In a music industry increasingly more obsessed with vanity and stardom, Orville Peck struts his own path. Where other newcomers want their faces plastered under Spotify billboards, Orville Peck’s face remains a mystery hidden behind a mask and frills attached to his Stetson.
Although we know little about his identity and origins, Orville Peck’s debut album, Pony, delivers a diverse collection of stories that reveal his personality through songs of heartbreak, revenge and the unrelenting rough-and-tumble life of a 21st century cowboy. Constantly on the move (he’s lived in five countries), Orville Peck is launching a massive North American tour in Ottawa on Thursday night that will see him play before sold-out crowds from Brooklyn to Albuquerque over the next two months. We reached Orville Peck at his current residence in Toronto, anxious about the snowy spring he’ll encounter upon his Ottawa arrival.
On your upcoming tour you’ve already sold out dates in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Philadelphia, with some of these sell-outs dating back to before the album was even released. That’s pretty impressive for a debut artist. Has this response come as a surprise?
I think it’s definitely been a surprise that people are so excited about the album and seem to connect with it so much. I started this project not really one-hundred percent certain how it was going to be received, but there’s already such a cool fan-base and the fact that the shows are selling so well has been the best thing ever. I took a break from music for about six years, and I had all these little stories in my head that I wanted to make into an album, so it’s been pretty cool to see the attention the album has received so far.
It’s rare for an artist to have their debut collection of songs released by Sub-Pop. What were you doing before this record came out, and what was your experience in music before this album got started?
I’ve played in bands with varying degrees of success since I was eighteen. Some of them you would have heard of, some of them you probably wouldn’t have. I also worked as an actor professionally, was in plays in London’s West End, worked as a dancer in England, trained as a ballet dancer for a period of my life, trained as a classical singer, and worked a bit as a voice-over artist. I’ve done a million different odd jobs, but I’ve always been around in the arts.
Your music contains influences ranging from Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison to The Smiths and The Cure. How were you first turned on to older artists like Orbison or Merle Haggard?
I think it’s pretty much the country that I was raised on. I listened to a lot of female country when I was a kid, like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline—I think that’s because maybe their perspective was closer to mine when I felt like this weird marginalized teenager.
As I got older I started listening to a lot more of the outlaw classics, like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. The first time I heard Johnny Cash was when I picked up the At Folsom Prison album at a thrift store, and I just remember thinking that it was the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Here was this guy singing about shooting people dead while playing in a prison, and all the inmates were just cheering that on. I thought it was the most badass thing I’ve ever heard.
I love that old stuff, but whenever I check out what’s new in country, the artists seem to be more influenced by the Backstreet Boys than Willie Nelson. Do you think that country fans today have been starved for music with that old-time country feel found on Pony?
I think so. There’s an era of radio pop-country that I really like from the late 90s-early 2000s, like the Dixie Chicks, but I would say that in the last ten years I haven’t really been too thrilled from anything I’ve heard on mainstream country radio. I believe a lot of country fans would say the same thing. It’s pretty widely known even among people who run those stations and work for massive country labels that the country music they’re pushing is not that great these days.
I think a lot of people are fed up of that and are seeking more of an Americana vintage sound, which I strongly believe you can achieve today in a new and fresh way. Like I think Kacey Musgraves does that really well. Love her or hate her, she does country music her way while acknowledging where classic country music came from. She disregards where people think country music is supposed to go, and that’s what a good artist does.
Yeah, I had kind of given up on major award shows, but to find out that she won the Grammy for Album of the Year gave me a lot of hope for the potential of individuality in mainstream music.
Absolutely. I remember her first couple albums weren’t really big hits because the country music community didn’t want to support her, and I think that happens a lot with us. I think there’s a lot of indie-country musicians all around North America that are making incredible music, and it’s kind of a genre that’s almost like the new punk or something because it’s really so underground to be an independent country artist today. I feel lucky that I’ve been given a small platform with this album, so I’ve been trying to draw people’s attention to other country musicians that I love or that I find are really cool.
Your masked stage presence seems to be a central focus of the media, whether you welcome it or not. What’s been the biggest challenge in maintaining your anonymity?
It’s a bizarre thing honestly because I don’t really feel like I’m being anonymous. Of course, I’m aware that I’m covering part of my face and “Orville Peck” may or may not be the name that I was born with, but I don’t think that I’m the first person in music to have done either of those things. I don’t think it’s really that crazy or that weird, and I find people seem to really want to focus on it. It’s not like I put on that outfit and didn’t think anyone would notice, but at the same time I think I’ve focused so much on the music and writing of this album that I’ve kind of forgotten about the anonymity part of it. When people ask me about the mask I’m always taken aback because I’m so far beyond my look already.
A lot of people who I really respect and loved growing up, like David Bowie, Grace Jones, Prince, Iggy Pop, and pretty much the entire punk world all essentially masked their identities. Like none of those names are real. I’m definitely not the first person to do this, so I’ve struggled with the focus on it. If someone has heard my music, come into the world of Orville Peck, and done all their homework, and after that if they still can’t get over the fact that I’m wearing a mask and might be using a fake name, then maybe they’re missing the point in all of it. Part of enjoying art is embracing the opportunity of adventure and relinquishing a little bit of control.
You’ll be launching your massive North American tour on Thursday night in Ottawa, have you played here before?
I love Ottawa. I’ve only played there once actually with a previous band, and I remember it being really fun. We played at Babylon and I ate a falafel. I remember trying to figure out where in the city Alanis Morissette lived because I wanted to visit her.
Have you been to The Dominion before? It will be a great setting for an outlaw country show, it can get pretty rough.
That’s okay, I’m a cowboy. I’m really quick on the draw.
Orville Peck plays The Dominion Tavern (33 York St) on Thursday April 11 with support from Casa Lagarto and Ommie Jane. Tickets cost $10 online and are available at Vertigo Records.