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Orville Peck, The Mask Behind the Mask

Mystery Crooner on His New EP, Dolly, and Gardening

By Adeem Bingham, Editor

The one thing everybody knows about Orville Peck is that he is man of great mystery. So I was incredibly nervous for our interview – was he just gonna refuse to answer all my questions?

His new EP “Show Pony” came out two weeks ago and it’s absolutely stunning. In it, he exhumes under-represented aspects of cowboy culture, croons out a chilling cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy,” and sneaks in a power duet with Shania Twain.

On Saturday night, he hosts a livestream with his band and special guests in Vancouver’s beautiful Vogue Theatre. The show supports the many people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to create major productions and are now wholly out of work due to the global pandemic.

I spoke with him over the phone as he was preparing for the show. (Of course, he turned out to be warm and gracious.)

AB: Thanks so much for making time to chat with us today. How are you doing?

OP: I’m very well, thank you. I’m just finishing up rehearsals for the livestream concert that I’m doing on Saturday. I’ve been busy doing that.

AB: What does it look like to be promoting an album right now? Does it feel as busy as if you were on the road – you’re just doing everything digitally?

OP: Definitely doesn’t feel as busy. Yeah, it’s bizarre. I mean, I am a performer first and foremost. That’s what I love the most about what I do and so that’s been really hard.

Promoting a new album without being able to play shows or, you know, have that translated to the live aspect – which I think is quite an important part of what I do – yeah, it’s been really challenging. You know, everything starts to be just promoting yourself on the internet which is, like, my least favorite thing to do.

But that’s where we’re at now, so that’s why I wanted to do this performance that’s going to air on Saturday, and have it not feel like playing your acoustic guitar in your bedroom on a livestream.

AB: Right.

OP: I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t that. I wanted it to feel as much like a concert as we could, and as much of a performance as we could, so we got this beautiful theater and we’re filming it really nicely and we got some cool openers and some surprises and all kinds of things.

As for the rest of the year, I don’t know! I’ve got nothing else on the books for the rest of the year so I’ll have to get the brain cooking and see what I can figure out.

AB: What platform are you using to host the livestream?

OP: It’s called Veeps and it was started by the Madden brothers who are friends of mine and they basically started a ticketed streaming platform where the artists – I know Brandi Carlile’s been involved with them and some other people – and basically the artists make whatever tickets they sell and then what a lot of artists have been doing and what I’m doing too is any profit that’s made is going to support our our band members and our production staff and our tour managers and all of these people who are now completely out of work. They all help us run things when the world is normal and now they’re all completely out of jobs. It’s a really lovely platform that they’ve created.

AB: That’s beautiful. I’m very excited for it. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this: through CQ, something that we’re encountering a lot is this sort of reclamation of country music and southern culture by leftists, counter-culturalists, and queer people, and that’s something that I feel like you’re right in the thick of. So I wanted to ask you what you feel like your role is in that as a participant and as a figurehead.

OP: I had a very unique upbringing in the sense that I got to live a lot of different places because my parents are both self-employed and we didn’t grow up with very much money. But whenever my father – who owned his own recording studio – whenever he would make a bit of money, we would move somewhere new, because my parents both grew up in very poor families and they wanted to give us the opportunity to travel and experience different places as much as we could.

So, I didn’t grow up in the American South. My connection to cowboy culture was always, I think, kind of pastiche, but I had a very deep connection to country music. Not only American country music, but even before that, the idea of what is essentially folk music – not so much as a genre, but more as music of the land you come from. And because I lived in so many different places, I think I got to really find that sort of music that comes from the soul and embodies your surroundings, which is what I feel country does very well. That kind of music always spoke to me.

I knew my whole life that I wanted to be a country singer, but I saw that maybe I was an outsider because I didn’t grow up in Texas or Tennessee or Oklahoma or whatever, and that felt more like what I was afraid was going to hold me back from being a country musician than the idea that I was gay. Because it never really came up for me that country music wasn’t for me in that sense. I listened to Patsy Cline when I was 13 and I remember crying because I thought, ‘This woman sounds so lonely,’ and I felt really lonely at the time. So I just assumed that song was meant for me in particular, and it never came into my head that maybe that song was not intended for me because I was gay. In fact, I think the lyrics and the message of country – it felt like it was even more pertinent to me because I was gay. 

AB: That was a great response. I grew up in the heart of the South so for me there was always this deeply embedded culture that was attached to country music, so I wonder if by being somewhat transient, you were shielded from those negative connotations. 

OP: Yeah. Well, I was lucky enough that, from getting to travel a lot and live in different places and different means, my focus became on something beyond…there’s this misconception about my interpretation of country music as superficial. Some people say that it might be demonstrative or whatever. But the funny thing is that I connected to country music as a very little child – very, very far away from where you’re supposed to listen to country music – so I would argue that my involvement in country music is actually a lot deeper and more sincere because it touched me very far away and I’ve spent my whole life just, in all honesty, being a fan of the art form.

AB: Have you changed your feelings about that since getting involved in the country music industry? Have you experienced any obstacles because of being gay or – ?  I mean, I saw Shania Twain say she was obsessed with you on Instagram, so it seems like there’s a lot of warm receptions to you as an artist. But I am curious if you’ve faced any obstacles because you’re gay.

OP: It’s funny. I think the part of the country music industry that I’ve always wanted recognition from – which I think is probably true for most artists – is the people you look up to and are inspired by or – for instance, CMT has been really wonderful. They’ve really been so supportive of me and they’re such big fans, and that’s so special to me because obviously I grew up loving CMT and watching so many great artists on there, never dreaming I would be involved with it. So, that’s been really lovely. Then, of course, having someone like Shania or Tanya Tucker, who just recently said a whole big thing about me, or hearing through the grapevine of country legends liking what I do, and then also my contemporaries like Midland or Molly Tuttle or Nikki Lane, or these people that respect what I do, and it’s like – that’s what has always encouraged me, is that those people know the most that country music is and has always been for everybody.

And if you know anything about the real history of country music, you know that it’s is actually made from bits of everybody – people and places all over the world. The myopic view that country music exists for, like, straight, white, mostly men from the Southern part of America, is not only an unfair estimation but it’s an inaccurate one. So the people that hold that as their claim to put up a barrier for me for country music? I don’t even acknowledge those barriers, so it’s not even something I feel like I need to break through or jump over, because I just know that those people are incorrect.

AB: I love how bold that is. I wanted to talk about the music video, too, that you just released with Shania Twain. There are a ton of cameo appearances in it, so I wanted to ask you what assembling that list of high-profile LGBT+ folks was like.

OP: It was super easy because – the funny thing about the videos that I make? We always have, from the very beginning – every single video I’ve ever done – I’ve only ever just cast my friends in them or people that inspired me or represented something important that maybe I’d never seen in a country music video before. That’s always been my priority when casting our videos. And I’m very lucky that, especially with “Legends Never Die,” we got to bring back a lot of return cameos of people who have been in some of my other videos. We got to have Jaida Essence Hall, of course, who I’m a huge fan of, and we got to have John Waters intro it, who’s been my idol since I was a kid and who I feel very proud to be able to call my friend now.

So, essentially, I guess it was easy because I’m lucky enough that there’s a mutual respect. When we ask people to be in our videos, it’s usually because they’ve somehow been involved in what I do, or inspired what I do, and so it never feels like casting. It always just feels like a unique opportunity to support one another as I think we really have to do. Especially LGBTQ people who sadly sometimes can tend to – because we’ve been taught this societally – to not really uplift one another but to compete with one another. But the focus for me has always been to try and support those who inspired me.

AB: That’s very cool. I love the intention with which you have representation in your videos and I think that you have a pervasive collaborative spirit about everything you do. That makes sense. 

OP: Thank you.

AB: I listened to the new EP a bunch of times trying to think of interesting things to ask you, and just reflecting on it because it’s a fantastic collection of songs. My favorite is probably the Bobbie Gentry cover. I love that song. I feel like it straddles the line between anguish and hope in such a raw way –

OP: As only a country song can.

AB: Yeah! And your performance is incredible.  It’s such a unique take. It’s very Orville Peck. What inspired you to take that song on and what gave you the idea to run with it?

OP: I’ve had my own journey with that song and, ultimately, the answer to the question is simple. I think that song is timeless and I think the fact that it has been already interpreted multiple ways is a real testament. The first version I heard was the Reba version when I was little. I didn’t know who Bobbie Gentry was until I was probably in my later teens. I always loved the Reba version. I can remember watching the video and thinking it was so dramatic, and I loved the storytelling in it. It felt like I was watching a short film or something.

And then years later, I discovered that it was a cover. I didn’t even know, and then I found out about Bobbie Gentry, and I started to really fall in love with her work. She had this ability to write these incredibly transportive songs where you really just – she really could transport you somewhere with a story. And you couldn’t tell if it was biographical ,and it didn’t even really matter, and it felt like such an experience.

I’ve just always loved that song, and it had these two really important covers that could stand in their own right. I used to do it in my live set and then I finally thought, this song deserves to be covered again from a different perspective, with a proper studio version.

Of course, I wanted to pay respect to the original version and also to the Reba version and also make it my own. And then hopefully 20 years from now, someone else will cover it and take their own spin on it. I guess that was my intention – to give my own take on it in the hopes that someone else might do the same, and then that song can continue to live on and on and on and have all of these different versions. Because I think it is so relatable and it can be interpreted so many different ways and it’s – if you forget the details of the lyrics, I think the basic experience of having to make something out of nothing out of desperation, but then to also try to be proud of that? I think that’s something many people can relate to. 

AB: Absolutely. So how have you been killing time in the time of Covid? What sort of side roads have you been wandering down?

OP: I’ve been gardening a lot. I love gardening. I live in California these days – in LA – so I’ve been taking a lot of drives to the beach. I’m kind of like nature boy, you know? I like to be around nature, animals, plants. That’s what makes me happy outside of making music. I really love wilderness and that’s what I mostly spend my free time doing.

AB: Have you had any good crops from the garden this year?

OP: I have! I’ve just had all my tomatoes and peppers come in. I had my ginger come in. I’ve got a very good crop going right now. I’m waiting for my potatoes to finish, so that will probably be September, October. My grandfather was known as the Potato King of Natal so I’m trying to follow in his footsteps.

AB: Orville Peck: The Potato Prince. I love it. 

OP: That’s it. 

AB: Someone asked me to ask you what’s your favorite Dolly Parton song.

OP: Probably “Tennessee Homesick Blues.” I think it’s the perfect Dolly Parton song in the sense that it sounds so cheerful and upbeat and it’s got a great rhythm, it’s got a great hook, and she does a little yodeling on it. But if you break down the lyrics, it’s actually a very sad song about somebody plucked out of a seemingly simple, small life and trying to adjust to fame. When I think about Dolly Parton who, you know, she has this amazing kind of cheerful, bouncy personality but writes actually very poignant, soulful lyrics that you don’t necessarily pick up on at first.

AB: Great choice. So I asked some friends what they would want to know about you and the number one question was, “Are you single?”

OP: I might be? I don’t know. I don’t usually talk about that, so people will have to just keep guessing on that one.  

AB: I really appreciate you carving some time out for us here at Country Queer.

OP: It’s my pleasure. I love what you guys are doing. 

AB: Anything else you want to add?

OP: Everyone stay safe!

“Orville Peck’s Rodeo” is at 9:00pm EST on the Veep platform. For tickets: orvillepeck.veeps.com.