Orville Peck was at the Grammy telecast earlier this year when a woman yelled his name during a commercial break. Peck turned around to see none other than Shania Twain coming his way. The country music icon got to Peck’s seat, hoisted him in her arms and hugged him. She’s a fan – not nearly the only one.
Peck stands out in the country music crowd. The crooner, with a moody baritone, substantial indie-music cred and a storyteller’s stone-lonesome heart, is mysterious, gay and never appears in public without his trademark tassled masks. Nowadays everyone and their dog is wearing a mask, but nobody pulls it off with the panache of the Canadian balladeer now based in Los Angeles.
Following up on the out-of-nowhere success of his 2019 debut album, Pony, Peck releases a new EP on Friday, which comes with a duet with his heroine/admirer Twain. The album is ironically called Show Pony, a term used to describe a person who appears to perform well, but has no actual ability. By phone, Peck spoke to The Globe and Mail about persons, personas and the twain they meet, and the Twain he met.
Orville Peck, what’s your deal?
I’m a country and western artist who likes to sing songs about myself with the sincerity that is required in the genre and in a way that is perceived as new and different and that maybe challenges the status quo.
And what about the fancy masks you wear? Do you wear them to remove yourself from the equation, so as to let the songs stand on their own?
That’s one of the byproducts, for sure. It’s not the main intention though. What I love about country music is that it is very much at the crossroads of sincerity and performance. I think that’s a beautiful space to create art in. You can be as bold and dramatic and theatrical as you want, but you get away with it because all of it is steeped in sincerity. I like to work from that place.
But with the performative aspects, don’t you risk people questioning your sincerity?
I’ve gotten questions like that. But at the end of the day it isn’t my job to answer that for people. I spend all my effort trying to make art that I think I would enjoy and that I can feel proud of, because it’s from a genuine place. I can’t also worry whether other people see that or not. That’s a battle you’re probably going to lose at some point.
Any other intentions with your look?
I like things that are not just spoon-fed to me. I grew up loving artists like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury and Elton John. These are prolific artists who created profound lyrics and songs, but also looked like they were from outer space. You can do both those things.
Clearly one person who doesn’t question your sincerity is Shania Twain, who you duet with on Legends Never Die on your new EP Show Pony. How did that come together?
I’d heard that she was a fan of mine. My first reaction was that I didn’t think that was possible. Maybe because I’m a bit of a cynic. But if she even knew I existed, I had the inspiration to write a song written off what I thought was a rumour that she liked me. So, I wrote it and sent it off to her management.
Shania must get a dozen of such requests a day, though.
Right. We went back and forth on it with her management for awhile, and it felt like it wouldn’t be possible. But then I met her at the Grammys and she told me how much she loved me and how much she loved my last album and my voice and how much she loved the song I wrote for her. Two months or so later, we were sitting at her ranch in Las Vegas riding her horses and working on the song together. She was actually the last person I hung out with before the quarantine started.
So many collaborations are done remotely. It’s quite something that you got to do it in person.
I’m such a fan of collaborations. I love that Shania and I got to have what I felt like was a very thrilling, adventurous road to this song. It felt very much in keeping with the spirit of the collaborations that are so rich in the history of country music.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the song Legends Never Die.
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