Orville Peck has a lot of thoughts about identity, which you might consider odd coming from a masked, pseudonym-adopting country musician who never plans on revealing his own. The masks—somewhere between Zorro and a BDSM Lone Ranger—are handmade by Orville himself. He’s always carefully turned out in a variety of cowboy motifs; light wash denim jeans, calf-skin waistcoats, intricately-decorated suits in jewel colours, nd, of course, a wide-brimmed stetson, from under which Orville’s piercing blue eyes, the only really identifiable part of his person, peer out.
It’s not hard to see why many have described his look, name and overall act as a stage persona. But Orville strongly rejects this idea. “The music is all personal and all sincere,” he says. “Everything I sing about is based on my past or things I’ve experienced, or things I went through. What I wear or how I present the project isn’t something that I’m trying to fabricate or create for the sake of mystery or a schtick. The way I like to be an artist, regardless of anything I create, is to have something that’s fully realised – and that includes a look.”
The unavoidable loneliness of living
The music behind the man is just as important in drawing in fans, and it’s every bit as rich in intrigue and imagery as his visual presentation. Orville’s voice is deep and mellifluous. Such is the timbre and resonance of his singing style, it has been compared to Elvis on numerous occasions. But it’s the artist’s songwriting and lyrical prowess that seem to garner the most appealing to his fans. Orville’s songs are vulnerable, full of longing, hope and hopelessness, love lost and never gained in the first place. ‘Pony’ is the album you imagine playing at night as you cruise down a dusty, Southern highway away from the love of your life, or as you watch your highschool crush slow-dance with somebody else at prom. Nevermind that the majority of Orville’s fans will never have these exact experiences—the universal theme of the unavoidable loneliness of living is one that speaks to a huge number of people who find themselves touched by Orville’s music.
Camp technicolour glory
Orville has only very recently burst onto the scene in all his camp technicolour glory. His debut album, ‘Pony,’ released in January, has already earned him a huge following, with Orville being able to count Iggy Pop, k.d. lang, Paris Hilton and Trixie Mattel as part of his diverse and rapidly expanding fan base. Along with this explosive success has come bookings for many major festivals, including Iceland’s own Airwaves festival held in November. Already this year, Orville has performed at the Calgary Stampede, had a feature in Vogue magazine and played to thousands of (self-named) ‘Peck Heads’ at sold out shows across the US and Canada.
But the sudden popularity and media attention have only fuelled the intrigue regarding Orville’s identity. It’s rare for an ‘unknown’ musician—as Orville appears to be on a surface level—to be picked up so quickly by the calibre of the publications and events that have been courting him in the last few months. This has lead to speculation that in a past life, whoever is behind the fringing was already an established player on the scene.
This is something Orville is willing to confirm, albeit without providing any real detail. He talks of having a “theatrical background” and of being a musician his “whole life.” But beyond this, he won’t go into specifics. While he claims the mask is not about achieving anonymity, it’s clear he’d rather leave much of his backstory to the imagination.
Orville Peck is by no means alone in this choice and certainly has a lot of predecessors who have invested heavily in curating a specific on-stage style. Some of the more obvious country examples include Dolly Parton, who famously modelled herself on the town tramp (for the record, Orville sees no difference between Dolly’s wigs and his masks), as well as ‘The Man In Black,’ Johnny Cash. Orville also mentions David Bowie, whom he “grew up idolising” and credits with writing “some of the most incredible, touching, moving music of our lifetime.”
But perhaps more surprisingly, he also sees artists like Oasis as falling into this category of more theatrical performances. “They kind of made a cult of personality around just being these dudes from England with bad attitudes,” he explains. “I don’t think that people necessarily have to be wearing crazy outfits or masks but I think there’s something to be said about going full force with something, even if that turns out looking casual.”
Orville Peck’s look is anything but casual. In order to present his specific brand of camp cowboy culture he works with a creative director for a lot of his visuals, as well as stylists. But despite the obvious care and attention to detail, there is also a lot at play involved in Orville’s stylistic choices. He melds iconic elements from many different eras of folk and country looks to create a vision that is somehow greater than the sum of their parts. The result feels essential, retro yet subversive, perfectly matching his musical output. Both aurally and visually, Orville constantly treads a fine and delicate line between hack and cutting edge and it’s this tension between the two which makes him so fascinating.
Music for the lost generation
It doesn’t come as a surprise to Orville Peck that country music is making a sudden comeback. Alongside his recent popularity, there has been the success of ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X, which, at the time of writing, has held the number one position in the American charts for a consecutive 14 weeks. For Orville, there is a clear reason why the music that many previous generations of young people had deemed passé is finding a somewhat spiritual revival in the current day and age.
“I think the philosophy of a cowboy is really present these days. Everyone’s a bit disillusioned and a little bit fed up with the structures of society.” He laughs. “Everyone kind of wants to get on their horse and blaze their own trail. I think taking things like loneliness or anxiety or feeling unsettled or not really having a purpose where you are—they’re hugely millennial dilemmas, you know what I mean? Our generation goes through those questions all the time, but [country music] is taking those and flipping it, and finding the adventure and the freedom in it. I just think it’s exciting. It’s kind of like reclaiming the power within that.”
See Orville Peck at Iceland Airwaves 2019. Tickets are on sale now.
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Posted August 1, 2019