Country crooner Orville Peck brings torch songs, love and light to sold-out Tampa concert

Our interview with the masked enigma.

click to enlarge Country crooner Orville Peck brings torch songs, love and light to sold-out Tampa concert
Photo by Carlos Santolalla

A torch song embodies the idea that classic country, at its core, is undeniably emotional, honest and earnest. Orville Peck’s debut album, Pony, opens with one. On “Dead Of Night” the masked Canadian country songsmith writes about two hustlers riding their rambling romance through dusty deserts as highways and casino towns pass in a blur.

“Strange canyon road, strange look in your eyes. You shut them as we fly,” Peck sings in a croon that’s as distinct as Roy Orbison’s and as woebegone as Morrissey’s. “We laugh until we cry. You say, ‘Go fast,’ I say, ‘Hold on tight.’ In the dead of night.”

From behind his fringed leather masks, Peck sees a lot of straight, white men singing along, and sometimes tearing up, to the tune. It’s safe to assume that those men have never had a gay relationship in Nevada.

“I’m not the only one that goes through these things. It’s not even about my specific circumstances, I just set out to sing about stuff that I’ve gone through,” Peck, whose had parents that knew he was gay before he did, told CL ahead of his Wednesday show in Ybor City. Pony’s title is a slight allusion to Peck’s sexuality, but it’s more of an homage to the cowboy spirit, showmanship and musicality that oozes from the effort’s 12 tracks.

“The pony feels like a sad figure to me. Not quite a horse, not quite a donkey — just a sweet, sad little guy,” Peck explained in press materials. “I feel that.”

A lot of people feel it, apparently. Most of the shows on Peck’s epic saga of a tour are sold-out, and fans from every walk of life approach him to explain how he’s inspired them. It’s humbling, and it leaves Peck speechless more often than not.

Peck’s own life changed when he discovered Patti Smith at 14 and turned yet again years down the road when he discovered that his punk hero, Darby Crash, was also gay. Falling upon the subversive nature of classic, ‘70s country band Lavender Country at 19 years old sealed the deal. And while Peck has come to realize the weight that comes with becoming some young kid’s own Darby Crash, he’s careful not to pander.

“I think that’s what I like about the people I looked up to. I don’t want to be treated any different,” he told CL, adding that he plans to simply keep writing music that is personal to him. “Changing to cater to my audience defeats the purpose. A lot of times that can be as harmful as not being catered to at all.”

And make no mistake, despite its home in the country section of the record store, Pony, released this spring via Sup Pop, is for everyone. Recorded in the Pacific Northwest, the 40-minute album reflects the experiences and relationships Peck had as he moved in between Toronto, London, Los Angeles and even Africa. Peck copped to being a natural nomad and said that his innate loneliness tends to wither away when he’s on the road.

“I don’t know if it’s me being kind of an escapist a little bit, but I’ve been traveling since I was very little,” he said. “I feel the most anxiety and the most kind of depression, when I’m sitting in one place with nothing to do.”

Relationships have also been hard for the introvert-extrovert who often felt ostracized as a person that didn’t really fit into the skateboarding and punk scenes he started to make art in.

“I just had to do a lot of blazing my own trail, I guess. But a lot of that is what I sing about on Pony,” he said, adding that lonesome feelings remain despite the lot of lovely friends, family and supporters that surrounds him these days.

Still, growing up, not just gay, but as a weirdo, is what most of his fans — regardless of sexual orientation — relate with the most. Peck’s music, in many ways, offers a way to stop wrestling with forlorn feelings.

“I’ve just learned how to turn loneliness into adventure, I suppose, and not really fight it,” he said.

For now, Peck’s only fight involves a road that undoubtedly leads to bigger rooms and more attention. At some point, a Fox News analyst is surely going to hear about that gay hustler country anthem and claim that it’s ruining America. Peck is ready for that moment.

“By that time, everyone will be little bit more like gay cowboys,” he joked. “So my agenda will be complete.”

Pony admittedly represents everything Peck struggles with. He’s getting better at dealing with those things, and spilling it out onstage every night helps.

“I think life is hard for everybody in different ways. As humans, we all struggle, but these things are hard to talk about,” he said. So he looks to his fans and sings to them instead. In return, those fans have given Peck a community, no matter what city he’s in.

“That’s really comforting because of growing up such a lonely person,” he explained. Peck knows it sounds super emotional but he feels magic every time he’s onstage. “It’s a whole bunch of people, including me, all realizing that like we’re feeling this stuff together.”

The arrival Peck’s Pony means that loneliness is a lighter load to carry, and we’re all better off now that the album’s torch is here to light the way.

Orville Peck w/Beau Turrentine. Wed. Sept. 25, 7 p.m. Sold out. Crowbar, 1812 N. 17th St., Ybor City. Read our full Q&A below.

Your horse has taken you to five different countries and you’ve moved nine times in the last four years alone — what’s been your favorite “home base for now” so far?

I don't know. Honestly, I have a few cities that I kind of think of as home. London, England is one of them. I lived in the Pacific Northwest for a long time, which is kind of very special to me. I also lived in Africa for a very long time. I think I'm kind of being able to feel close to all of them, I guess is the true answer. I lived in L.A. for a long time, and I kind of miss California these days. And I think maybe I'm kind of gonna head back there for a bit perhaps.

OK. You mentioned the Pacific Northwest. Will you return to Noise Floor and Gabriola Island — a place that really spoke to you and your rainy boot roots — to record the follow up to Pony?

Definitely. I haven't made any decisions quite yet about where I'm going to do the next album, but I can't say anything bad about Noise Floor. The location is incredible. Jordan [Koop] and Terry [Stewart] who run it are really, really incredible. If anybody has the will to go out there, and the time to do it, I would really recommend it because it's kind of a magical place. I mean, in some ways, I feel like, I don't know if I'd be able to capture the same magic from it again, but I don't know. It's definitely on my list. Yeah.

Gotcha. And I'm going back to a little bit of the background although I know you don't like to give a lot of that away. Obviously, you've made art in the past, specifically in punk and heavier bands where you were able to get this aggression out and feel a sense of community.

But Orville Peck, this thing that's been living inside of you, this is the most exposed that your human shell has ever been. So what was it about these past projects that prevented you from being as vulnerable as you are now? Was it really just that those projects weren't as tender as Orbison or Chris Isaak, Dolly, Loretta Lynn or even Cash and Haggard?

I mean, partly, maybe, but country is a very swift kind of outlet to emotion. I also think that punk is, and I think maybe age has a lot to do with it. I wanted to play, and I wanted to make, country music my whole life. And for many reasons, I thought that I wasn't allowed to, or kind of just didn't have the guts to kind of go up and just sing a song. I think in some ways, playing in crazy or punk bands was a bit of a defense for me in that way.

I kind of grew up an introvert-extrovert. I think people didn't realize because I'm quite a chatty, personable person. But I grew up quite closed emotionally. And very, very guarded. And so I think, in a way, playing in punk bands was part of that as well. I love punk music. And I will always love playing and listening to punk music and all kinds of music, but I think it was very scary and daunting for me — this idea of going up and singing actually about something personal. So I think age and taking some time away from music, continuing traveling… I think that helped me kind of get the confidence to just do what I feel like I've always wanted to do.

OK, and to continue with my obsession with timelines, you've mentioned not really feeling like you fit into the gay community that much growing up. You kind of talked about your past, and age, and things like that. When did you come out? And do you feel comfortable in that community now?

Yeah, I mean, I was never really in the closet, I was lucky enough to have a family. I have two older brothers who are both straight. And then I've got two parents who are very, you know, liberal and supportive. I never really had to come out to my family. I think they knew before I did, which is kind of why I just grew up exploring interests, like skateboarding and music. And, you know, just being like, kind of like a little weirdo.

I think the thing I struggled with the most though is I felt kind of ostracized — just generally. I felt, and I just grew up pretty lonely. I think, that stayed with me more than even feeling ostracized from those communities. I think I just felt ostracized as a person. I just kind of didn't know where I fit in. I just had to do a lot of blazing my own trail, I guess. But a lot of that is what I sing about on Pony. And it's still kind of has stayed with me, even though I now have a lot of people surrounding me and lots of, you know, lovely friends, and family, and support.

But I think growing up, not just gay, just growing up like a weirdo — I think a lot of I know a lot of straight people that can relate to that, too. I think there's something innately lonely about that. I think it's a kind of thing that we try and fight lot of the time, but I've just learned how to turn that into adventure, I suppose, and not really fight it.

Yeah, I've heard you talk about being an innately lonely soul, and that definitely resonates no matter what, no matter where you are if you're that kind of person, and you mentioned adventure, but this tour is really long, right? 

It's a saga.

Does being on the road make any of that worse? I mean, that doesn't really go away. That's something you have to kind of exercise, you know?

I don't know if it's unhealthy. But I think it makes it better. I don't know if it's me being kind of an escapist a little bit, but I've been traveling since I was very little. And to me, I feel the most anxiety and the most kind of depression, when I'm sitting in one place with nothing to do. I find that really, really difficult. And so being on tour to me is really cathartic and just feels normal. I just think I'm kind of like a nomad. 

Even when I've settled down in certain cities that I, you know, call my homes or whatever, I've only really stayed in them for a few years at a time before I move again. So I think I've just found the rhythm that works with me, and that's, you know, it just happens to be moving around. So yeah, touring, it isn't daunting for me. I mean, it's obviously tiring, but I like it.

OK, so I want to kind of go back to that, because you mentioned catharsis and feeling ostracized. But you mentioned finding this rhythm, and I was thinking about this story that you told about being 19 and hearing, Lavender Country. And I was wondering how far away removed Are you from that? Like, had you already found your rhythm by that point?

I think I was already exploring it, but I hadn't really figured it out. I still have a lot of anxiety, but I think I know how to deal with it now because I understand myself a bit better. But I think when I was that age, I was desperately still trying to lead kind of a "normal life" where, I was trying to find the place that I wanted to kind of like settle down forever, and just chill and do my thing. I think a lot of my musical discoveries came at kind of serendipitous times. I mean, I was already a big fan of country for long before discovering Lavender Country.

There's a few moments in musical my musical history… like I remember when I discovered Patti Smith when I was like 14 years old. That had a big impact on me because I just thought it was such a different way to write lyrics and write music. And that changed me in a big way. And then something like Lavender Country, I'd already played in bands, and was already kind of doing my thing. And then seeing that you could do something so subversive in such a classic way, that was very new information for me at the time, because I was just so dead set on just doing everything subversive, you know? So I think that really changed me. So yeah, I think... sorry, what was your question?

No, I mean, I guess I love that story about Lavender Country, and you being in 19. I was just trying to figure out how far along the way to finding your rhythm you were, but it seems like you're kind of already there. And that was kind of one of the last things to really set you off down the path that is Orville Peck.

Yeah, I think around then, a few years after high school, is when I realized, that, you know, I'm never gonna be like a normal person, or whatever. I think I already knew that my rhythm was going to be kind of crazy in some way. I guess.

I like that you mentioned that crazy rhythm ,and feeling at home on the road, and feeling like that is your thing. You’ve mentioned going to towns where you had a perception of it, you thought it might be conservative or whatever, but being surprised by the different types of people that are on board with what you do. And you obviously get to have this massive experience with them on stage, and your album says things that you couldn't even tell people face to face. So it's very intimate and cathartic in that sense.

I was wondering two things. Do you ever get to experience the people in those locations outside of the show? Like, without the mask? I was wondering what that was like, and if that compels you to try and tell other people's stories, because my understanding is that Pony is a very autobiographical thing.

Definitely. Do you mean, do I kind of hang out?

Yeah, you know tour kind of sucks because you  you go sound check, do the show, and then you gotta go.

We definitely try to. I'm really a fan of kind of getting into like, the nitty gritty of a place if I have the time, so we definitely ask about what the best local spots. Every time we're in Nashville, we like to go hang out at like the honky tonks or take a 45 minute drive out of town where it's like, locals only, things like that. I mean, not because we're trying to  pose or integrate, or whatever, but like what you say… I think that's the other thing that draws me to traveling. I have a real respect for the culture of a place. And I have a real interest in immersing myself in that culture when I'm traveling. So yeah, definitely. The short answer is: when we have time, for sure. We love to go to weird local, little dives and restaurants and things like that. Definitely.

And coming back to the point about feeling ostracized. You've talked about this elation you felt when you found out that Darby Crash was gay. And you're obviously way beyond that point of making a big deal about your sexuality and your music — “queer” is not a genre. You think about men the same way like Cash sang about women, and Willie Nelson already address all that queer cowboy stuff anyway.

So as your profile rises, and you realize that you might be someone's Darby Crash, or whatever, have you had to block that pressure? I know the pressure is not negative, but what do you do with that knowledge that you're singing partly to a community that might feel ostracized the way you did? Like when you're writing new songs? Do you think about that?

Definitely. It's funny, I didn't say set out thinking like that, really. As you said, I just kind of only, I just set out to sing about stuff that I've gone through — and that's happened to be with men. And so, I think, now that there is that responsibility in a way. I have a huge following that looks up to me in that way. And it's totally welcomed. It sounds cliche, but I feel really humbled and kind of like, like speechless a lot of the time. The stories people say when they come up to me... they see me as some kind of like, I don't know, an inspiration to them. That’s really incredible and sometimes hard to process.

But I owe it to also not pander to people. I think that's what I like about the people I looked up to. I don't want to be treated any different. And so I will continue to just write music that is personal to me and about my experiences. And if that continues to resonate with people, then I think it will. But I definitely wouldn't specifically try and change to kind of cater to someone, because I think that that defeats the purpose. I think a lot of times, that can be as harmful as you know, not being catered to at all.

Yeah, I definitely feel that. You got me thinking because I started thinking about that story you tell about the guy in Wyoming who felt like he had to move, and then you tell another story about this family that listens to "Dead of Night" in the morning. And I fear for that Fox News moment when they find out that Orville Peck is singing about two gay hustlers in the desert and corrupting like Middle America, you know,

Totally. By that time, everyone will be like a little bit gayer cowboys. So my agenda will be complete.

Yeah, it's a pretty cool time to talk to you. I know you like Little Nas X. And it's cool that the most popular cowboy in pop music right now just came out. 

Yeah, exactly.

So I want to get back into the music. You you often learn a lot about people from reading, and listening to them, try to interpret what you do. Have others' interpretations of what you do taught you anything about yourself?

Yeah. I think, I didn't realize when I was putting these stories together, but I set out to kind of make stories that were personal because I feel like that’s what classic country albums are. It's like a collection of stories that are maybe a bit more exaggerated, or, you know, there's an aesthetic put on them. But the truth is still there. So I set out to do that, but I didn't really set out to make, I guess, an album that was going to, you know, bring up other people's emotions, I suppose. I mean, I don't know if that's even possible to try set out and do.

I guess what I've learned through other people connecting to it is that I'm not the only one that goes through these things. It's not even about my specific circumstances. As you said there are a lot of of straight white men, you know, at my shows, singing along to "Dead of Night" and tearing up the connecting to it, and I assume that they've never had a gay relationship in Nevada. I think it's universal experiences that I've gone through. And I think that that's really comforting to me, as well, because of growing up such a lonely person.

And I think it also allows me to see that there's also a community for me at the end of the day. The Orville Peck experience, I think that’s why the Orville Peck show is kind of so magical, because I think it's a whole bunch of people, including me, all realizing that like we're kind of together and feeling this stuff together. I mean, I know it sounds like super emotional. But it's really, I think, quite magical, you know?

No, I mean, your album is emotional. And some of the most vulnerable moments are when you kind of sing about this discomfort that you have had in relationships, and it's interesting to hear you talk about a growing comfort. That discomfort in relationships that you sing about on Pony — how much of that still exists at this point? I mean, the album's only been out since March.

Pretty much, everything I sing about on Pony, I struggle with, still, at the moment. I I think I'm getting better at a lot of it. But I think it's just difficult. I think life is hard for everybody. I think life is hard for everybody in different ways. For me, I wasn't, for whatever reason, I was born with a lot of creativity, and enthusiasm, and things like that. But I wasn’t  really born with the skills to handle.. I don't know, socializing right? It's just been kind of a struggle for me my whole life. It's funny, I have a little niece, and she's almost three and I watch her and I see little things she does.

And I'm like, "Oh, that's gonna like, stay with you forever." I think it's funny as humans, I think we, we all struggle. And I think it's it's kind of universal feelings. But for some reason, it's like, these things are hard to talk about. At least they used to be for me, and I'm getting better at it now. But I somehow find it easier to sing about them. I still find it hard to talk about them a little bit.

I know we're running short on time. So I wanted to fire off a few quick ones. Tall tales. They get taller with each new wrinkle, right? But your album, obviously is personal. What percentage of Pony, if you had to put a number on it, do you think is fabricated for artistic effect?

Well, one song on the album is completely not about me. And that is "Kansas (Remembers Me Now." Everything else is taken from true events in my life. I would say, besides "Kansas," I don't know, maybe I've put like 5% of sparkle on it. The events are all you know, truthful, I guess. And just some of the way I lay it out is you know, like, a little bit of jeuge on it, but that kind of just goes with making country music.

Totally. And real quick, have you made it to mask number 28?

I'm at 21 or 22.

Okay, so how many are you making? Like, what's the rate of production?

I don't know, as long as the fringe industry stays alive, right?  I'm either keeping them in business or running them out of it, I'm not sure.

OK, and your songwriting is super rich, there's always a full story within your songs, so I was wondering, what does a song that gets left off of Pony feel like? What makes a song incomplete for you and not ready to share or record?

Obviously, I'm a country musician, and that's what I set out to do, but because I kind of cross genres with a lot of my music, and I have inspiration that maybe doesn't rear its head as obviously, in traditional country music as mine, I think I'm quite aware of when it slips too far into something else, I suppose. Maybe I have an idea that isn't necessarily fully realized. I think a lot of times I keep adding stuff, and then I have to just step away from it for a long time. And then I can go back to it and remove everything again.

So I think sometimes the songs get out of control. And then I have to kind of leave it alone for a while. I mean, everything I wanted to put on Pony ended up on Pony. There was only one, I guess there were two songs, that didn't end up on Pony, but  they were songs that I wrote in the studio, and I didn't really ever think they were going to be on Pony necessarily.

Right on. And last question, since I think we're out of time here. Would you ever open for a hologram like Roy Orbison or anything like that?

No, I don't think so, I think it would be too much. I would probably go and see a Roy Orbison hologram just because I think it would be crazy. But I would think of it like watching a movie. I don't really hold any, like, artistic, weight you know, watching a hologram. But I mean, I think it would be interesting.

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About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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