Interview: With ‘Show Pony,’ Orville Peck Settles Confidently Into His Identity, But Still Experiments
Orville Peck has loved horses his whole life.
"When I was young, we couldn't afford horses, so I didn't [horseback ride] very much," he recalls during a recent conversation with The Boot, "but I enjoyed it whenever we had the chance."
Peck found an opportunity to ride a horse at least once fairly recently: while visiting Shania Twain at her ranch in Las Vegas to record their duet, "Legends Never Die," a stand-out track on his new EP, Show Pony.
"I guess I have a special connection with the equine species," he adds with a chuckle, "which is probably given away by the fact that both my albums have the word 'pony' in the title."
Peck's 2019 album Pony and his 2020 EP have more in common than the horse motif. Peck explains that he sees Show Pony as a sort of bridge between the music he's already released so far and the artistic direction in which he's headed.
"I think Show Pony is the middle sister between what Pony was and what the next album's going to be," he muses. "Thematically, I think there's a few songs [on the new EP] that could've lived on Pony."
One example is "Summertime," the first of Show Pony's six tracks, which was written around the same time as the material on Peck's debut record. "I recorded that song, I think, two or three times with the intention of having it be on Pony, and I was never quite satisfied with the way we had it sounding. And so I decided to leave it for a while," he relates.
Overall, the singer says he felt more confident this time around in the album-making process, and he thinks it shows in the songs.
"I think when I wrote Pony, I wasn't really sure anybody was going to take to it. I wasn't sure what the reception was going to be, and in a way, that was part of the magic of it: that I didn't really care," he points out. "So now that, obviously, it seemed to really resonate with people, and people seem to really like what I do, I think that definitely gave me a nudge to go even further with my lyrics and what I write about. It's definitely given me the confidence to feel that I can be even more creative and free in what I do."
Fans of Peck's theatrical sensibilities and surrealist cowboy flair have nothing to worry about: That artistic identity remains firmly intact. Show Pony is home to plenty of road-weary, velvet-throated lonesome ballads.
If anything, Peck wrote Pony from the perspective of a fan and admirer of country tropes. As he says, he hadn't walked onstage to perform country songs yet, and he wasn't sure how his presence would be received. He was an outsider looking in, thinking back to his early life as a young fan of legends such as Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline. He was unsure, before he put that album out, of his role in the genre.
But the songs on Show Pony find Peck firmly planted in the saddle of his career. Whereas he once dreamt of sharing a stage with legendary country acts, he's now collaborating with them (in his duet with Twain) and offering his own perspective on their best-loved hits, as he does in the cover of Bobbie Gentry and Reba McEntire's "Fancy" that appears on the EP.
Women have always been some of Peck's biggest heroes, and it's no accident that he manages to pay homage to three separate female country greats over the course of these six songs. As a queer artist, Peck felt solidarity from an early age with the bias his female icons face in the music industry. Today, he still feels a strong kinship with country artists who fall outside the mainstream industry's status quo.
"I often am [thought of] as someone who is carving a new perspective as a queer country artist -- which, unfortunately, there haven't been an abundance of openly gay artists at this point. So that's a road I am very proud to march down," he relates.
"But in the same breath, country still has a long way to go with not only queer perspectives, but even female country, which is played a lot less on country radio, and female country artists are still kind of not treated with the same respect their male counterparts are, even in this day and age," Peck continues. "I definitely feel a very close connection to female country artists, to country artists who are non-white, to country artists are just maybe not what the status quo would consider the typical, uh, you know, straight white male making country music.
"I think we're all in that same fight together," he adds.
"I definitely feel a very close connection to female country artists, to country artists who are non-white, to country artists are just maybe not what the status quo would consider the typical, uh, you know, straight white male making country music. I think we're all in that same fight together."
The world has shifted on its axis in 2020 amid not only the global novel coronavirus pandemic, but also a nationwide civil rights movement that gained momentum after the late May death of 46-year-old Black man George Floyd at the hands of white police officer Derek Chauvin. In the wake, the Black Lives Matter movement and other organizations turned out for widespread protests against racism and police brutality.
To some extent, that campaign for social justice has also affected the country genre: Lady A decided to drop "Antebellum" from their name (and soon found themselves in embroiled in a legal dispute with Seattle blues singer Lady A, who's been using the stage name for years), and the Chicks did away with their "Dixie." While the genre will has much more work to do in confronting its racist past and associations, things are evolving.
Peck says he hopes that evolution will bring to light what many fans have long known: that there have always been a wide range of voices in the genre, even if many of those voices have been silenced for too long.
"I think the stigma of who makes country music and who country music is supposed to be for -- that's kind of been perpetuated by mainstream country radio," he points out. "I think a lot of us who love country music, I think we've always known about the diversity that's always existed within country. But, unfortunately, that's never really seemed to cut through the noise, in a way."
Still, Peck sees reason to hope that more light will be shed on country music's marginalized voices. "It's been a really long time coming, and I think it's a very important moment for people to realize that not only are there an abundance of incredibly diverse people making music today, but that, in fact, the history of country music has always involved non-white musicians, female musicians, queer musicians," he argues.
Like every other artist these days, Peck is experiencing his first summer off from touring in a long while. The COVID-19 pandemic may be keeping him at home, but fortunately, it's been a fertile time when it comes to writing new songs.
"I've definitely found it very creative. I set up a home studio for the first time," he offers. "It's been really, really useful! I've sort of always relied on just singing lyrics into my phone and scrawling them on napkins on tour buses, things like that. So having this time -- for the first time in my life, to be quite honest -- to actually just sit and write music has been interesting.
"It's kind of a new approach to how I usually make music. It's a bit more focused," Peck adds. The end result of all that extra time and energy is "loads" of new songs, many of which will find their way onto the full album that will follow Show Pony.
"I'm very excited for what my next album will be -- which we can hopefully look forward to next year," the singer hints.
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