Orville Peck masks modern anxieties in cowboy fringe

The Toronto breakout singer on millennial cowboys, fan tattoos and the similarities between drag queens and country stars


ORVILLE PECK with LE REN at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (October 18), doors 8:30 pm. Sold out. Peck also performs at the Danforth Music Hall (147 Danforth), December 5, doors 7 pm. $18.50-$27.50. ticketmaster.ca.


How long does it take to reach the level of stardom where fans get your face tattooed on their bicep? 

For Orville Peck, it’s less than one year. 

The Toronto-based country crooner released his debut album Pony (Royal Mountain/Sub Pop) this past March. Six months later, he posted a gallery on Instagram of his face (in his signature fringed masks) forever rendered on the arms and legs of nine “Peckheads.”

“Of course it’s flattering and cool, but it doesn’t feel normal,” Peck laughs. “It’s a reminder that the stuff I sing about and what I do connects with people enough that they want to make it a permanent part of themselves.” 

Peck is arguably Toronto’s biggest musical breakout of the year. He went from playing the Monarch Tavern in January to nearly selling out his first full-length North American tour, landing photo shoots in Vogue and GQ and nabbing a spot on the Polaris Prize long list. He’s currently in the midst of a four-month tour that started in London, England, and will finish at the Danforth Music Hall in December, which was added after his upcoming Lee’s Palace show sold out in one day. 

Part of Peck’s appeal is his aesthetic. He wears a fringed Lone Ranger-style mask that conceals his identity, cowboy hats and bedazzled Nudie suits, a style that inadvertently capitalizes on the zeitgeist’s current obsession with cowboy culture generated by artists like Kacey Musgraves and Lil Nas X.

But it’s not just an outfit selling out shows, amassing critical success and attracting high-profile fans like actor Busy Philipps and drag queen Trixie Mattel. It’s Peck’s deeply personal songs: moody ruminations on loneliness, unrequited love and anxiety disguised in cowboy mythology, sung in his brooding baritone that evokes greats like Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. 

A musician adopting a super-stylized persona isn’t groundbreaking in the country canon (see Dolly Parton’s wigs) or in the current mainstream (see H.E.R.’s ever-present sunglasses), but any whiffs of inauthenticity or overt branding can be met with skepticism, especially from the genre’s boundary-policing fans. Peck was prepared for this. 

“I knew I was going to be scrutinized, like I was a shtick or trying to appropriate something,” he says, before I even bring up the question of persona. 

“Dolly Parton has this great quote, and I’m paraphrasing, but once when she was asked why she wears wigs and those outfits, she said, ‘Well, I had to get their attention some way and then they’d listen and know I could sing.’ I really respect that because what I do musically is very passionate and genuine – like it or not.” 

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SAMUEL ENGELKING

The birth of Orville Peck

As you may have already guessed, Orville Peck is not Orville Peck’s real name. He’s purposefully vague on autobiographical details and fiercely protective of his identity. 

This is what he will say on the record: He is gay and moved around a lot when he was kid – Africa, Europe, all over Canada and the United States – and lived in five different countries by the time he was 21. He’s been performing since he was a kid, trained in ballet and tap dance, taught himself how to play guitar and piano, eventually started drumming in punk bands in the Pacific Northwest before going into acting and theatre, studying Jacques Lecoq’s mask work. 

In the summer of 2017, he moved back to the west coast and, after a six-year hiatus from punk, decided to return to music. But this time, as a country singer/songwriter. 

“I’ve always wanted to make country music, but in some ways, I didn’t have the guts to do it,” he says. 

In order to “do the project justice” and bring the kind of vulnerability and honesty that he admires in legends like Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard, Peck says he had to let go of his insecurities. 

“All the things I felt plagued by for so long or saw as my downfalls – my emotional shortcomings, anxiety, inability to sit still – I realized those things, experiences and stories were actually the most interesting part of me because they are who I am.” 

After writing a handful of songs, he drove from Vancouver to Toronto in 2018, where he started his transformation into Orville Peck in earnest. 

While some bands spend years gigging across the country and releasing EPs or singles, Peck just seemed to appear one day, like an outlaw riding into town. 

He quickly got a backing band together – which comprises three-quarters of the post-punk grunge band Frigs (drummer Kris Bowering, guitarist Duncan Hay Jennings and vocalist and guitarist Bria Salmena) and bassist Kyle Connolly (formerly of Beliefs and Wish) – recorded Pony and sent it around to record labels. When executives expressed interest and wanted to see him perform live, Peck called in a favour with his friend King Tuff and lined up an opening slot at the Horseshoe Tavern. Around six months after that first show, Peck signed to venerable indie label Sub Pop and Toronto’s Royal Mountain. 

Rooted in personal experiences and packed with yee-haws, Peck’s songs mix sincerity and wit in ways that connect deeply with his fans.

First single Big Sky, a stripped-down ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place in Twin Peaks, is about the ex-lovers he knew were bad for him, while Buffalo Run’s surf rock crescendos run alongside flirty references to BDSM. On the quintessential torch song Dead Of Night, his voice soars as he repeats in the chorus, “see the boys as they walk on by it’s enough to make a young man…” before cutting himself off. 

“It’s about a specific experience of loving someone you know can’t love you back,” Peck explains. “But just living in this fantasy because even though it hurts so bad to know that person can’t love you back, it’s better than having nothing at all. That’s something that I did a lot when I was young.” 

Who can’t relate to that?

The modern cowboy

In the past few years, country music – which has traditionally been dominated by straight white Americans singing about pickup trucks and small town livin’ – has broadened to include a variety of new voices and perspectives. 

Kacey Musgraves has racked up Grammys while Lil Nas X has broken records and rewritten country music history with Old Town Road. In indie music, Mitski released the brilliant Be The Cowboy, a title born out of the practice of asking herself “what would a cowboy do?” whenever she saw herself acting in a way the world expects of Asian women (submissive, eager to please). Mac DeMarco’s Here Comes The Cowboy was inspired by his roots growing up in Alberta, where people “sincerely wear cowboy hats and do cowboy activities.” And in hip-hop and R&B, artists like Solange, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion have strapped on chaps and boots. 

All of this is to say: 2019 seemed primed for Orville Peck. 

“When I was little, I always loved cowboys and Westerns,” says Peck. “I was a weird, lonely kid. I didn’t have many friends growing up. Maybe this was out of desperation, but I liked the idea of solitude [being] adventurous. I think that’s what a cowboy is: someone who takes that sense of feeling like they don’t fit in and finding the adventure, freedom and power within it rather that letting it set you back.” 

He describes a photo of himself when he was eight years old. He’s wearing a Jurassic Park T-shirt with a red-and-white handkerchief covering half his face. He’s hamming it up for the camera, holding the brim of his black hat. “That classic image of a cowboy has been part of me forever,” he says. 

Peck believes the current cowboy moment speaks to how bleak the world can be for millennials who feel marginalized and fed up with the status quo.

“The most iconic [country] motif is a cowboy getting on a horse and riding off into the sunset,” Peck says. “For our generation, that doesn’t sound too bad.”

The masked singer

On stage and during interviews, Peck always wears a mask. He has around 20 now, each with different lengths and colours of fringe. He sews them himself, a skill he learned from his mother when he was a kid. 

Since Peck came onto the scene last year, he’s been repeatedly asked why he chooses to wear a mask. His answers are usually the same: he’s following a long-standing legacy of country stars who also played with persona (like Johnny Cash and his black suit) the mask allows him to be more vulnerable on stage that costume and genuineness are not incompatible. 

Peck sees a correlation between country music and drag, an art form that he loves and admires. He and Trixie Mattel, the Dolly Parton-singing drag queen, are close friends who chat almost daily, and last month Peck was invited to attend RuPaul’s Dragcon, a massive fan convention in New York City. 

“I think the misconception about drag – and sometimes that misconception about what I do – is that it’s a character or just putting on a costume,” says Peck. “Drag is a super-heightened aesthetic, but there’s sincerity running through it. A good drag queen, kind of like a good country star, is bold, colourful, [has] a story and an aesthetic, but there’s a lot of truth behind it.” 

Peck’s identity is an open secret online. It’s been mentioned (though not officially confirmed) in other articles, on Wikipedia and Reddit. It’s also listed in credits on AllMusic and Discogs. 

When I ask him about it in a follow-up phone interview, the line goes quiet for eight seconds – long enough that I wonder if our call was disconnected. But he’s still there, and audibly annoyed by my question. I start to backpedal slightly and say he can respond however he feels comfortable. Instead, he ends the interview. 

In the age of massive data breaches, tech conglomerates owning our personal information and the omnipresence of over-sharing on social media, it seems almost quaint that a person in the public eye could keep their identity secret. (Not that it’s impossible: masked rapper Leikeli47’s real name is still unknown, at least in the first few pages of Google.) 

But Peck insists on keeping his real name out of the press. In an emailed statement sent after our phone interview, he writes “Orville Peck is not a character or a persona…. I have worked as an artist my entire life, and traversing this industry as a gay country musician I already endure daily hate, bullying, aggression and people actively trying to discredit me. 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.”

Back at the photo shoot, as Peck shoots fake pistols for the camera, his partner and bandmates are selling off all their stuff in Trinity Bellwoods Park. They’re going on tour for so long, they’ve given up their apartments. And last month, the band recorded new songs in Nashville – “some are fuller and bigger, others way more stripped back,” Peck says – and expects to release new music soon. 

He still feels like somewhat of an interloper in Toronto. Even with his newfound success, he says, he’s still pretty anti-social and has a hard time making new friends.

“I’m around, but I’m laying low.” 

After the interview and photo shoot wrap, he leaves the studio still in his Orville Peck garb: a yellow fringed mask, a red cowboy hat he got at a trading post somewhere in northern Ontario, an authentic rodeo shirt gifted by a stylist and boots adorned with buckles and straps. 

I take a peek out the window and see Peck waiting for his ride. He’s swapped his cowboy hat for a baseball cap, the rodeo shirt for a white T-shirt and is wearing Converse instead of boots. He gets into the car and rides off into the sunset.

READ MORE:

How women musicians use persona to subvert gendered expectations

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