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Orville Peck on Horses, Masks, and Crying While Writing Music

Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Orville Peck may not be his birth name, but the masked crooner behind such gems as the tender entreaty “C’mon Baby, Cry” and the galloping “Daytona Sand” isn’t a character, either.

“I feel like there’s a misconception: People think I’m dressing up and pretending to be someone I’m not,” says the fast-rising country artist and fashionista known for wearing pink, glittery gold, and animal prints — topped, of course, with one of his many signature fringed face masks and a cowboy hat.

Rather, Orville Peck is a moniker that represents a culmination of the singer’s creative parts. With a delicious voice reminiscent of Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak, Peck’s approach on his first two albums was to “take that little private part of who I am and make it the most extra-big version of it. It’s actually the most authentic way that I found to be an artist.”

That authenticity once again abounds on Peck’s stunning new album, Bronco, out on April 8. The record follows what has already been a banner year for the singer, after the use of his song “Dead of Night” in the season premiere of Euphoria season two. “I got a little descriptor of the scene that said something like, ‘Nate drives fast in the car while Cassie hangs out the window,’” Peck says. “Kind of vague. I’m thinking, That’s amazing. It’ll be playing in the background. Little did I know that the writer actually wrote the scene to it. And there’s no dialogue over any of it. It’s almost like this beautiful little music video.”

Ahead of his new album, Peck spoke with Vulture about horses, masks — as a child, he was unsurprisingly a fan of OG costumed artists Kiss (“I wore the Peter Criss makeup because I was a drummer,” he says) — movies, and more.

What was your introduction to cowboys as a kid?
I was obsessed with all cowboys. When I was young, my grandfather was a horseback sheriff in [the South African province] KwaZulu-Natal. He was kind of like a real cowboy. I love the Lone Ranger and any kind of cowboy figure. I loved Indiana Jones. I was drawn to the idea that somebody who was ostracized or singular, and kind of on the outskirts, could become an anti-hero and find power in their loneliness and solitude. I only know that looking back now, but as a kid, I feel like I related subconsciously.

I’m a horse girl, so I love that you named your 2019 debut Pony — smaller than a horse — then your next album Show Pony, which is fancier. Your new album is Bronco, which is an untamed horse.
I mean, I’m a horse girl too! I love horses, and I feel like now, especially, they represent a lot to me as an artist. I called it Pony because lyrically and musically and tonally, that album was almost like a frightened, lonely confession. That imagery translated into a pony. Show Pony, I had a budget; I was on a major label; I was listening to a lot of big, kind of boisterous country and a lot of Elton John. Show Pony was almost like the poofed-up version of Pony, confident and sparkly.

I wrote Bronco leaving a very, very deep depression. I was really unhappy. I was almost ready to stop making music altogether. I was in the worst place, basically, when I decided to start writing Bronco. And it [was] incredibly cathartic, freeing, sort of like therapy to do the songs on Bronco. There was nothing going on because of COVID. I made big changes in my personal life. I had all this space to sit and write music for myself and write it with no judgment or pretense or expectation of what it was supposed to sound like … or even if it was going to be an album. I wrote purely from the heart. The end result felt really untamed and unaffected and unrestrained, so it just made sense for me to call it Bronco.

As you wrote the songs on Bronco, did you feel yourself healing?
God, yes! I cried a lot writing this album. Not to sound dramatic, but it really is the first thing I’ve truly been just so proud of in my life. When I’d finished it, I felt this big sigh of relief. Each of these songs is something I wanted to get off my chest. I tend to be pretty hard on myself. It was a really beautiful experience. It’s such an important album to me in that way. You know, no matter what I do going forward, or what the next ones will be, I think Bronco, particularly, will always feel very special to me.

Everyone wants to know about your masks and how they provide you anonymity.
Well, it’s kind of nice because now if I’m not wearing the mask, I feel as if that’s when I kind of get to hide, which is ironic. I get to slip away. I’ve put on a hoodie and walked around the venues of my shows, with people standing, waiting for me to come onstage, and no one knows it’s me. There’s something kind of wonderful about the anonymity it allows me when I’m not onstage performing.

Do you have a mask-tender when you’re on tour? 
I do! I have an amazing whole styling team — stylist Catherine Hahn, who’s legendary. One of her assistants comes on tour with us. He preps all my outfits and the band’s outfits, and we sit and painstakingly pick out what mask I’m going to wear, what looks I’m going to do. So, yes, I have a whole team, and I do have a mask-tender. [Laughs.]

How many masks do you take on tour?
Oh my goodness. I don’t know. Maybe 20?

So more masks than guitars?
Definitely more masks. Boots and cowboy hats are starting to get a little ridiculous at the moment. I was just counting how many cowboy hats I have now. It’s getting to a frightening number. I’m just gonna open a bootleg western store out of my house and start selling.

Your videos are so cinematic, and, naturally, you’re on horseback in several of them. What are your riding skills? 
My riding skills are fairly good for someone who didn’t grow up riding, because I grew up poor, so I didn’t really ride as a kid. But I ride in every single one of my videos, except for “Daytona Sand,” when the cop car is facing the horse, because it’s a stunt driver and a stunt. But I was begging them to let me do it. They did let me ride, essentially surf, on top of an 18-wheeler going down the road. I couldn’t really understand where their concern level started and ended; they wouldn’t let me ride the horse but said, “Yeah, get on top of the big rig. All good.”

Your visual aesthetic brings to mind David Lynch — a sexy blue-collar Surrealism with vivid colors and mysterious overtones.  
I’m a huge sucker for David Lynch, of course. There’s a lot of references to him in my visuals. I’m a huge John Waters fan. I’m a huge Gus Van Sant fan. On Bronco, I did all my videos with Austin Peters, a dear friend of mine. We wrote them and constructed all the ideas together, and we’re very meticulous about our references and what we wanted. There are Urban Cowboy moments. Some Kenneth Anger moments. We wanted to be really conscious of aspect ratios being different for all the different videos. Some of them are on 16 mm.; some of them we printed to film. We wanted to be very deliberate in what we were trying to do, the landscape we were trying to paint matching up with the songs.

You’ve kept your background mostly under wraps, but you have spoken about your life in the theater and as a punk drummer. Why did it take so long to find your country self? Was there an epiphany?
I think it was a lack of courage in a sense. I love all genres of music. I grew up loving punk and playing in rock bands; I think it was important for me at a time when I was young and angry. But, yeah, I always secretly wanted to be a country crooner. I wanted to be like Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. I grew up in South Africa. I lived in all these different countries and cities around the world growing up. I just never saw an avenue … it just seemed impossible for me to enter the country world.

I went back to acting for a while and was living in London. One of my bands broke up and I was doing classical theater. It’s funny because I kind of had this epiphany where I was like, You know what? I can do all of these things as one and make it really authentic — the most authentic version of me, instead of trying to be all these different things and be employable. I was doing all these mediums in performance separately. I decided to combine them all into one and do it authentically. I looked at the landscape of country and thought, What would I want to see? What would I want to bring to country? I felt there was no kind of David Bowie of country. I wanted to bring a performance and a theatricality combined with ultrasincerity.

Bowie, perfect analogy. 
Not to compare myself to Bowie! [Laughs.] He was just an inspiration.

We’ll try not to make it the headline. 
The only time in my life as a performer that I haven’t been trying to be someone I’m not is when I dress up and get all extra. So it’s this funny irony that for me to kind of ascend to some kind of radical self-acceptance is to put on a mask and dress crazy. But it works for me.

Orville Peck on Horses, Masks, and Crying Writing Music