Published Jan 02, 2019Orville Peck is all about the fringe — and not just the trim that hangs at the bottom of his trademark leather mask. The enigmatic country crooner, who recently signed to Royal Mountain and Sub Pop Records, is harkening back to a time when the outlaw ruled the wild west.
"Mainstream, national radio country doesn't sound very country anymore," Peck tells Exclaim! "I feel like they're trying to be acceptable to a broader audience, that's really my only gripe with super radio-friendly country now. It doesn't even feel that country anymore."
This brings us to Peck. The fan of classic country acts like Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash cuts an interesting figure, with his signature cowboy hat and leather mask, the top of which looks like a cross between Zorro and a bondage hood. Slowly emerging onto the scene as if he drifted off a highway, Peck is tight-lipped on his background and identity — and that's the point.
"I grew up in a lot of different places. I've lived in five different countries now and a lot of cities, so I think I was always exposed to the idea of travelling a lot and never really feeling settled, and I still feel that way as an adult," he offers. "The characters in country music appeal to me, because they all had a sense of feeling unsettled as well, and the idea of the lone cowboy as a metaphorical figure, but also as a figure I thought was really cool when I was a kid."
The characters of Orville Peck's music are similarly unsettled. On latest single, "Big Sky," Peck sings from the point of view of a drifter, using a variety of pronouns to refer to his many lovers, underscored by fingerpicked banjo, painting a picture that's as open and vast as the dusty plains his music conjures.
"I just think that a lot of people think of country as this conservative, maybe un-inclusive thing, which I think to an extent it is — it's 99 percent white, straight men," he observes. "But I do think that there are qualities in that music that are inherently rebellious."
Peck acknowledges that he's hardly the first to try and bring the rebellion to country music: "Definitely with people like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, the '60s folk-country movement, they were all smoking weed and singing activist songs and trying to be contemporaries of Bob Dylan." He likens the genre to punk, in that the rebellion is part and parcel of the genre's origins, an uprising against commercial forces. Fittingly enough, his current backing band is composed of Toronto post-punk quartet FRIGS.
The music of Orville Peck is a love letter and urgent update to a genre whose rebellious spirit has been co-opted and polished, at once a reminder of where country music came from, but also pushing the boundaries on where it can go.
For his upcoming debut, due later this year, Peck promises to channel his country music inspirations, but also acknowledges, "I listen to a lot of '90s weirdo bands like Sonic Youth and I listen to a lot of '80s synth and stuff. A lot of the Orville stuff is inspired by shoegaze and other stuff in there. If you listen closely, you'll hear stuff like that, not just country."
Orville Peck plays the Casbah in Hamilton on January 4 and the Monarch Tavern in Toronto on January 5 as part of Exclaim!'s Class of 2019 concert series.