“You know what? This is a new one and I haven’t named her yet…” explains cool country music’s most wanted man of mystery. Orville Peck is, of course, talking about his trademark mask, while delicately fingering the long blue fringe that falls from a band of black leather across his eyes and swings down to the middle of his chest.
“Any suggestions?” asks Peck, before mentioning a gold, sparkly number called Iris that he might slip into later. Lucille? we offer, getting into the old-school country and western spirit by summoning the late Kenny Rogers’ signature song, an artist he recently paid tribute to during an acoustic live-streamed lockdown session on Instagram. “Lucille!” he hoots. “I can go with that!”
Charming, talented and utterly unique, Peck was born to be a star. 18 months ago he was just another singer-songwriter signed to an indie record label – in his case, grunge stalwart Sub Pop – with a decent gig at London’s tiny Shacklewell Arms and a collection of badlands blues ballads under his belt. That all changed after the release of his stunning debut album ‘Pony’ in 2019.
It wasn’t just the vibrancy and originality of the songs – authentic, heartbreaking tales sung by an out queer man, a true rarity in country music – that got people interested. It was the look, too: that of a Grand Ole Opry showstopper, dazzling in 10-gallon Stetson hats, satin Western shirts and the finest chaps this side of Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirrty’ video. Not to mention, of course, those masks.
Here was a man who was baring his soul but not his face – and it worked. Orville Peck quickly took pop culture by storm and ‘Summertime’, his latest single released earlier this week, looks set to keep him in our hearts for the coming months, too. A full-bodied but bittersweet slow dance that offers the same mellow majesty as Berlin’s 1980s power ballad ‘Take My Breath Away’, it couldn’t be more apt for a self-isolating world that’s had to hit its own personal pause button for the foreseeable future.
“Summertime has a few different meanings,” he has said of the song. “Summertime can be a season, a person, or a memory of a happier time that can be difficult to visit. Ultimately this is a song about biding your time and staying hopeful – even if it means missing something or someone.”
On his way to the top, Peck has befriended new country convert Diplo, worked the Grammys red carpet like a pro and secured high-profile arena-sized support slots with everyone from The Killers to Harry Styles (he’s set to appear with the latter at two huge ‘Harryween’ gigs at New York’s Madison Square Garden in October). The fashion world adores him too: he’s found himself on the covers of Harper’s Bazaar and GQ Style and on the front row of a Dior Men’s show in Miami alongside Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, Kate Moss, Travis Scott and David Beckham.
“It’s been outrageous,” admits Peck, evidently not taking the whole thing too seriously. “I get to laugh a little bit at it and also enjoy it and I think that’s the way to go into that world.”
Despite his nonchalance, fashion’s love affair with Peck shows no signs of slowing down. In February, he and his band performed at designer Michael Kors’ New York Fashion Week runway show, models slinking down the catwalk in oversized ponchos to the plaintive strains of Peck’s haunting, Elvis-worthy twang.
Peck’s look for his pre-coronavirus NME cover shoot is every bit as fabulous as you’d expect. As well as the elegant Lucille, he’s rocking full cow-print, complete with a classic plaid shirt, John Wayne-worthy blue jeans and a shiny belt buckle that could blind you from 30 paces. Later he changes into a brand-new, equally exceptional outfit, one that features a bolo tie and embroidered scarlet suit that looks freshly plucked from the racks of Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors – the cowboy couture favourite of Hank Williams and Gram Parsons.
“People have a stigma about country music”
It’s this commitment to old-school starriness that sets Peck apart. And despite his seemingly swift rise to fame, he’s been shooting towards his moment in the spotlight for years. “I’ve been working at being a performer my entire life, since I was 10 years old,” explains Peck. “So in some ways I really feel like I’ve paid my dues and in some ways it feels very whirlwind and enthralling and surprising and wonderful.”
Rumours online abound about Peck’s true identity and his previous musical projects, but he isn’t comfortable with such speculation, insisting that attempts to ‘unmask’ him take away not only from his freedom of artistic expression but also feed into a homophobic takedown of him and his work.
“Traversing this industry as a gay country musician I already endure daily hate, bullying, aggression and people actively trying to discredit what I do,” he wrote in a statement released in October last year. “So whether or not Orville was the name I was born with is irrelevant. I understand there is a temptation to try and unmask what I do, but to do so would be to miss the point entirely. All I ask is that people respect my work (and more importantly) my fans enough to maintain this crucial part of my expression as an artist.”
Authenticity runs deep in Peck’s output. A true country fan, he boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, particularly the razzle-dazzle 1970s sound led by Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Dolly Parton.
“When I first discovered her I thought that she was like a character; I didn’t really know that she was a real person making music,” Peck says of iconic crossover diva Dolly. But it’s that blurred line between fiction and reality that he loves. “That’s the beauty of that age of country music that inspires me – these heightened versions of yourself. So it’s really sincere on one hand and on [the other] hand it’s larger-than-life, but it’s nice that those things can live side-by-side.”
Peck’s favourite classic country star, though, is outlaw singer Merle Haggard. A former juvenile delinquent, Haggard turned his life around when he saw Johnny Cash play the notorious San Quentin Prison in 1959, then started upon his own hugely successful musical journey.
“He holds back a lot, but by doing that I think he revealed a lot,” explains Peck of Haggard’s reserved approach. It’s also why Peck connects with him so strongly. “I’m not a very open person naturally, but I think that sincerity has come through my music and my lyrics because I find it very hard to be open [in everyday life].”
This heartfelt expression of emotion makes Peck’s tales of lonesome cowboys, wandering drag queens and lovelorn rebels all the more moving. “I think storytelling, and connecting sincerity with storytelling, is really missing in a lot of art these days,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of posturing and I think people like to connect with something that’s genuine but also has boldness and dramatic flair attached to it as well.”
And there’s plenty of dramatic flair when it comes to Orville Peck. The sumptuous ‘Summertime’ video sees him go full nature boy, coming on like a leather trouser-wearing Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz’s infamous poppy field scene. And the lavish, eight-minute video for the moody, Roy Orbison-esque ‘Queen Of The Rodeo’ is more like a David Lynch short film than a pop promo for an independent artist. A statuesque Peck opens the video on horseback before glamorous cameos from model Tess Holliday, burlesque stars Delilah DuBois, Minxie Mimieux and Elle Dorado and drag queen Louisianna Purchase create a glimmering slice of beautifully oddball Americana.
“Lana Del Rey has melancholy, solitary power – which essentially is a cowboy”
There are hints in the video, too, of the graceful trash and high camp exacted by John Waters. During a recent Instagram Live session Peck called up the cult director, who has long been an inspiration to the singer, as is Waters’ late muse, the boundary-breaking drag artist Divine Peck calls “one of the most unique people to have ever existed on the planet”.
It’s in Waters’ twisted way with the everyday that Peck finds joy. “I find normalcy and mundane shit the weirdest and funniest stuff and I think that’s kind of the same eye that John Waters has,” he says. “I think it’s [about] finding the strange and unique things in mundane stuff, rather than searching for it in something seemingly unusual.”
Peck and his band slot a classic country cover into all of their live shows. Favourites include Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ ‘Ooh, Las Vegas’; Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Fancy’; George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s ‘Something To Brag About’ and Dolly’s ‘I Will Always Love You’. These tracks aren’t just slotted in because they’re great songs; they’re also there to educate the crowd about the roots of the music Peck loves and to prove that what he’s doing isn’t so out-there after all.
“I think people have a stigma about country music,” he says. “They see what I do and they think that it’s really different and that they can connect with it because it’s different. I appreciate that part of it, but everything I do is inspired and based on really classic tropes of country. I like to expand people’s ideas of what country music really is.”
Peck admires and respects the rebellious, confident approach of artists such as Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and even Dolly – all of them did everything on their own terms. And he’s adamant that many artists today are carrying that torch but wielding that same outlaw energy outside of country music.
“I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in pop music at the moment,” explains Peck. “You have someone like Billie Eilish, which isn’t to my ears typical Top 40 music. It has a lot more depth than I was anticipating when I first heard about her. I think the rap world always has a lot of cowboy energy – Megan Thee Stallion, Tierra Whack, that new crew. Doja Cat, who I really like, and Rico Nasty. I think with the new crop of – especially female – rappers, there’s a lot of cowboy energy going on there.”
Someone else Peck feels an affinity with: Lana Del Rey, whose ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ he sometimes performs live. “She has a real lonely melancholy solitary power, which essentially is a cowboy,” he says. “That’s how I’ve felt my whole life.”
Despite his all-American sound, Orville Peck has strong ties to the UK. In early interviews he spoke about performing onstage in the West End and tells NME that he lived in London for five years, bouncing around various homes in Hackney before moving to Streatham Common. “But once I moved to Streatham I lost all my friends because everyone thinks they need their passport to visit south London!” he laughs.
“Ha! I don’t think so! I would know if he was there. He’d be standing in the corner, being like, ‘Little fucking idiot up there with his cowboy hat’,” chuckles Peck, offering an attempt at a Mancunian accent that we’ll generously mark four out of 10. “The thing I love about Oasis is that they built a legend and a brand on just being, like, dicks. Just being rude! I just think that that’s incredible.”
Liam, of course, has spent the UK’s lockdown creating increasingly unhinged handwashing PSA videos on social media. Shortly before this interview reaches your eyeballs, NME checks in to hear how Peck is coping with the current coronavirus pandemic (just in case he too is losing it over a dispenser of Dove soap). “I’m self-isolating because I think if we are all responsible for a small amount of time we can definitely come back from this,” he says, sagely. “Everybody’s safety and health should always be the priority. I’m lucky that I can spend this time to work on making art and music – but it all feels very strange.”
“Oasis built a legend on being dicks. That’s incredible”
Peck had been one of the very first artists booked to play both California’s uber-mainstream Coachella and honky-tonking country festival Stagecoach – which both take place on the same site every April – but like every other artist around, his gigs for the next few months have either been postponed or cancelled. He is, though, optimistic: “Economically it will be tough but I think art has always persevered and even thrived through the worst of times. If anything, we can always find hope in that.”
So, what next for the cowboy who has everything? Well, album number two is currently in the works, but will it delve even deeper into that traditional country sound or veer into new territories?
“I think both of those things,” he says. “For me, ‘Pony’ was exactly what I wanted it to be, which was my love letter to classic country as well as all the influences that I’ve been inspired by my whole life, which exceed country and they’re all over the place. I think with the next album it’s gonna be that – just deeper.”
It’s also fair to say that ‘Pony’ is a pretty sad record. Will its follow-up be any happier, especially considering Peck’s runaway success? “I don’t think it’s going to be the B-52s or anything!” he honks. “I’m definitely in a happier place now than I was when I wrote ‘Pony’, but unfortunately, along with a lot of other people, no matter how good my life gets or how well things are going, I seem to still carry a healthy dose of sadness inside of me.” We can’t think of anything more country than that.
Orville Peck’s latest single, ‘Summertime’, is out now.