In January, Orville Peck was seated at his first Grammy Awards after walking the red carpet with his friend Diplo. Peck recalls sitting “five rows from the front having the time of my life when I hear someone calling my name during the commercial break. I turn around, and Shania Twain is running down the aisle.”
By mid-March, the queer troubadour was recording a duet with Twain at her Las Vegas ranch just before the pandemic forced a lockdown. The session yielded the rollicking track “Legends Never Die” from Peck’s upcoming EP, Show Pony, out this July on Columbia. “I’ve been the biggest Shania fan my whole life, and she was literally the last person I got to hang out with before [self-isolating],” he says over Zoom, calling from his sunny Los Angeles apartment. Even in the comfort of his own home, he’s wearing his ever-present Lone Ranger disguise that shields his identity; today, it’s in the form of black tassels dangling down from his mask. (Peck keeps his real name, age and most other personal details private.)
Earning co-signs from Diplo and Twain speaks to the wide-ranging appeal of Peck, whose sonorous voice has garnered comparisons to Johnny Cash’s baritone and whose lyrics evoke the widescreen Westerns of old Hollywood. Peck’s self-produced debut album, Pony, arrived in March 2019 on Sub Pop, but by that December, he signed a new recording contract with Columbia. Since, he has performed the album’s breakout track, “Dead of Night,” on Jimmy Kimmel Live!; was booked for first-time slots at Coachella and Stagecoach (both of which are postponed); and is slated to open for labelmate Harry Styles’ Harryween shows in 2021 (postponed from Oct. 2020).
Now, following a buzzy career launch and while gearing up for the release of his major-label debut, which should arrive before the Grammys’ eligibility period ends, Peck could be a dark horse contender for best new artist at the 2021 ceremony. His team submitted him in two Americana categories last year to no avail, but with backing from Columbia this time — which at the 2020 ceremony had Lil Nas X and Rosalía up for best new artist — there could be a similar push for Peck. “Having some recognition on a level like that?” he says. “Anybody would be lying to say they would not be thrilled.”
Peck always knew he wanted to perform, feeling “drawn to the theatricality of country stars” from the 1970s. “Gram Parsons used to wear the most incredible Nudie suits — Liberace could never,” he says. “Porter Wagoner came off fairly conservative [but wore] crazy bedazzled outfits … while singing about holding back tears and heartbreak. The combination of all those things to me is a gay person’s dream. It’s drama. It’s bold.” And though he says he has been “making music practically my whole life,” it wasn’t until the late-2010s birth of his Peck persona in Toronto that he went all-in on country. “I had it ingrained that I had to work toward something that was employable or acceptable,” he says. “It’s the opposite of what you need to do as an artist.”Peck started creating his own brand of queer camp for the Wild West.
Show Pony continues the narrative, but with added “dark flair” best heard on his gender-bending reinvention of “Fancy,” the 1969 feminist anthem by Bobbie Gentry. The EP’s visuals are similarly theatrical: In the clip for lead single “Summertime,” he trades his leather jacket for a flower-laden shirt after getting pinned down by vines with a mind of their own; meanwhile, “No Glory in the West” depicts Peck as a solitary cowboy dancing around a bonfire in the snow-covered mountains. It’s a sublime mixture of the heartfelt and the ridiculous that could only arrive through a distinctly queer lens. (As novelist Christopher Isherwood wrote about camp in 1954: “You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it, you’re making fun out of it.”) Peck is so committed that he even caked his wall with old-timey “Wanted” and “Reward” posters ahead of a virtual Oculus gig.
“Without sounding cliché and pretentious, I genuinely try to make music that is important to me,” he says. “As long as the sincerity is there, it gives you the freedom to play it any way you want. It allows you to take it to a world of camp or theatricality.”
It has paid off so far, as his 35 million total U.S. streams (according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data) prove, but will it translate to a Grammy nod? A country act hasn’t won best new artist since Zac Brown Band in 2010, but Peck’s appreciation for and commitment to the genre’s traditional roots might get him there — or at least help round out those in the running. Either way, it’s nothing Peck is too hung up about. As he says, creating his persona “was the first step toward being the artist I always wanted to be.”