By Maggie McPhee
“Who was that masked man?” was a classic query in classic westerns. The answer used to be “the Lone Ranger” but now it’s Orville Peck, a risk taking and mysterious Canadian musician determined tor reinvent the country sound.
“North America feels the most like the Wild West than it has in a long time,” says Peck over the phone in a steady voice, worlds away from his baritone that belts out ballads of heartbreak and loneliness on his glimmering debut, Pony.
“The rules don’t really matter that much anymore, largely on a negative scale,” he says. But to him these tumultuous times also inspire subversive artists that reject the status quo and make their own rules, “like outlaws.”
Peck embraces the contradictions of being a country musician; a rebel and performer, clad in rugged jeans and bedazzled satin shirts, craving normalcy and seeking freedom, embracing machismo and homoeroticism. The phallic imagery evoked by his 10-gallon hat and fringed leather mask is probably no accident. Within these fluid binaries, he molds masculine western tropes into something personal for him as a queer musician.
At the core of this alchemy lies a sense of respect for himself and for country music listeners. “A mainstream country radio station would look at what I do and think it’s too inappropriate for their listeners,” Peck says. “But I receive messages every day from middle aged white men who live in Alabama telling me they’re driving their kids to school every day with their wife and they’re all listening to ‘Dead of Night’ in the car.”
Country music audiences are dying for diversity and Peck feels part of pushing for the genre’s comeuppance. He harkens back to his punk roots, laughing that being a “weird country star” feels like being a punk rocker because he’s rallying against this “facade of what people are still trying to push as country music.”
His fans tell Peck they crave fresh perspectives and idiosyncratic stories. They want to outgrow country music’s “stigma of being a conservative, bland pedestrian genre.”
Pony stands in bold opposition to these stereotypes. Peck assembles sprawling and sparkling landscapes within which his cast of outsiders love, lose, and long. On opener “Dead of Night,” drawn out chords craft a never-ending desert for he and his man to drive through.
Peck’s lingering, rumbling vocals on “Big Sky” carve a skyscape expansive enough to hold a lineage of ex-lovers. And on “Buffalo Run,” thrashing guitar and rhythmic drums transmute into stampeding buffalo.
Setting plays a major role in Peck’s storytelling. “When I started putting together these songs, the places I’ve visited and the people I’ve met, those are the things that have really stuck with me.” Having been on the move his whole life, from the Pacific Northwest to London, England, to Toronto, Peck developed a strong memory connection to environment. “It’s definitely important to the cowboy and western aesthetic because it’s so much about travelling and being this nomadic soul,” he explains. “You leave a little piece of yourself everywhere and you take a little piece with you as well.”
These pieces sneak into Pony in subtle ways. Peck draws inspiration from his experiences on the road as well as his personal obsessions with theatre, cinema and a slew of musical genres. He cites new wave, gospel, girl groups, punk and 80s rock as things he enjoys that “just had to kind of creep in for the record.” The end result is a sound “rooted in outlaw country” that can travel into rougher territory and sometimes soars into glittery falsetto. “I think if you’re doing anything with sincerity it will always have a uniqueness to it,” he says.
Peck has just started his first full North American tour. “I’m not really a fan of apathy,” he says of performing. “You can expect a lot of drama and cool outfits and stories wrapped up with sincerity, hopefully to come and hang out in Orville Peck’s world for a while.”
Orville Peck performs May 19 in Vancouver at the Wise Hall, May 23 in Calgary at Commonwealth, May 25 in Edmonton at the Starlite Room.Commonwealth, Orville Peck, Starlite Room, The Wise Hall