Don’t call it a stage persona: Orville Peck is creating some of the most sincere, unembellished music in recent memory. He just happens to sing from behind bespoke leather-fringe masks—something that you’ll immediately know by Googling him, because basically every headline mentions them. Fair enough—perpetually paired with a Stetson hat, they’re head-veiling head-turners—but you won’t be thinking about any of that when listening to his aptly lauded debut album, Pony. Promise.
The true head-turners are those elastic pipes: Prepare to be spellbound when his Johnny Cash-y resonant bass vocals transition with torpedo speed into his upper register as his tenor notes reach canyon heights. Pony is loaded with good ole cowboy imagery (stampeding buffaloes, rattlesnakes, Marlboro Reds) and timeless, Top 40-ready country tunes—if we were living in the early ‘60s, I could totally hear Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison giving Peck’s ballad, ‘Roses Are Falling,’ the dreamy duet treatment. And while Peck sings about all of those classic Western film-friendly themes—love, loss, loneliness, rebellion, with splashes of beer-chugging, boot-stomping kinds of fun—all is told through his perspective. “I’m gay. What am I supposed to sing about? Girls?” he said the other day to me over the phone. For Peck, it doesn’t matter whether or not you have a penchant for chaps or what music you’re into—anyone can be a cowboy. There’s a stampede of musicians from varying musical genres who agree and who too are making waves with what many are calling, particularly on Twitter, “the yeehaw agenda.” Many of them come from LGBTQ+, POC and other marginalized backgrounds, and they haven’t been associated with or embraced much by the mainstream country music world, until, well, now. (Some trailblazing proof: Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus recently became the longest-running #1 single in Billboard Hot 100 history – and he’s also the first artist to come out as gay at the same time as having a #1 record.)
Peck’s success has so much to do with his realness—his storytelling and emotions are laid bare in each and every song. Yet many headlines might have you believe that Peck is all mystery: What does he look like? What’s his birth name? Who cares?! (Imagination: Try it!) He’s revealed a number of times that he’s lived all over the world, that he’s played in punk bands and has a background in theater and dance. Pony reflects all of that, sometimes in a distorted funhouse mirror. A lot of the record is camp and punk as fuck. The same can be said about the name of the album. Not like I’ve ever made it through an entire old school Western, but when I think of those cowboys, I think of them as all menacing and macho, gunslinging and tobacco-chewing, always accompanied by their big ass, majestic horses—their loyal BFFs. I know more about ponies, and how they’re are always referred to as cute – so cute that the mini-horses continue to be mass-marketed mostly to little girls via the “My Little Pony” vibrantly-colored toy line and media franchise. To Peck, the pony represents a sad albeit showy figure: “Not quite a horse, not quite a donkey.” And to me, Pony brings my mind to Patti Smith’s 1975 electric debut, Horses, which introduced the world to an unapologetically androgynous woman who thrillingly infused punk and poetry in her music – a fearless, free-as-a-wild-horse voice in a straight dude dominated, rock ‘n’ roll world. That album is now regarded by fans and critics as one of the most important albums in American music history, and Smith as the “godmother of punk.” Who knows how Pony will be regarded in years to come, but the current excitement psychotically circling all things Peck is something special – and warranted. Like a rebellious pony at the rodeo, he and his music stands out – and steals the show. Better yet, as one of his favorite artists, Dolly Parton, once famously said: “It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world,” and Pony certainly is one helluva one-of-a-kind gem.
Peck unsurprisingly puts on one helluva show, too—just ask the PeckHeads, which is what his Stans call themselves, or take a look at the diverse crowd, from middle-aged straight dudes to goths, trans people, frat boys, drag queens, punk rockers, fashion school kids, celebs, musical theater fans (*raises hand*), and more. At times, on bouncy, anthemic numbers like ‘Queen of the Rodeo’—an ode to the overworked, always-on-the-road-again drag queen – it feels like there’ll be crowd-surfing at any second. Expect PeckHeads to be in a silent, teary-eyed haze during haunting numbers like ‘Dead of Night,’ a torch song about two gay hustlers on the run. Peck’s transcendent, sublimely vivid tunes captures then takes you away, and in the music video for ‘Dead of Night,’ which is nearing 800K views on YouTube, you’re taken inside a Nevada brothel for a few mesmerizing minutes. Like a dimly lit saloon, the brothel is an image many associate as a favorite stomping ground for the hedonistic cowboy. Well, welcome to Orville Peck’s much more interesting Wild West.
Throughout the video, Peck’s posse (including a club kid, a Cubano boxer, a Senegalese cowgirl) confidently dance around and occasionally lipsync to the song’s lyrics inside The Chicken Ranch, the brothel whose original, now-shuttered location was the basis for the Dolly Parton-starring musical comedy, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Peck smoothly twirls around a stripper pole, the fringe on his mask and vest dramatically twirling right along with him, and an older man just can’t take his eyes off of the charismatic crooner. Some of the most powerful of shots are those featuring sex workers who actually are employed at the famous brothel. A lingerie-clad duo join Peck on a stage in one shot, and they smile and seductively sway, and in other shots, they guide their vacant-eyed male customers through narrow plywood hallways into bedrooms. According to The Chicken Ranch’s Wikipedia page, the women who work there are their own independent contractors—they set their own schedules, rates and services, and come and go as they wish. Like Peck and his friends, they’re cowboys, too.
Toward the end of the video, Peck takes a handheld mirror and faces it onto the viewer. Perhaps he’s simply pointing out that we are nothing but masks. (Insert think-piece about carefully curated and filtered Instagram posts here: ____.) It’s just that Orville Peck’s is see-through.
If you don’t believe us, you clearly haven’t listened to Pony. Click play, turn up the volume, and close your eyes—but not before reading our candid conversation with the incredible artist, below.
Howdy. So, did you always feel like a cowboy? Why do you identify with cowboy imagery?
I have always felt like a cowboy my whole life. I’ve been dressing like one since I was little, and I’ve loved county music my whole life. There seems to be a bunch of different people who think only certain people can be cowboys, but I think that’s complete bullshit. Anybody can be a cowboy—it’s more about a frame of mind than anything.
What draws you to the mask? The hiding-your-identity paired with super revealing songs is a powerful combo. Is that the whole point?
I love masks. I come from a culture where masks are really prevalent – used in ritual and performance. I think that masks enhance a personality and reveal things about a person you would never know otherwise. People get hung up on mine because they think I’m trying to fabricate a mystery or hide, but it’s not about any of those things.
You said in another interview that Orville Peck is a project, not a persona. I know that pre-Orville Peck, you played in punk bands and have a background in theater and dance. Did those past artistic experiences influence Orville Peck?
I am Orville Peck; I am not playing a character. All of my songs are extremely personal to me. I’ve worked as a performer my whole life in many different ways, so this is a culmination of all those disciplines. But the only difference this time was that I wanted it to be completely sincere; I wanted to sing about things I had never even spoken about before. I call it a “project” because I think of it as bigger than just a “band.” It doesn’t end with the music for me – the music is only the beginning.
Several young artists as of late are finding mainstream success with their country-inspired music and/or aesthetics. There’s Lil Nas X breaking Billboard records, there’s Kacey Musgraves winning the Grammy for ‘Album of the Year’ and singing about space cowboys, there’s Megan Thee Stallion rocking her own sexy sartorial yeehaw take… What do you think is going on, and why now?
I think the imagery of a cowboy is rebellious and strong. It has a long history that spans many centuries, cultures and backgrounds. I can respect that might be important to people culturally speaking, but I also believe that purist ideas are meant to be challenged. I love all those people you mentioned because they have the balls to make something their own. That’s why I love the resurgence of cowboy culture in the mainstream spheres – because it’s rebellious.
Your music is connecting with so many. While creating Pony, did you think at all about making a record that hopefully everyone would love? Are you surprised by your diverse fan base?
I didn’t really know who was going to be into my album to be honest, so, no it wasn’t a goal. But it is extremely gratifying and also incredibly ironic that an album about me being this lonesome, ostracized person can bring so many different people together.
I’ve read so many “Why yeehaw is taking over?!!” kind of pieces lately. Obviously some musicians are more sincere than others, but then there are others treating cowboy culture as a fashion trend. What are your thoughts re: the “yeehaw agenda”? Are you annoyed by those who treat cowboy culture as a fashion trend?
It’s been a lifelong dream to finally do what I do now, and to make the music I make now. But I personally don’t have an issue with the idea of the “yeehaw agenda,” and I think even the injection of cowboy culture into fashion or ironically worn by people is great. There are worse things than people walking around with cowboy hats or Reba shirts. That imagery makes me happy; I think it’s such a waste of time to be annoyed by it. Of course that’s gonna just be a passing trend for some people, but as a lifelong fan of country, I’m enjoying seeing more cowboys around.
It seems safe to say that you’re a very visual artist. I’m obsessed with your music videos, especially ‘Dead Of Night.’ I love that you featured sex workers who actually work at The Chicken Ranch in the video. It feels like a super women-positive, sex worker-positive, sex-positive video. Can you tell me more about making the video? Was it important for you to film at The Chicken Ranch?
I felt sincerely honored to be able to film there and work with those ladies. The Chicken Ranch was the real life basis for one of my favorite movies, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, starring Dolly Parton. Our whole cast and crew were welcomed into the Chicken Ranch like family. The women who work there are all incredibly smart, talented and kind. It was important for me to showcase them respectfully as there is such a stigma surrounding sex workers. It felt very emotional and special filming there.
Since you’ve always loved country, can you tell me who you were into growing up? What other genres of music did you listen to?
I loved all kinds of people. But for country, I started when I was little with Dolly, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Marty Robbins. They were like characters from a movie to me or a Broadway musical. Then I started to love the Outlaws: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson. As I got older, I started to go a bit deeper with people like George Jones, George Strait, Gram Parsons, and Townes Van Zandt. Then, onto ‘80s country, I loved Reba, The Judds, Alan Jackson. And then I got into what we called “new country,” but I guess it’s now old country! Like Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks, Deana Carter, The Dixie Chicks. I also grew up listening to punk, gospel, African music, soul, new wave, musicals, rap… I just love music. Period.
Your fans are super dedicated. PeckHeads! Who comes up to you after your shows that touches you the most? Are you ever surprised by anyone who expresses that they’re big Orville Peck fans?
Well, some of the most touching for me are of course when people dress up. Some people make their own masks or go really big on the outfits at my concerts. PeckHead drag queens always look amazing. With regards to interactions, I feel like it’s always emotional when young LGBTQ+ people are so excited to meet me and tell me stories about how they found me or what it means to have a gay voice in country. I never had those interactions growing up, so I think it’s really special that I can be that for people. But for me on a personal level, I also think it’s really nice when straight white men come up and tell me they love me and my music – not because I need to be pandered to or validated by anybody. But because I grew up feeling like such an outsider, those interactions make the young kid in me who was bullied and lonely feel a little emotional. It’s like a big full circle for me in a way.