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He shields his identity with a mask, but country music lets Orville Peck be himself

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Our next guest was once a drummer in punk bands as well as a ballet dancer and a classical actor.

ORVILLE PECK: In the punk world, they always thought it was so bizarre that I was also, you know, doing Shakespeare and a ballet dancer. Then in the ballet world, everyone thought it was crazy that I had tattoos and played drums in a punk band.

CHANG: He developed all kinds of artistic pursuits growing up in South Africa and then Canada. But it was at an acting job in London where...

PECK: I had this epiphany where I was like, I can do all these things I love - music, theater, fashion, dance...

(SOUNDBITE OF ORVILLE PECK SONG, "BRONCO")

PECK: ...And decided that I was going to do what I wanted to do my whole life, which was be a crooner and a country singer.

CHANG: So he gathered up a collection of rhinestone suits, began concealing his face with a signature fringed mask and took the name Orville Peck.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRONCO")

PECK: (Singing) Bronco running wild. Yeah, baby, I'm on fire.

CHANG: Orville Peck has just released the final installment of his second full-length album. It's called "Bronco." When I spoke to him recently, I asked him why country music lets him be his truest self.

PECK: It's the genre of storytelling, you know? I mean, they say country is three chords and the truth. And for me, you know, someone like Dolly Parton was a big inspiration for me when I was little. And she's the perfect example of someone who brings theater, fashion, abstract art, storytelling into a world of, like, really sincere songwriting.

And so I realized I could do exactly what I wanted to do and that I had had all the tools on me the whole time. And it just took me many years to, like, jump out the plane and do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAMPLE OUT THE DAYS")

PECK: (Singing) You drive real fast, and I can tell that it's just not your lucky day.

CHANG: I want to ask about your mask, and I know that you get asked all the time about this mask that you never take off in public.

PECK: Yeah.

CHANG: Does the mask kind of give you permission to be yourself more?

PECK: A hundred percent. That's kind of the irony of my mask is that - the idea that some people would have me being anonymous or hiding something or not being sincere. But it's funny 'cause the mask actually has allowed me to be the most vulnerable and the most sincere that I've ever been in my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAMPLE OUT THE DAYS")

PECK: (Singing) And I hate to say I spent it all on masquerades.

It really kind of freed me in a lot of ways.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, you know, I was struck when I was reading about you. There's so much conversation when you're being interviewed about what you intentionally choose to reveal about yourself and what you don't want to reveal. And one thing that you have revealed about yourself is that you are gay, but you have said that that is one of the least interesting things about you. Let me ask you - why is being a gay man something that you did choose to reveal about yourself?

PECK: You know, I've always been openly gay my whole life. I've never thought of it as something that I had to hide or worry about. You know, like, my insecurities are far deeper than me being gay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUTTA TIME")

PECK: (Singing) Oh, I'm out of time.

Once I started to get some success, I slowly started to realize that it was actually, like, a very important visibility for fans of country music who were also gay or queer or trans or actually just felt marginalized by anything. And now it's funny because I totally take that on as, like, a very welcome responsibility that I know I have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUTTA TIME")

PECK: (Singing) I met a man in Denver, bottle neck and some old blue jeans, tells me we got something special. Now I say, some things ain't what they seem.

CHANG: What do you think makes country a good fit for songs about queer love?

PECK: I mean, I think it makes absolute, total sense. listen - when I was a kid, I can vividly remember being probably about 13 or something like that, and I had a cassette player.

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

PECK: And I remember I was listening to a Patsy Cline cassette.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATSY CLINE SONG, "WALKIN' AFTER MIDNIGHT")

PECK: And I dreaded going to school because I was bullied so badly. I had no friends.

CHANG: Yeah.

PECK: And I was walking to school, and I was listening to Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN' AFTER MIDNIGHT")

PATSY CLINE: (Singing) I go out walking after midnight.

PECK: And I remember I just burst into tears because I remember thinking, God, this woman is singing the same way that I feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN' AFTER MIDNIGHT")

CLINE: (Singing) I walk for miles along the highway. Well, that's just my way of saying I love you.

PECK: Country music is about loneliness, heartbreak, disappointment, unrequited love. I mean, it's about many other things as well, but those are huge themes in country music. And that's, like, the gay experience, really, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF ORVILLE PECK SONG, "KALAHARI DOWN")

PECK: You know, my first crush, which is - I sing about my first crush on "Kalahari Down."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KALAHARI DOWN")

PECK: (Singing) You've been gone away. I've been riding around.

And I used to go to bed being terrified that not only he would find out but that anybody would ever find out because, as a gay little boy, it wasn't societally safe for me to feel like that was actually a celebration and a milestone that everybody on this planet should go through and should feel good about. It was a moment of fear.

CHANG: Yeah.

PECK: And so I guess it's just unpacking that idea of what could have been, what would have been if things had been different.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KALAHARI DOWN")

PECK: (Singing) ...For hanging around. Left to borrow, gone tomorrow. Maybe there ain't a trail to follow. Better off alone, if you ask me.

CHANG: I read that when you were writing this latest album in 2020, you were going through a pretty deep depression. Tell me about that if you want to. Like, how did making this music help you through that?

PECK: Yeah, I'm happy to. I mean, I was in a really bad place personally. For the first time in my life, I was, you know, having, like, suicidal thoughts and just didn't feel like I wanted to be around any longer.

CHANG: Yeah.

PECK: And I moved back to Los Angeles, and I restarted my life. I sat down every day in the studio, and I wrote demos for seven or eight hours a day because I remembered that the thing that had saved me when I was a kid and felt really unhappy was music. And so I started writing these songs, and they were pouring out of me. And, you know, on this album, every song feels like getting something off my chest, essentially.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORVILLE PECK SONG, "THE CURSE OF THE BLACKENED EYE")

PECK: One of the darkest songs lyrically on the album is one of the most kind of playful-sounding songs.

CHANG: Is that "Curse Of The Blackened Eye"?

PECK: It is "Curse Of The Blackened Eye." And so - yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CURSE OF THE BLACKENED EYE")

PECK: (Singing) Darling, I can feel it coming every time. I sat around last year, wishing so many times that I would die.

For me, it's about abuse and the lingering effects of that. Even after you've left it, you've never really left it. You know, the same could be said about depression, maybe substance abuse or whatever it could be. I think I wanted to tell that story in a way that didn't feel heavy, but I wanted to portray it in, like, a playful way, I suppose.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CURSE OF THE BLACKENED EYE")

PECK: (Singing) It's true.

CHANG: Orville Peck's new album is called "Bronco." Thank you so much for spending all this time with us.

PECK: You're so welcome. It's my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CURSE OF THE BLACKENED EYE")

PECK: (Singing) Nothing to lose - wouldn't miss it anyhow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.