It was a wise man – well, Axl Rose – who once remarked that “if you don’t have a gimmick, you get lost in the crowd”. He was, of course, referring to the challenges facing anyone hoping to stand out in a sea of perfectly-preened, identikit hair-metallers. But in an age when anyone with access to a decent laptop can create and distribute music, his point is quite likely true now more than ever.
It certainly helped Orville Peck. The mysterious masked cowboy, clad all in well-worn leather and vibrant satin, captured my imagination when he tumbled into my inbox early this year. But it was his music – otherworldly love songs sung from society’s fringes – that kept me hooked. The warped alt-country on Peck’s remarkable debut album, Pony, merges Johnny Cash-style storytelling with Twin Peaks wooziness, velvet-smooth vocals and – most importantly – his knack for teasing out a killer tune.
It’s not totally fair to dismiss Peck’s persona as a gimmick. Certainly, it helps him stand out among an increasingly-saturated crowd. But in Peck’s case, the music he creates demands a world of its very own. His stories paint narratives of characters who exist in shadows which aren’t quite visible to us regular folk. It’s outlier music in its most literal sense; his characters just don’t fit into reality as we comprehend it.
Peck isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, to benefit from the artistic freedom that comes with anonymity. It’s easy enough to grasp why it might be easier to express yourself from behind a mask. For Peck, a gay man singing love songs not just to his characters but to an entire community, his cowboy alter-ego is a response to the isolation he felt growing up. It also protects him from “daily hate, bullying, aggression, and people actively trying to discredit what I do”. A self-professed outsider, he crafted an alternate reality in which he’s accepted and free.
As such, Pony is a welcome respite for those who might themselves feel at odds with the world. Melancholy anthem Queen Of The Rodeo pays tribute to the world’s drag queens; Peck urges his audiences to support their local drag communities when playing it live, and routinely enlists drag acts as tour support. Big Sky weaves sombre tales of queer romance, concluding that ‘heartbreak is a warm sensation when the only feeling that you know is fear’.
There are, of course, mundane truths to be unearthed about Peck for those curious enough to go hunting for them. His real identity is out there – though to seek it out, he argues, would be “to miss the point entirely”. He is a product of the same healthy Canadian punk scene that produced White Lung, and his influences swing between everything from Patti Smith and Descendents to Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton. He has a shellfish allergy and gets grossed out by the thought of drinking cow’s milk. None of this is what makes Peck such a compelling proposition.
His musical history might be worth pausing over for a second or two though, as it informs Pony more than you might realise on first listen. His punk-rock roots are exposed for just a second or two thanks to Turn To Hate’s snatched Minutemen-esque guitars. His place on Seattle indie stalwart Sub Pop is granted more clarity by Winds Change – a track underpinned by the sort of jangling guitar which would make The Edge proud. Reverb-drenched guitar sneaks in throughout. Buffalo Run dissolves into 30 seconds of explosive shoegaze, and there’s a one-minute burst of chamber pop on Old River.
It wasn’t just the music world which took note when Pony dropped. In September, Peck led the Autumn/Winter issue of GQ Style magazine, and in November took the cover of the inaugural issue of Harper’s Bazaar Men – dressed in a custom hat and mask both made by Dior. He dressed head-to-toe in shocking pink satin for Gay Times. He was invited on the wildly popular YouTube cooking Channel Bon Appetit to cook Elote (opens in new tab). All these things no doubt had a hand in his rapid ascent – Peck went from headlining a 50-cap venue in Hackney at the start of the year to selling out the 1,150 capacity Scala in October.
Peck sings about a world we can never really know because it’s a world which is his, and his alone. Conversely, it’s a world where anyone’s welcome. Here is an artist who doesn’t belong to anyone, who simultaneously belongs to us all.
Pony is available now (opens in new tab) via Sub Pop Records.