When masked man Orville Peck made his enigmatic debut with the Roy-Orbison-sings-David-Lynch-soundtrack noir of 2019’s critically acclaimed Pony, the queer outlaw singer-songwriter — who recently joked that “truck stops were the original Grindr” while playing Coachella decked out in gold lamé rodeo couture — brilliantly subverted the hyper-masculine cowboy archetype of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The South African-born musician may have gotten his start in the punk scene, but his Peck persona is his most punk-rock artistic statement yet.
“I definitely have a cowboy obsession, since I was very little. I was just obsessed with the Lone Ranger, Cheyenne, a lot of old TV westerns, always just drawn towards anti-hero cowboy types,” the American Gothic auteur tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume at the start of Pride Month. “I think what resonated with me when I was just a weird little queer boy, I was pretty lonely as a kid. I felt very lonesome and solitary, and with the figure of the cowboy, that trope of the cowboy character, their solitude was sort of their power. They were the hero of the story — as opposed to it being their weakness, which I thought was how solitude was depicted in a lot of other tropes. With the cowboy, they were lonely and doing their own thing, but they'd roll into town and save the day, and there was kind of this anti-hero celebration. And I think that's probably what I connected to.”
This modern-day rhinestone cowboy’s booming baritone has been compared to that of Johnny Cash; he even took on the iconic Johnny role in a rebellious remake of the Carter/Cash duet “Jackson” with RuPaul’s Drag Race star Trixie Mattel. But it was a female classic country artist — Patsy Cline and her “really heartbreaking songs” — that spoke to him as child.
“I remember I was obsessed with ‘Walking After Midnight’ when I was probably like 12 or 13, because it just felt like Patsy was kind of singing how I felt,” he recalls. “Just out alone, walking after midnight, looking for… I mean, she was looking for her lover; I was looking for friends or acceptance, I suppose. I definitely connected to old-school country, which had a lot of heartbreak and loneliness and disappointment in the lyricism.”
Peck never discusses his pre-Pony punk past, although his true identity has been the focus of the sort of speculation and countless Google Images searches experienced by other mystery artists — like Daft Punk, the Residents, and Sia — ever since his fringed face first appeared on Pony’s bold crimson cover. A self-described “very spirited kid” who “wanted to do everything in anything in the arts” growing up and trained in ballet for over a decade, for years Peck couldn’t figure out how to launch a credible country career, because he assumed there’d be no place for him in that traditionally conservative world. Ironically, it was only after he covered up that he felt he could reveal his true self, “a hundred percent,” and he was able to find the visibility he craved.
“When I was a kid, there was no queer country that I knew about that — no men singing my perspective,” Peck explains. “I had no idea what kind of avenue to go down. I didn't know how I would have an 'in' into that [country music] industry, especially the way that I wanted to do it, which was this combination of theatricality and sincerity and making everything extra and visual. I’m the kind of person that believes that sincerity and showmanship don't need to be mutually exclusive things, so I knew that that's what I wanted to present as an artist. … But I put it off for a long time, because I guess I didn't have the confidence to just go ahead and do it. I just didn't even know how to begin to do it.
“And then something struck me at some point, where I just decided to go for it. Now that I've done it for a long time, and the older I get as well, there's a lot of moments where I kind of realize: ‘Oh, right, that's why I do that!’” Peck chuckles. “And I think [wearing a mask] probably helped me put myself out there, and gave me the confidence to be vulnerable and feel afraid.”
Peck’s recently released sophomore effort Bronco may be more glossy and grandiose than its predecessor, but the album — which he made during the coronavirus pandemic, after all of his Pony promotion and touring was canceled — is even more vulnerable and intimate lyrically, offering a figurative glance behind his mask.
“I've had to unlearn to not be so hard on myself and so critical of myself. I've had to learn to be more encouraging of myself, which is something I learned over the pandemic, when I went on this journey of catharsis to just be myself and allow myself to be truly, truly vulnerable. Kind of this journey of radical self-acceptance is what all the songs on Bronco are about,” Peck explains. “It’s this sense of freeing myself from my own pressures, from toxic people, from toxic relationships, and just really getting to a place of being OK with myself and freeing myself from whatever I was before. … And I would say probably ‘Curse of the Blackened Eye’ [best exemplifies that]. It's about trauma and the lingering effects of trauma, and I think it's pretty relatable for different things.”
Music fans from all walks of life seem to find Peck relatable, despite all the secrecy and artifice surrounding him. He has dueted not only with Trixie Mattel on the above-mentioned “Jackson,” but with the one and only Shania Twain on his 2020 Show Pony EP single “Legends Never Die.” He also managed with transform British synthpop trio Bronski Beat’s LGBTQ+ anthem “Smalltown Boy — which he describes as “a very poignant telling of what sadly is still a big part of the gay experience” — into a wanderlust spaghetti western epic for the modern age. And he’s the rare artist that can play both Coachella and the following weekend’s country music festival Stagecoach, on the same Southern California desert grounds, receiving rapturous welcomes from both audiences.
“I think country fans are not given enough credit for how open they can be,” Peck stresses. “I play a lot of true-blue, very country music festivals, and there are times when I go onstage and I feel a little nervous. But then by the end of it, everyone's dancing and singing along. I think country's about storytelling. And I think at the end of the day, if you're a true fan of country, you want to hear new stories. You want to just hear those new perspectives. I know I do.” And while Peck readily acknowledges that “that innate feeling of marginalization still exists,” he does believe that his success is a sign that the country genre “is absolutely changing and evolving.”
“I think that feeling of sort of otherness or marginalization, even just in gender with country, I probably connected to that,” Peck muses, again recalling the female artists, like Cline and Twain, that he adored as a young boy. “It’s also why I think I also love a lot of Black country musicians, like Charley Pride. … I think it goes through a big evolution. Every generation or so, country music takes a big leap forward with regards to who's allowed to tell the country stories, or are the gatekeepers. There's so much more visibility, of course, for queer country musicians — someone like Trixie, who is a drag queen and sells great albums. But there's also Mickey Guyton, Amethyst Kiah, Brandi Carlile — you know, people that necessarily weren't the face of mainstream country before, which would've typically been probably a white straight man, let's be honest.
“I think now there's so much more diversity kicking the door down of country. I think it's undeniable that we all have seats at the table,” says Peck, his smile visible even behind his ever-present mask's curtain of bespoke country-western fringe. “And yeah, I absolutely feel a part of it, and I feel very, very proud and excited to be part of it. I'm just excited that I'm around to witness this beautiful evolution that country's having.”
The above interview is taken from Orville Peck’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on the SiriusXM app.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: