Published Dec 03, 2019Country artist Orville Peck introduced himself to audiences in late 2018 with the psych-rock-doused country tune "Big Sky." In the single's artwork and accompanying music video, Peck wears a cowboy hat and a mask with long fringe dangling from it, staples of his now-signature look. In the song itself, Peck shares stories of past relationships: "He gets me high," Peck croons, his booming baritone voice rumbling across the open plains.
Like "Big Sky," Peck's debut album, Pony, which was long listed for the 2019 Polaris Music Prize, was written with mountainous determination to be sincere. He sings candidly about love, heartbreak and anxieties that weigh heavy. The songs have an entrancing undercurrent of shoegaze and punk tones, but are primarily influenced by the country artists Peck grew up listening to and admiring.
Orville Peck is a pseudonym, but as Pony proves, he is less enigmatic than you think. Peck identifies as a lifelong artist and performer who has been working in the entertainment industry for 20 years. But it's by donning a mask that Peck finally found the freedom to share his true self.
"It's not about anonymity or mystery. I think the biggest misconception is that I do it as a gimmick," Peck says about his choice to wear a mask and use a pseudonym.
"I grew up loving country and western stars like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard — people that built a whole legend about themselves, and it wasn't just about music. It was sincerity, but it was also storytelling and performance. So that's what I wanted to do. I grew up as a performer who travelled around my whole life, felt like an outsider my whole life, and felt like a cowboy my whole life. This is the heightened truth of who I am."
Peck describes the early stages of recording Pony as a solitary experience. He didn't have a manager or any label interest, and on the first four tracks he recorded, he played every instrument. Later, Peck recruited members of Toronto psych-rock band FRIGS, the majority of whom are still Peck's backing band, to help him finish the record.
When Peck moved to Toronto, he emailed labels about his album in between working two jobs. After some expressed interest, he booked shows through favours from people he knew in the music industry, rehearsed with FRIGS for a month, and invited labels out to see them live. Peck eventually signed with Royal Mountain Records and Sub Pop.
"It was really liberating to go up [on stage] and perform songs and tell stories from my life that I'd never felt comfortable or open enough to tell before. But it was terrifying too," Peck admits.
"What I do has a pretty specific aesthetic and visual aspect, so of course the first few shows, I walked out and was met with laughter sometimes. I had a lot of people confused about what I was doing. I had a lot of people who weren't very interested, a lot of un-replied-to emails, a lot of doors closing in my face and a lot of people straight up telling me that this would never exist in the country world, this would never exist in the indie world and it wouldn't be something that was viable to be successful."
Country music has long been synonymous with straight, white men and conservative values, but as long as the genre has existed, there have been artists who challenged this narrative. In 1973, Patrick Haggerty (Lavender Country) released what is regarded as the first queer country music album, and after a string of successful country albums in the '80s, Albertan k.d. lang faced backlash when she came out of the closet. More recently, Peck and artists like Kacey Musgraves and Lil Nas X, another 2019 breakout country artist, are defying genre stereotypes.
As Peck notes, this contemporary wave of country artists is due in part to a shift in how people discover and consume music that is taking the power away from the industry's gatekeepers and putting it back into the hands of the audience.
"I grew up a fucking weird, freaky gay kid with no friends who never felt included in anything socially and I connected with country music," says Peck. "So the stigma that country music is made for well-adjusted straight white men is just baloney. That's something that has been perpetuated by mainstream country gatekeepers in order to control the narrative. They're not able to do that any longer. That is, I think, the difference."
The public's immense support of Peck speaks to the demand for alternative voices in country music. At live shows, Peck's diverse fan base, dubbed Peckheads, are decked out in fringed masks and their finest cowboy duds. Some have even gone so far as to get Orville Peck tattoos. In Toronto, his rapid rise in popularity is especially striking: in January, Peck played the Monarch Tavern, which holds 120 people, and in December he will perform to 1,500 fans at a sold-out show at Toronto's Danforth Music Hall.
Peck wears his heart on his Nudie suit sleeve and audiences embrace him.
"It's wonderful," Peck says about his fervent fan support. "Your whole life, you hear people trying to convince you that to be the best version of you, you have to try and be yourself and to be sincere. It's difficult for everybody, and I think we all hear that so much, but especially artists. Everybody wants artists to be exposed and raw, and I think it's really hard to get to that place because of insecurity and doubt. Not that I don't have any of those things, but I think I finally got to a point where I just trust that the best version of myself is myself.
"People may find that ironic, because I wear what could be construed as a costume, but the reality is that I think people connect with what I do because what I do is sincere. All of my focus during live performances, when I'm writing music, deciding what kind of outfits I want to wear or what I want the videos to look like, all of that comes from a place of sincerity. Seeing people dressed up like me and getting me tattooed and investing in what I do, I don't think it's because I'm so talented. I think it's because I am really trying to do something actually important, at least to me, and I think that other people recognize that and it becomes important for them too. I think it's about connection."