Photography by Gordon Nicholas
Get ready for an intense sonic ride on Orville Peck’s stellar debut album, Pony, out March 22 via Sub Pop. For those who’ve been missing out, Orville Peck is the enigmatic, goth-country crooner who a sea of music publications are losing their damn minds over and who’s selling out shows across the country and overseas. All of the aforementioned is impressive for any rising musician who’s only released a handful of (very good) songs. But it’s especially impressive for Peck considering he takes “enigmatic” to a literal level. In other words, he’s never shown his face. In concert and in his shadowy music videos, he wears leather masks replete with―move over, furiously hair-whipping rockstars!―fringe. The masks are a head-turner, for sure, but they don’t at all feel like a shtick; it looks and feels fit for an artist who’s destined to become a household name. (Quote me!) Peck’s got the gravitas of a leading man in a classic Western―if the cowboy was gifted with rafter-reaching pipes, that is.
Peck unveils a kaleidoscopic collection of moving tunes on the filler-free Pony. Seconds after pressing play, the outlaw cowboy kidnaps then takes listeners on an unforgettable road trip, roaring down desert highways of the badlands of North America as he tells stories of queer love and loss, revenge and survival. His songs and his pipes are just as varied as his stories. An official Peck press release aptly describes his tune “Big Sky” as a campfire lullaby. Here, Peck’s perpetually captivating voice, expressing a hushed, come-closer intimacy, is showcased on the simple yet surreal chorus. (The song is about his past lovers: “an aloof biker, an abusive boxer, and an overly protective jailor in the Florida Keys,” along with their demise.)
The striking, skyscraper high lead single, “Dead of Night,” is a sublime torch song―Peck uses that menacing baritone on the verses and the chorus really is something else. See the boys as they walk on by, he sings with a fragile blend of sweetness and sadness in a falsetto that recalls Chris Isaak’s whispered delivery in “Wicked Games,” but Peck’s comes with a punch, immaculately transitioning into an in-your-face, rich-toned belt. Peck wails away on the anthemic, luminous beauty, “Queen of the Rodeo,” and “Turn To Hate” is a boot-stomping-on-the-dancefloor-inducing, unrestrained bop. Then there’s “Roses Are Falling,” a gorgeous stand-out which has an Olivia Newton-John’s “Hopelessly Devoted”-meets-Roy Orbison’s “Crying” nostalgic, ‘60s prom-dance-friendly feeling. Peck sounds tortured yet hopeful. It’s something Patsy Cline might’ve covered or a perfect follow-up to Cline’s “Crazy.” That’s the thing about Pony―It’s like a record left by a former friend or lover who re-appears without warning. It’s warmly and often hauntingly familiar, albeit fresh at every listen. (Can you tell we love Orville Peck?)
We talked to the mysterious artist, who, understatement, pleasantly surprised us. A head-turning highlight involved Peck gushing over the iconic Whitney Houston as well as (the also iconic) Paris Hilton―his famous fan. Like a deserted winding road, you’ll never know what lies ahead with Orville Peck, which makes him that much more hypnotic. Giddy up! (Also, keep reading.)
ALEX CATARINELLA: We had to ask… Who is Orville Peck?
ORVILLE PECK: I’m Orville Peck and I’m a country star. My middle initial is J, but nobody ever told me what it stood for, so I change it up from time to time: Orville James Peck, Orville John Peck, Orville Joaquin Peck… It makes going to the DMV interesting.
AC: Let’s talk about your penchant for always wearing a mask. Are you afraid of being recognized? Stage fright? Bringing back some showmanship to the music world? Is wearing a mask an effort to make people focus just on the music? Is it even that deep?
OP: I studied mask as an art form for a couple years―the method made famous by Jacques Lecoq. It was so fascinating to me because we think masks are gonna hide something, but they actually expose so much. If you put a mask on someone and make them just sit on a chair and do nothing, slowly you will notice the smallest things about them that tell you exactly how they are feeling and who they are. You as the watcher also get to fill in the blanks, so it’s almost more engaging to an audience than if it wasn’t there. I also think there is a lot to be said about the security of a mask that allows you to be completely raw and candid. But honestly, all that being said, I don’t really think about it that much. I do think showmanship is lacking in the world, but I am just doing what I know how, to make art the only way I know how. I don’t know… I used to be a dancer and an actor, and I come from a weird rural, theatrical art world, so I can’t help but make it extra. I also just think the mask looks cool.
AC: You’ve mentioned in interviews that you’ve lived in several parts of the world. How has your upbringing in different places influenced your artistry?
OP: I think my sound and look is probably rooted in Americana. I spent a lot of my formative years between a few places in North America so that probably had an impact. But my experiences span beyond that continent. I was actually born in the Southern hemisphere and lived there for most my life. I’ve also lived in Europe. I just traveled a lot since I was little and I’ve only ever known that I guess. Whenever I start having anxiety or feel like I’m hitting a wall in my life, without fail it’s when I’ve been in the same place too long. I think some of us are just born drifters and that’s that.
AC: You also admitted in interviews that your past involves being in a West End play and playing in punk bands. How did you get to where you are today as a country artist?
OP: When I was a kid I wanted to be an actor, a ballet dancer, a singer, a cowboy, and a surgeon. Surgeon’s the only one left to accomplish.
AC: Where does your interest in music come from?
OP: I used to play my father's guitar when I was little. There was always music around when I was growing up.
AC: Let’s talk about your debut album. Why did you call it Pony?
OP: I named it Pony because it has so many connotations to me: the obvious cowboy aspect, the kind of gay slangy aspect, the showy aspect, the lonely aspect. The pony feels like a sad figure to me. Not quite a horse, not quite a donkey―just a sweet, sad little guy. I feel that.
AC: What do you feel when you perform? What feeling do you want your audiences to get?
OP: This project allows me to go on stage in a cool outfit, perform extremely personal songs that I actually love to play, and have people not only listen and enjoy my music, but return their personal story to me by connecting with and investing so much in the songs. I mean, what could feel better than that? It’s honestly like group therapy.
AC: The video for “Dead of Night” is major, particularly the stripper pole moment. What’s your music-video-making process?
OP: I’ve always approached any type of art from a visual place. Even music. Especially music. So when I write my songs, because I already have such a visual idea in my mind of what I want the vibe to be, the music video just comes through so easily.
AC: Your pipes are like elastic, stretching to both heaven and hell. How did you learn to sing like that? Are you a professionally trained singer?
OP: I am trained, yes. But I spent most my life thinking I was a tenor, and then about five years ago I discovered that I had two extra octaves beneath what I thought I had.
AC: Tell us about your love for Whitney Houston and her vocals.
OP: I love Whitney, and I don’t mean that in a casual way. I honestly think she was the most talented voice of our lifetime. You listen to Whitney songs and you may not notice at times how much control and how much technique she has in her voice because she makes it sound so effortless. But that’s because she combines all that with sincerity. That’s a true legend.
AC: Many journalists have already dubbed your music as “goth country” and the shadowy similar etc. Would you say that you’re redefining country?
OP: I don’t see what I’m doing as redefining country. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. This album is a love letter to the type of country music that I have so much respect for. I think it’s all about storytelling. And maybe what people see as a redefinition is that parts of my stories happen to be a little different than most traditional country singers. But essentially it’s no different.
AC: You asked via Twitter if you should do a cowboy cover version of “Lady Marmalade.” And yes, you must. So, who would be on it? And will you take over Christina’s part?
OP: I definitely want Xtina’s part. Kacey Musgraves can do Mya, Babeo Baggins can do P!nk and Azealia Banks should replace Lil’ Kim’s rap verse―I mean, she’s pretty problematic but fuck it, she’s a cowboy! Trixie Mattel can stand on the side and hype us like Missy Elliot.
AC: What was the first album you purchased?
OP: Patti Smith’s Horses.
AC: If your budget was limitless, what would be on your tour rider?
OP: I’m dying to have a horse at every stage door.
AC: If you could raid anyone’s closet, whose would it be and what would you take? Are there any designers you’re into?
OP: I would raid all the old authentic Nudie suits from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Porter Wagoner had so many incredible ones. I also love the old Thierry Mugler cowboy fringe stuff. As far as nowadays, I think there are a lot of independent designers and stylists doing some really cool shit. I love the Ricky King cowboy stuff. I also really like Mowalola.
AC: Who would you love to collaborate with musically?
OP: There are obvious country ones I would die for like Dolly Parton or Willie Nelson, but honestly, I think it’s cooler to collaborate with someone who does something different than what you’re doing. I think doing something with Andre 3000 would be incredible. I feel like he’d really dig Orville Peck.
AC: Speaking of collaborations…. I see that Paris iconic Hilton follows you. Are y’all gonna collab?!
OP: She does follow me and I do love her! I just think she’s cool. And genuinely talented and smart. She has this completely false stigma of being a vapid, boring, rich girl who doesn’t contribute anything to society, but she actually has spent most her adult life being really creative. I think her album Paris—especially her song “Stars Are Blind”—is seriously a great pop record. I also think it’s a huge talent in itself to make people who are wanting to laugh at you, laugh with you. That takes wit.
AC: Have your Stans named themselves yet? If not, what would you name them?
OP: They named themselves! Well, there were a few names going around but I saw PeckHeads the most, so I’ve been officially using that as of late, but it may be open to change.