful, rather than any form of protection. Its not a defence, if anything it increases my ability to attack!
There are a lot of contradictions on Pony, and within Orville Peck himself. Where you say you relate to the outlaw elements of the cowboy lifestyle, there is also a lot of vulnerability and emotional confusion going on in your songs. You, as the singer, sometimes appear as something closer to an abandoned damsel, rather than the guy taking off into the sunset! Are you purposely trying to queer these tropes by adding variations on the historical themes of struggle within country music?
I think it’s just a realistic narrative for anybody that feels out of place, I suppose. I’ve always been very headstrong about who I am so that’s never been a problem for me. I’ve always felt confident in who I was, especially when I was younger, but that confidence still waivers because obviously I struggle to find my place in society like anyone else, regardless.
A lot of my experience with love, or just relationships have involved me being with the wrong kind of person, or pining after someone that maybe can’t love me back, or maybe staying with someone because I’m too afraid to hurt them.
I think those are things that intrinsically queer people, and just anyone that feels like an outsider or a weirdo have to battle with because the road isn’t like laid out for us as explicitly as it is for other people. We queers tend to do a lot of bushwhacking in life, which I think can be really exciting, actually. I’ve really learned to find the adventure in that struggle.
It can be really lonely sometimes. It can feel really alienating sometimes. I’ve definitely gone through most of my life feeling pretty ostracized, and I know a lot of people experience that for a wide variety of reasons, but I think it really does tie in to what I believe is the kind of cowboy ethos. No matter the levels of confidence in your experience, you’re always going to wonder if you’re taking the right path, or compare to someone else’s path.
You’re addressing that elusive idea of thinking you’ll one day have everything figured out, but actually that struggle never stops.
Exactly. It’s like chasing the sunset or something. I think a lot of the people I admire artistically, like musicians or filmmakers, all of those people seem to live in that state of chaos as well. So I feel like I’m in good company, you know, and it reminds me that I don’t need to really need to worry about it too much.
I just feel relieved that I can make music about those themes really genuinely, and that other people seem to really like it. That’s really the most comforting feeling.
You’re an emotional outlaw!
Exactly. On the run from my feelings!
With your recently released video for “Dead of Night,” as well as with “Big Sky,” you’re not exclusively trying to construct this cliché Wild West cowboy universe. Whether the landscape is out in the desert, or in downtown NYC, it’s like Orville Peck is less about the landscape and more about being a part of a larger community of unique creatures. Can you tell me more about your approach to the video and some of the people we see in it?
I grew up loving country shit, but I also grew up loving old musicals, and comic books and I think all of those worlds actually have something in common, which is behind this idea I had for this gang of like stock characters and then playing within that imagery. Especially with “Dead of Night,” I saw it as a retelling of a Western theme, where you have a posse of outlaw people, but I’m placing that in Orville’s world.
So we see my friend Dez, who plays this hustler-meets-vogueing-club kid, and then you have Sean Penn’s son Hopper, who plays a washed-up gambler, and my friend who is this beautiful Senegalese model plays the muscle, like the bodyguard, but with a different, more contemporary take on that.
I think for me, with those characters, I’m not even trying to flip those tropes on the head or be revolutionary about it, I think that’s just the current version of those characters to me, because those are all people I spend time with. Those are all people I know. It’s kind of like a John Waters way to look at things, I suppose, to try to find those characters in everyday life.
How are you handling people’s reactions to your music in terms of comparisons to other acts, historically speaking?
I keep scanning the comments sections on the video to look for hate, which I’m not finding! It’s sort of disappointing because I love that stuff [laughs]! Mostly it’s just people saying I sound like Chris Isaac, or that I sound like Morrissey or Roy Orbison, and I think its really great. I love seeing where people’s frame of references goes from my own songs, because I love all of those things too.
You recently signed to Sub Pop, who are releasing your debut album Pony. How does it feel to be part of such a deeply storied and celebrated record label?
I’ve been a fan of that record label since I was a kid. I mean Nirvana will always be one of my favorite bands. Bands like Babes in Toyland or L7, or Soundgarden or Mudhoney were on their amazing 7” vinyl series that I loved!
To be part of that is of course like incredibly flattering and kind of surreal. I think a label like Sub Pop is kind of this gold fleck that’s left in this whole stratosphere of labels because they are a truly independent label in the sense that every single person in that office had to vote yes or no on my album. If one person said no, I wouldn’t have been signed! That’s how they sign people.
Wow! How many people are in the office?
A lot! So, you go in there with everyone already having your back and everyone loving your music.
You played drums in some punk bands previous to your solo work with this album. Can you talk about your decision to transition into a frontman and songwriter?
I probably sang first before anything. I trained as a ballet dancer, and was a professional dancer for a long time! I also acted for a long time, and then I played in punk bands and taught myself drums. I was a really lonely child and didn’t have any friends until I was like probably about 15 years old.
I’ve had a really active creative mind and I just wanted to perform a lot. I think it’s quite common to have that kind of a personality be tied to a kind of sadness, or loneliness which I’ve personally experienced my whole life. So I think the combination of those things are probably what spurred me to want to play punk music because I think that’s an obvious avenue to kind of go express yourself when you feel that way.
With Orville Peck, I just felt that I knew how to do all these different things and I used to do them all separately and then eventually something clicked inside my head where I just decided to kind of put them all together in one place.
Do you feel an urge to actively try to steer away from clichés around masculinity, especially dealing with these contradictions we have already addressed, but also as a ballet-dancing cowboy?
I mean, I don’t actively try to stay away from anything. Anything I’ve spoken about struggling with, my concept of masculinity wasn’t one of them. I grew up in a family with lots of men, and not many women around it. My mother even had a super strong personality, maybe on that people might associate with a more traditionally masculine spirit.
That said, it wasn’t macho situation, I just grew up around a lot of actually quite sensitive men — very nurturing, creative men. I’ve never actually struggled with the idea of masculinity personally because I feel like I was always just able to kind of express my own version of that.
I personally think, especially in the gay community, there’s a real issue with people trying to brand themselves as “masculine” and I just think that they’re not really talking about what I understand as masculine. I think they’re talking about something that’s maybe like an identity crisis!
Do you still get stoked when you discover your heroes, or an artist that you respect was “one of us,” and created work that you related to through a queer filter? Is there room for that in the way art and music is made for kids now?
I would say more so when I was younger, I totally would get stoked. Growing up listening to hardcore and punk, nine times out of 10 I was the only gay person in the room, you know, most of my young adult life!
When I first found out about Limp Wrist or Darby Crash or how Tomata Du Plenty was gay, I mean of course I was stoked! Those felt like victories to me when I was young, because I didn’t have that many gay or queer icons to relate to in that way.
One of my favorite books is Close To The Knives by David Wojnarowicz.There’s this one part about your first kiss, and your first crush, and all the milestones of coming of age that for straight people represent these accomplishments that move them into the next phase of their lives, whereas for gay people many of those experiences are moments of trauma, because they bring up all sorts of negative shit!
I think everyone has their own shit, but those are things that are notably different about the queer experience that makes it matter when you discover those relatable artists. That said, I think all of us are just swimming through and trying to find a raft, regardless, like I’m sure even straight white men from privileged backgrounds have their days where they don’t know who they are, and I get it!
— Q&A by Kevin Hegge (@kevinheggs on Instagram)