Interview by Kurt B. Reighley
Enigmatic Canadian crooner Orville Peck is making waves everywhere from NPR to Vogue with his Sub Pop debut Pony, a set of haunting country ballads with a distinctly queer aesthetic. Following his slot supporting the sold-out Lord Huron show at Tucson's Rialto Theater last month, he kindly spared a few minutes to discuss his mellifluous baritone voice, his omnipresent mask, and the drags queens who helped make him the man he is today.
Queer visibility has come slower to country music than other corners of the entertainment industry. In the 46 years since LGBT combo Lavender Country released its groundbreaking self-titled debut, only a handful of Nashville hitmakers (Ty Herndon, Chely Wright) have come out publicly as gay or lesbian. But now there's Orville Peck, an enigmatic Canadian with a flair for Western duds – even his omnipresent facekini sports fringe – and a mellifluous baritone in the tradition of Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, and Richard Hawley.
Pony, Peck's debut set of haunting ballads about cowboys, hustlers, and other outlaws, dropped back in April on Sub Pop. He's just released a striking video for "Hope to Die" (which opens with an homage to Vivienne Westwood's iconic "Cowboys" T-shirt) and a string of sold-out dates supporting Lord Huron has segued into an epic international tour. Orville kindly took a few minutes after his recent Tucson show to chat about that voice, that mask, and his favorite contestants on RuPaul's Drag Race.
Have you ever been inspired by a drag queen?
I'm pretty inspired by drag queens in general. That song ("Queen of the Rodeo") in particular is about a queen named Thanks Jem. She's originally from Winnipeg, and lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada. It takes such incredible artistry to do what drag queens do. They often spend copious amounts of money – thousands and thousands of dollars – on wigs and makeup and outfits, and then they're performing in bars for a hundred dollars in tips.
Drag is a thankless art form in a lot of ways. Things like RuPaul's Drag Race and wider exposure to drag is helping with that, but it's still pretty subversive. It takes a lot of dedication and guts to be a drag queen, and usually there's very little thanks. I have a lot of respect for drag queens.
Who were you rooting for on Drag Race this past season?
This season? It got weird. I feel like people got eliminated who maybe shouldn't have. My favorite was Shuga Cain, because her narrative is really funny. And Yvie Oddly.
Have you ever done drag?
Just once. Thanks Jem, who that song is about, was one of my drag mothers, as well as this queen named Jane Smoker. They're the ones who put me in drag. It was great, but a very nerve-wracking experience. Walking in heels is difficult.
You have a musical theater background. Did you come into your own as a singer with or without microphones?
I started singing without microphones, and have had to learn how to use them. I've been singing both ways for a long time, I've been singing since I was a kid, but I only found my voice in the last five years.
Were there any singers you emulated or admired?
I was always drawn towards crooners, Roy Orbison and people like that. I like the low timbre of male voices but I wasn't able to sing that way for a long time. Eventually, through a lot of training, I found that voice. Originally I was a tenor, but now I have a pretty extensive range.
You've mentioned LGBTQ+ country pioneer Patrick Haggerty's band, Lavender Country, in interviews. What other queer musicians do you admire?
I'm a fan of all musicians, queer or otherwise. I definitely liked a lot of queer punk bands like Huggy Bear, the '90s British riot grrrl band. I was a big Germs fan and obviously Darby Crash was gay, and k.d. lang was always a big inspiration.
Masks have been part of Western theater since the days of ancient Greece. Do you consider your own masks part of a theatrical tradition?
It's just part of my face and a part of who I am. My overall aesthetic draws a lot of rodeo performers and old Westerns, iconic cowboy figures. Lots of fringe.
Is the mask meant to be part of a narrative about queer visibility?
The mask isn't a political statement or anything like that. I do try to be very sincere in my songwriting, which is almost entirely autobiographical. I'm just a country western performer, and this is how I express myself. This isn't a persona; it's who I am. I try to maintain a sincerity about who I am, the things I stand for and the experiences I've had.
The mask has definitely allowed me to be more open with regards to what I write about and sing about. It's encouraged me. I wasn't hiding who I was before, but the mask has encouraged me and helped with my confidence, being able to write and perform really personal songs the way I want to, without as much insecurity as I had just as a person before.
What's next for Orville Peck?
A lot more touring. I'm excited to go to places where we haven't played yet, for fans who are eager to hear us play. I like to interact with fans and find out what their connection to the music is, and I love to perform. We didn't really anticipate the kind of wonderful response we've had on this tour. None of us knew what the reaction was going to be until it started happening. The shows that we're planning now are going to be in bigger venues. And then it's time to start working on the next album.
Orville Peck on Tour
Jul. 05 - Calgary, AB - Calgary Stampede*
Jul. 14 - Guelph, ON - Hillside Festival
Jul. 18 - Field, ON - River & Sky Festival
Jul. 27 - West Grey, ON - Crystal Lake Music Festival
Aug. 03 - London, UK - Visions Festival
Aug. 07 - Oslo, NO - Oya Festival
Aug. 08 - Gothenburg, SE - Way Out West Festival
Aug. 10 - Venlo, NL - Zomerparkfeest
Aug. 14 - Santa Ana, CA - The Observatory
Aug. 15 - San Diego, CA - The Casbah
Aug. 17 - Los Angeles, CA - The Troubadour (SOLD OUT)
Aug. 18 - Los Angeles, CA - The Troubadour (SOLD OUT)
Aug. 19 - San Francisco, CA - Swedish American Music Hall (SOLD OUT)
Aug. 21 - Ogden, UT - Ogden Amphitheater**
Aug. 22 - Boise, ID - Knitting Factory**
Aug. 23 - Portland, OR - Keller Auditorium**
Aug. 24 - Fort Worden, WA - The Thing
Aug. 26 - Victoria, BC - Capital Ballroom
Aug. 27 - Vancouver, BC - Commodore Ballroom
Sep. 06 - Raleigh, NC - Hopscotch Music Festival
Sep. 12 - Lansdowne Park, OT - City Folk Festival
Sep. 18 - Montreal, QC - La Sala Rossa
Sep. 19 - Somerville, MA - ONCE Ballroom
Sep. 20 - Brooklyn, NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg (SOLD OUT)
Sep. 21 - Washington, DC - Union Stage
Sep. 24 - Atlanta, GA - The Purgatory Room at The Masquerade (SOLD OUT)
Sep. 25 - Ybor City, FL - Crowbar
Sep. 26 - Orlando, FL - The Social
Sep. 28 - New Orleans, LA - Gasa Gasa
Sep. 30 - Houston, TX - White Oak Music Hall
Oct. 01 - Dallas, TX - Club Dada
Oct. 03 - Kansas City, MO - The Record Bar
Oct. 04 - St. Louis, MO - Blueberry Hill
Oct. 05 - Chicago, IL - Lincoln Hall
Oct. 06 - Grand Rapids, MI - The Pyramid Scheme
Oct. 08 - Columbus, OH - Ace of Cups (SOLD OUT)
Oct. 09 - Cleveland, OH - Grog Shop
Oct. 10 - Philadelphia, PA - The Foundry
Oct. 12 - Austin, TX - Austin City Limits Festival
Oct. 15 - Brooklyn, NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg
Oct. 18 - Toronto, ON - Lee’s Palace (SOLD OUT)
Oct. 22 - Dublin, IE - The Grand Social
Oct. 23 - Glasgow, UK - Mono
Oct. 24 - Leeds, UK - Brudenell Social Club
Oct. 27 - Brighton, UK - Green Door Store
Oct. 28 - London, UK - Scala
Oct. 30 - Manchester, UK - YES (Pink Room)
Oct. 31 - Antwerp, BE - Filter Festival
Nov. 04 - Copenhagen, DK - Loppen
Nov. 08 - Hamburg, DE - Nochtwache
Nov. 09 - Berlin, DE - Maze
Nov. 10 - Munich, DE - Folks! Club
Nov. 12 - Zurich, CH - Rote Fabrik
Nov. 13 - Turin, IT - Maison Musique
Nov. 14 - Bologna, IT - TPO ^
Nov. 19 - Madrid, ES - Wurlitzer
Nov. 20 - Barcelona, ES - Sidecar
Nov. 22 - Milan, IT - Linecheck Festival
* w/ Feist
** w/ Calexico and Iron & Wine
^ w/ Deerhunter
All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.