Orville Peck: “I grew up estranged – so I became a cowboy”

Forget sexy cats, world leaders and the cast of Succession. The chicest Halloween costume in 2019 was a slinky wild west satin shirt and fringe-embellished mask that covered the wearer’s entire face, save for a tantalising glimpse of chin. Your party wasn’t a party unless someone was sporting the Lone Ranger-moseying-down-to-Torture Garden look of country crooner Orville Peck.

“I heard people say they were going to do it, but I thought there would be just five or six,” explains a gravel-voiced Peck down the line from Copenhagen as he nears the end of his European tour. “But if you look at the tagged photos on my Instagram it was hundreds and hundreds of people of every age, gender and race, including a woman that looks like she’s probably in her 80s and a Brazilian influencer in a Swarovski crystal mask.”

That so many want to pay tribute to the mysterious Canadian artist and his sumptuous style is no surprise. Since the March release of his velvety debut album, Pony, the pseudonymous, gay singer-songwriter, whose real identity remains a mystery, has become something of a cult figure for the LGBT community and country fans alike. Rapper Lil Nas X might have updated the genre for an LGBT audience with his smash-hit Old Town Road, while the Grammy-winning Kacey Musgraves is an outspoken ally, but country boys who sing about other boys are still few and far between, with Peck as their leading light. (“See the boys as they walk on by … It’s enough to make a young man … ” he sighs melancholically on Dead of Night.) The mainstream is paying close attention, too, with a recent feature on the soundtrack of HBO’s Watchmen series rocketing him into the ears of millions.

Faithfully following in the classic western tradition, Peck’s lyrics might break new ground but his sound is deeply old school, combining Johnny Cash’s sauntering outlaw persona with Patsy Cline’s melancholy and a whole lot of Tammy Wynette fabulousness. “The first aspect of country that I fell in love with was that it was so theatrical and bold. Everyone had their brand or their role, like old Hollywood,” explains Peck, who connected with the shimmering aesthetic when he was just a kid. It was Dolly Parton’s rhinestone sparkle and “cheerful girl from the mountains who couldn’t catch a break” persona that entranced him the most. “I remember the moment when I realised that she wasn’t a character and that she was a person,” he laughs. “I kind of thought she was like Pee-wee Herman.”

Like his heroes, Peck might look a million dollars but lyrically he stays true to his own difficult story, which is one with its roots in isolation and unhappiness. “I grew up fairly lonely, feeling pretty outcast and alienated,” he says. “So my translation of that into a country and western star was to be this lone cowboy figure.”

Peck has no plans to reveal his true identity to fans and is keen to maintain anonymity, a comment not just on freedom of artistic expression but on his sexuality, too. After various attempts to “out” him and his history, he released a statement earlier this year explaining how, in navigating the music industry as a gay country musician, he already had to endure “daily hate, bullying, aggression, and people actively trying to discredit what I do”. He added: “So whether or not Orville was the name I was born with is irrelevant. I understand there is a temptation to try and unmask what I do, but to do so would be to miss the point entirely.”

Peck’s diverse crowds are also here to stand up and be counted. At any one gig you will find a mixture of drag queens, club kids, the indie faithful (Peck is signed to famed grunge label Sub Pop) and Nudie-suited Gram Parsons types. Peck often also chooses drag acts to open up his shows, which makes a welcome change from your classic glum guitar lads. “I have a respect for drag queens as people and how much work and dedication goes into that with sometimes very little payback,” reasons Peck of his bookings. “And besides all of that, I think having a drag queen around is always better.” Funnily enough, the same logic also applies to Orville Peck.