Who Was That Masked Man?

Catching up with Orville Peck, Sub Pop’s latest underground pop outlaw

Orville Peck

When Orville Peck steps on stage, he creates an immediate impression. He wears cowboy boots, a form-fitting red cowboy outfit and a big ten-gallon hat, but it’s his mask that jumps out at you. A black Lone Ranger mask covers his forehead and a long fringe hangs down from the bottom of the mask, covering his mouth and neck.

Then he starts singing and you forget about the costume. He has a mellow baritone that slips easily up to a keening falsetto – think Roy Orbison at his most Lynchian – that brings his songs of hustlers, loners, forlorn lovers and losers to vibrant life. On, Pony, his first album, he augments his heartfelt lyrics with soaring, ambient soundscapes that mix twanging guitars with the lush sounds of spaghetti western soundtracks. He produced the album and played most of the instruments on it himself, to make sure it captured his unique image of a 21st Century Space Cowboy.

Peck spoke to The Globe about his musical journey from his base of operations in Toronto.


Why do you wear a mask? Does it distract people, or get too much attention on stage?

It’s just part of who I am as Orville Peck. It’s the way I like to expose myself as an artist. There are some deeper things that are fascinating about it, but those are just by-products. I don’t think too much about it, but it is obviously a big part of who I am. It just came to me that I should wear a mask. It was part dream, part inspiration. I can’t explain it any other way.

Sometimes it interferes with the performance, but I’m so used to wearing it, that I don’t notice it’s on, until something goes wrong. Then I think, ‘Oh yeah, I do have two feet of fringe hanging off my face.’ It can get caught on my guitar. I might inhale it into my mouth. If it’s a sweaty venue, it can get bunched up and cover my eyes and I find myself trying to blink it away, but it all goes with the territory.


Why did you choose Pony as the album title?

It has a bunch of different connotations to me. There’s the obvious cowboy connotation and a sad and lonely connotation. It could denote a prized possession or the gift a 16 year-old-girl wants for her birthday. There’s the homoerotic slang aspect, the idea that you have to pony up. It’s the version of the word ‘horse’ that’s used in horse show situations. It’s a dichotomous image to me.

Orville and his dog

You produced your album and played most of the instruments on it. Can you tell us a bit about the process?

The majority of it was recorded and mixed on Gabriole Island, a rural enclave off the West coast of Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s set in an incredibly lush atmosphere. Almost unpopulated and you see deer walking around. There’s a cabin where the band stays. It was a nice setting for capturing the lonely sound of the album. I had my guitarist Duncan Jennings, from my live band, along. He helped arrange the songs and plays on some of them with me. I played drums, guitar, keys, pianos, and had session musicians fill in on certain tracks. I had an incredible banjo player, Tina Jones, play on a couple of songs. She lives on the island. The songs were predominately written about the Pacific North West, so it was good to record them up there.

As a producer, you need the confidence to know the choices you’re making are the right ones. There’s a lot of going down the wrong path for a few hours, then starting over again, because there’s no one there to catch it. I did have a set idea of what I wanted it to be and how I wanted it to sound. I’d like to work with different producers in the future, in a more collaborative way, but I do like to having the reigns most of the time.


Your lyrics and singing have a quiet, confessional quality. It works well with the wide-open, cinematic sound of the music.

Some of things I’m singing about are quite personal, things from my past that I never talked about, or sang about, before. I do it as sincerely as possible. I want to get the story across, so I sing like I’m singing to a friend.

Musically, my approach is visual. I have imagery in my mind when I approach the sound of a song. I taught myself how to play all the instruments I play, so I don’t come from a skilled technical place. I come at it from a more creative, visual place, to make up for that. I have a whole storyline set out in my head and that results in the ideas for the music videos. The response to the videos is good, because the visuals and the sounds all come from the same place.


Can you tell us about the punk bands you were in before you went into country music?

My dad played folk guitar and was a sound engineer. He toured with The Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Geordie, Brian Johnson’s band before AC/DC – a lot of glam rockers. My mom’s father taught himself to play many instruments, so I think it got passed down to me. My mom’s creative with her hands and taught me how to sew. She makes artistic tapestries and whatnot. The house was full of books and music, everything from rock to Broadway musicals, and we went to the movies a lot.  

By the time I was 21, we’d lived in four different countries. I got exposed to other cultures and people. I enjoyed the traveling. When I was in punk bands, I played guitar and drums and made some albums, but nothing I care to mention. I was on the road a lot, but country was always in the background. I grew up listening to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings. I liked the drama and the storytelling in the songs. It’s very robust, almost theatrical at times. There’s no room for apathy. Every song has a rich point of view.  


VIDEO: Orville Peck – Big Sky

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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