Orville PeckArt Reviews and Commentary

Orville Peck: Becoming a Legend

It was the summer of 2020. I was in central London, sequestrated in a room as the pandemic ravaged everything outside. The economy was in tatters and people were panicking.

I was mellow, weakened by the summer heath and depressed by the overall direction of the world. Although I was supposed to work, I couldn’t focus so I was lying on my bed, staring at the white ceiling, dreaming of nothing.

Then, Orville Peck’s song, Dead of Night, popped up on my WhatsApp feed. It was sent by my brother whose taste in music I mostly trust. I clicked on it.

“The sun goes down, another dreamless night

You’re right by my side

You wake me up, you say it’s time to ride

In the dead of night

Strange canyon road, strange look in your eyes

You shut them as we fly, as we fly”

Instantly in love!

I played Dead of Night for hours until I found the next track to listen to it obsesivelly: Kansas (Remembers Me Now) – soft, melancholic and powerful. Dreamy and full of meaning that only a good story could instil.

I listened to it for a while until I found the song that would make it on my top 3 “On Repeat” playlist on Spotify and in the top 10 of my “2020 songs”. The song is called Hope to Die

But who is this mysterious cowboy with mesmerising voice and songs that brought to life the aesthetics of an America I’ve always dreamed of?

The masked cowboy

The country music star, a gay man in his early 30s, spent his childhood in Africa, North America and Europe with a father who is a sound engineer and a mother who is an artist.

Peck fell in love with country music as a child. Feeling misunderstood and outside the mainstream society, he related to that “innate sense of loneliness or otherness” that cowboys embody so well.

This collection of powerful emotions is brilliantly captured in Smalltown Boy – a song which is akin to a vintage polaroid photo: graceful, packed with memories, happy and sad, which for a few moments puts us in our own twilight, between melancholy and hope.  

Between his childhood and the moment he took the global stage, the singer was a performer for most of his life, including as a theatre actor in London.

The New Yorker, referred to Peck as the “masked man our yee-haw moment deserves” and described his voice as having “the sexy, menacing melodrama of Roy Orbison, run through the filters of New Wave and the opening theme of “Rawhide”.”

Meanwhile, the LA Times wrote that the artist “greeted his audience in a low, booming drawl meant to summon memories of the late Johnny Cash”.

But he is not trying to be Johnny Cash, or anyone else. Orville Peck is… Orville Peck.

“I’m wearing a mask because I’m a country western star,” the country singer said about his trademark fringed face covering in an interview for Apple Music, while a few months back he replied to New York Times with: “The masks exist as a point of discussion for people to add their own take on them”.

Peck is not wearing a mask to create a stage persona. The mask is a fundamental part of who he is as an individual and as an artist. It expresses a part of country music that the artist fell in love with.

Some people on the internet “have identified Peck — and consider this a spoiler alert if you’d prefer to preserve the air of mystery he’s after — as Daniel Pitout, the former drummer of a Vancouver punk group called Nü Sensae. Asked to confirm that, his publicist playfully declined”, wrote the LA Times.

Mystery is a key ingredient to storytelling and Peck is a masterful storyteller who presents his stories in a personal and bold way. As Orville says in this recent video, he “[…] just wanted to be a country western star […]. Somebody that isn’t writing a song and it ends with that”.

I assure you – it never ends with the song. The music, its message and the feelings it summons carry on long after the final note, lingering like an intoxicating perfume that brings back memories you didn’t know you had.

Pony

His debut album, Pony, was released in 2019 containing 12 songs. Twelve lyrical stories, played and sang with so much passion that your soul transports itself into another world, lives there an entire lifetime and comes back in your body with a new found energy.

Pony opens with Dead of Night, which was also performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live in January 2020. The song has an instant spellbound effect. As the melody unfolds, you look around, touch the bed, the walls, your skin, to make sure things are still real. The story continues for another three minutes, until it reaches the beginning of the next memory. The entire album is mesmerising, glamorous and deliciously spiritual.

In an interview with NME, Orville Peck said this about his call to country music:

“I discovered Dolly Parton and […] she made a big impact on my life. When I first discovered her, I thought she was a character, not a real person making music. […] that is the beauty of the age of country music that inspires me. […] the heightened versions of yourself. It’s really sincere on one hand and on the other hand, it’s larger than life and I think that’s nice when these things can live side by side”.

These sentiments are present throughout the album. For Peck, his songs are his own way to be open with the world. And people connect with that essence, that honesty, that uniqueness which radiates from the heart of an individual.

Source: Gay Times

“Pony was exactly what I wanted it to be: my love letter to classic country [music] as well as to all the influences by which I have been inspired my whole life. […] with the next album is going to be that, just deeper” the musician told NME.

Songs like Queen of the Rodeo, Kansas (Remembers Me Know) and Buffalo Run are quintessentially country, with a touch of magic and novelty. But the song that uplifts the whole album to another level all together is Hope to Die.

The song reminds me of “Brokeback Mountain”, a movie about a love story between two cowboys, two men who fought destiny and reality in trying to express the love for one another.

“Gone was the way we were

Just like the days we’d burn

Everything ’round us would burn

Take me back to the time

I was yours and you were mine

Take me back, the words I’d say

I had to whisper

Because you liked it that way”

Peck’s song writing process starts from a visual point. “For Hope to Die […] it was the hardest to write because of that. Because I wanted it to sound exactly how I saw it in my head”.

Source: Hope to Die music video

The above is the opening scene from Hope to Die, a tribute perhaps to a 1969 piece of art celebrating gay cowboys. The image, drawn by Jim French was featured in a magazine called Manpower! published by French’s Colt Studios in 1974.

I could probably write an essay about this song but that won’t do it justice. I suggest you listen to it for yourself.

Pony earned a number of awards, including Best Albums of the Year by The Fader, ranked 39 on the top 50 Best Albums in 2019 by NME, was placed on number 10 on the Clash Albums of the Year 2019, and received a Juno Award nomination for Alternative Album of the Year at the Juno Awards of 2020.

Show Pony and other projects

Show Pony, his second album, brings together six songs, including Drive Me, Crazy, No Glory in the West and Summertime.

Summertime is a special song. It is about “missing somebody, even though they are there with you” said Peck in an interview with Nashville Scene. The song was released separately and in April 2020, Peck did an acoustic version of it, which, for me, makes the central sentiment of the song – longing – that much more acute.

Similar emotions are echoed in Drive Me, Crazy – “that song is about two truckers who are passing each other constantly, and they are in love and their story exists entirely on the highways” the singer explained.

More recently, Peck collaborated with The Unrighteous Brothers and Paul Cauthen on a couple of songs. One of them is a cover of the famous “Unchained Melody” and O.M.G., the result is a new story built side-by-side with the original legend.

He also covered Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”. The top YouTube comment at the moment of writing this was: “god I want him to sing Jolene so bad”. Me too.

Magazine appearances

British GQ Magazine, Harper’s BAZAAR, Gay Times, Attitude, Vogue and Alternative Press Magazine are a few of the big names who have featured the rising country star.

“Riding into a “yee-haw” moment that has gripped fashion and pop culture in 2019, Orville wears a carousel of looks from Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Louis Vuitton, combined with iconic vintage western wear – all topped off with his self-made fringe masks” – British GQ.

“[…] the image and ethos of a cowboy is “essentially someone who is an outlaw, marginalised and living on the outskirts” who doesn’t know their place in society […]” – Gay Times.

Source: Vogue

What was a simple click in a solitary room in London, during a time of pest and panic, turned out to be a spiritual journey into the magical world of Orville Peck whose music is the definition of epic.

As I wrote in a recent blog, one of the lessons from 2020 was that music is a powerful drug. It is the soul’s medicine.

I’m certainly looking forward to more of this medicine from Orville Peck – the star who is already a legend.

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