Spotlight: Orville Peck

Mike Greenhaus on July 17, 2020
Spotlight: Orville Peck

Orville Peck wore a mask long before it was the new normal. “People already come to my shows wearing masks and dressing up,” the country singer says with a chuckle, while quarantining at his Los Angeles home in late April. “But the last few weeks have really shown me that our perception of what we thought it meant to connect with one another could sometimes be limited. I’m not someone who’s very big into social media, but I’ve still been able to feel a connection to people, even if it’s just through a livestream.”

Since he first burst onto the Americana-embraced country circuit a little over a year ago with his full-length debut Pony, the Canadian-bred Peck has kept his identity, and most details about his personal life, fully veiled. He performs in a cowboy hat and a Lone Rangerlike mask that obstructs his face—and he’s shied away from pinpointing his exact age or revealing his given name. Pony, which was released on Sub Pop, was an immediate smash, offering a refreshing, raw take on traditional rockabilly and classic country music, with enough indie-rock accents to keep the hipsters happy. In March, just days before New York went on pause, he played a high-profile set at MoMA’s exclusive Armory Party, where he tested out his latest jam, “Summertime,” with the help of his current, psych-school pedal-steel player, Luke Schneider. Peck says that he considered the remorseful, Roy Orbison-indebted tune for Pony but wasn’t satisfied with his recording or his ability to capture the song’s particular “essence.”

“I’m not a very technical musician, so sometimes I’ll hit a barrier with a song because I don’t know how to execute what I’m trying to get across,” he admits. “So, I went into a studio in Nashville and rerecorded it. And ‘Summertime’ also didn’t fit with the greater plan I had for Pony. I grew up loving LPs and EPs—sets of songs that make sense together and that you can immerse yourself in”

Peck hoped the release of his new tune would coincide with his spring tour, which included bookings at Coachella and Stagecoach— a rare feat. But, like most of the live-music world, his tour was ultimately scrapped due to concerns stemming from the novel coronavirus. Oddly enough, “Summertime” ended up capturing the current era anyway.

“It’s a song about feeling isolated from someone or something,” he says. “For me, it represented a person that I missed very much who wasn’t really gone. It’s that tug of war that everyone’s going through at the moment—missing something that you didn’t necessarily know you were gonna miss until it was gone, even though it’s still within arm’s reach.”

While Peck has kept most of his past adventures closely guarded, he admits that he came of age in the punk/altrock scene and had a deep appreciation for the classic, soulful records that his father— who worked as a touring sound engineer for various glam-rock bands—loved. And, despite the associations tied to those genres, he sees some clear parallels.

“The LA and New York punk bands from the 1970s and ‘80s were performers. They branded themselves as showmen; they had nicknames or aliases and there was a costume element,” he explains. “That very much exists in county music. Dolly Parton is famous for her outfits and her wigs. Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Porter Wagoner had these personas. I love music that’s sincere because that helps a song take off and connect with people. When you can combine that sincerity with that showmanship, then you can really reach through. Prince and David Bowie didn’t just begin and end with a good song. There was so much more creatively to what they did.”

However, Peck didn’t absorb all of the music that he heard as a kid: “I definitely like the Grateful Dead, but my father was such a Deadhead that I wanted to listen to something a little different,” he admits. “But I’m a huge fan of their contemporaries from that scene. I listened to a lot of Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd when I was younger.”

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Peck has been inching toward his sophomore album in his studio and thinking about other creative ways to help country music shed its current stigma. He recently worked with Diplo on his upcoming country project, Snake Oil, which was released in late May under the moniker Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley. Peck connected with the electronic music producer through a series of Instagram direct messages first and then agreed to contribute to a few of the album’s tracks, including a collaboration with Noah Cyrus. “I like people who don’t have hang-ups and aren’t worried about what you’re supposed to do or how you’re supposed to do it,” he says of Diplo. “He’s definitely someone like that, which I appreciate.” Perhaps even more surprising, before the pandemic hit, Peck had also secured a pair of opening spots for Harry Styles at Madison Square Garden around Halloween.

“Country is a genre that’s for everyone, but especially for people who feel like they don’t necessarily fit in with the status quo. So it is ironic that country has gotten this stigma of being for straight white men, by straight white men,” says Peck, who identifies as gay. “A lot of the country music tropes— heartbreak, disappointment, isolation—are feelings that ostracized people experience all the time, so it makes sense to me that country music would be especially for people like that. I grew up feeling like one of those people. With the Harry Styles thing, I thought, ‘If I could open the doorway and show them this different perspective that’s always been there, then that’s exciting to me.”’

And, by using a facial covering to hide his identity, Peck has built up the confidence to delve deeper into his own journey through his lyrics. In certain ways, the mystique has made his words feel more universal, too.

“The specifics of what I’m singing about are personal— who I was and who I was with— and detailed,” he admits. “But, everyone has gone through the things I sing about. A lot of great country storytelling is filled with specifics and details. At the same time, you can still relate to them, even if those circumstances are completely different. Part of the human condition is that we want to be able to invest in something and have that personal feeling, even if it’s not necessarily about us. Great art should be relatable to everyone.”