With cowboy balladeer Orville Peck, it is tempting to search for the “real” man behind the mask but doing so would be to miss the point entirely. He sees the very genius of country music as the conflation of what’s true and what’s sensationalized and his masks as a medium for telling his story in its most authentic form. For him, the delicate balance between genuine storytelling and larger-than-life artistry was epitomized by one of his childhood influences, Dolly Parton
“When I was little I thought she was a character. I didn’t realize she was a real person,” he remembers. “She kept the theatricality and the campiness balanced perfectly with sincerity.” And so, if his childhood idol is as much cartoon as introspective artist — Dolly once said that she “may look fake but [is] real where it counts” — why shouldn’t Peck, no matter what his driver’s license reads, get to be whatever he says he is? “People think I’m hiding,” he notes of the mask and costume. “I feel like I’m the most vulnerable I’ve ever been in my life. And that’s the irony of what I do.”
The blurred line between fact and fable seems unimportant when you consider that Peck’s music has benefitted from his ability to create worlds with his songwriting. He attributes the vivid textures of songs like his 2019 record, “Hope to Die” to a writing process that is rooted in visualization first and foremost. As he puts it, “I’m not really a technical musician, so I don’t necessarily think about writing music in the sense of like chords and keys and whatever. And I think just being a huge fan of cinema and film like theater and visual art, my mind [kind of] goes to that place first. So I think I can picture the song a lot more than I can hear it.”
Across Pony, his 2019 studio album, and Show Pony, a new EP out this August, he sings like the most classic kind of 1950s crooner but always with a wink, aided by the fact that the one part of his identity he is unabashedly forthright about is the fact that he’s gay. “I’ve always believed that I had a place in country music. I was a 13-year-old gay kid listening to country and it never crossed my mind that this wasn’t for me,” he says. “I don’t think it’s about who you are. Country music is about storytelling.”
The tale he’s telling is a contemporary twist on one of the most enduring of American legends, that of the bereft gunslinger, or what he calls “the lonesome cowboy figure.” Though the John Wayne-type is often held up as an icon of brutish masculinity, Peck sees the archetype as an outcast character, relatable to more than just macho dudes. “Anybody that’s ever felt outside of the mainstream could relate to that innate sense of loneliness,” he says. “I’ve had that my whole life.”
Peck grew up everywhere and nowhere, spending his early years criss-crossing the planet, living in five different countries before he was 21 years old. “I’m from all over the place,” he says. “People think I’m trying to be mysterious when I say that, but we just had to go wherever there was work. I have been on the road my whole life.” He’s been performing and making music his whole life too, trying everything from musical theater and ballet to punk. But it wasn’t until 2017 that Orville Peck came to be. “Something I wanted to do my whole life was to be a country singer, but it took me a long time to feel okay with being vulnerable,” he says.
Eventually, his friend, garage rock artist King Tuff, let him play a short set in Toronto as the opening act. “I basically had to ask them a favor to let me open. We didn’t get paid. And I think we had like a 20-minute slot. I just gathered a band together. It was all very quick and thrown together, but it worked out,” he says. “I was just living a lifestyle of any artist that’s trying to make it. Working two jobs, hustling, trying to get anybody to listen. I had such a clear vision of what I wanted to do, it just kind of snowballed.”
And now, there’s Show Pony, a record on which he has refined the art of the wistful ballad, particularly on the epic album highlight “Drive Me, Crazy,” the tale of two truck drivers with an unlikely relationship. “I wanted to write a piano ballad, almost like country meets Elton John power ballad,” he says. “It’s about two truckers in love — their love story exists on the highways.” He’s also found his biggest audience yet, with enough of his own recognition that he could land another hero, glitzy country queen Shania Twain, for a duet, “Legends Never Die.” “It’s an absolute dream come true,” he says simply.
But, as his profile rises, his perspective on his own image and iconography largely stays the same: Don’t worry about what’s under the mask. For audiences, he believes, what matters most is not who he is, but how the songs make you feel. “Good art should be able to be interpreted in different ways, should be able to connect with anybody,” he says. “I hope for fans, their takeaway is that they can do and be and create whatever they want … whatever your passion is in life, I think it’s important to do it authentically. And I think it’s important to never let anybody else dampen that or tell you that you have to change it for success.”