Arts

The theatre of Orville Peck

Canada’s most famous gay country singer has cultivated intrigue—and heaps of fans—with his singular look and made-up name. What’s true about the man behind the mask? 
ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” – Season 20
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Monday, April 18 included Kaley Cuoco (The Flight Attendant), Giancarlo Esposito (Better Call Saul), and musical guest Orville Peck. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) ORVILLE PECK

When Orville Peck first appeared on the country music scene in 2018, he wore a Zorro-esque mask, hid his mouth behind a tassel fringe and clad himself in fetishistic leather. His debut single, Big Sky, a moody, ethereal track with gauzy guitar drenched in reverb, sounded like it could have been ripped from the Twin Peaks soundtrack. It certainly didn’t fit in with the beer-guzzling pop-country of the Nashville machine.

And it was about a boy.

“Fell in love with a rider / Dirt king, black crown,” Peck sang in the first verse, inviting listeners into his lonely Western universe. “Six months on a knucklehead hog / I like him best when he’s not around.”

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Peck was unlike any other act in country music. He was openly gay yet adamantly anonymous, refusing to disclose his real name or show his whole face. He always wore a cowboy hat and often sported tight, brightly coloured shirts and jackets—frequently sleeveless, the better to expose his sinewy, tattooed arms. His look at once evoked and eschewed the traditional image of a cowboy: brawny yet coy, sexy yet conservative. The country world had yet to warm up to an openly gay crooner, but Orville Peck proved impossible to ignore. In the past five years, he signed with a major label, performed with some of the world’s most famous musicians and released two albums. His latest, Bronco, which he takes on the road across Canada this summer, is further evidence of his unique appeal.

Who is Orville Peck? (Photo by Julia Johnson)

That he made such an immediate and powerful impression is a testament to his theatrical sensibilities. Though he’s never revealed his identity, it is commonly accepted that Orville Peck is the alter ego of Daniel Pitout, a South African–born Canadian musician who, over the past 15-odd years, has gone from punk drummer to stage actor to the world’s most mysterious cowboy crooner. He’s a talented enough singer, but more importantly he is a calculated aesthete. Peck has committed to a cartoonish persona, turning his public life into an endless performance. 

 

Peck grew up in the badlands outside of Johannesburg. He was a lonely child, friendless and bullied, so he clung to old movies: Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns and The Lone Ranger, films about outsiders who turn into heroes, anonymous vigilantes who come out of nowhere and save the town and charm the girl and choose solitude anyway. At 15, Peck’s family moved from South Africa to Vancouver. Peck has said in interviews that he played in punk bands in his youth. Pitout, his suspected alter ego, was the drummer in the Vancouver band Nü Sensae, which achieved some recognition in the early 2010s but went on hiatus in 2014 after he decided to pursue an acting career in England. He entered a two-year acting program at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and landed a role in a 2016 West End production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong. 

Peck composed the songs that would appear on his debut album while living with his parents and working two jobs, rehearsing and auditioning for record labels in his limited spare time. He managed to bluff his way into a contract with legendary independent label Sub Pop by lying about having a full band. 

Big Sky was released through Sub Pop in late 2018. The song made a small but effective splash, largely thanks to Peck’s ludicrous shtick. “Orville Peck’s shoegaze-y outlaw country is focused on that word that precedes ‘hero’—his is a lonely, lonely world, and on Big Sky, the classic country cowboy faces an existential crisis of personal dissolution,” wrote a critic in Paste magazine at the time. Big Sky, and the singles that followed it, caught the attention of producers on CBC Radio’s Q and Jimmy Kimmel Live! He performed on both shows, raising his profile, introducing mainstream audiences to an outsider’s take on country music and priming the public for his first major statement as an artist—his debut record. 

That album, titled Pony, came out in 2019. Its 12 tracks were akin to Big Sky, with sluggish guitar and lyrics about solitude, pining and riding horses into the sunset. The songs are often good and occasionally great. There are moments where Peck’s voice lacks conviction, like he hasn’t quite committed to his character. But he has a unified sonic vision, and his performance was convincing enough to endear him to listeners and critics alike. He was quickly claimed as Canadian, earning a Juno nomination and a spot on the Polaris Prize longlist; his fan base also grew internationally and included other artists. He was invited to tour North America with indie superstar Lord Huron. His gambit had paid off. He was making a living off of playing a character, one more compelling than the music itself. 

In 2020, Peck kissed Sub Pop goodbye and dropped the EP Show Pony, his first release on the much shinier Columbia Records. The sound is glossier and more country; it’s no stretch to imagine Show Pony blaring out of the radio in a Dodge Ram on a dusty road in Mississippi. There’s even a catchy duet with Shania Twain. Peck had transformed from Canadian indie weirdo to bona fide rising country star. Harry Styles brought him on stage at Madison Square Garden in 2021, and Lady Gaga let him countrify her song Born This Way for the 10th anniversary re-release of her album of the same name. 

(Photo by Julia Johnson)

In 2022, Peck released Bronco, his first full-length album with Columbia. And that’s when a funny thing happened: the music started to match the persona. Bronco is a throwback, a glamorous cross between Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti Western scores and Johnny Cash’s troubadour sensibilities. The vocals combine Roy Orbison’s quiver and Elvis Presley’s purr; the lyrics are personal and occasionally heart-wrenching. Peck is finally in command of his character, filtering his real feelings through the man behind the mask. 

In interviews, Peck comes across as gregarious, funny, sharp and self-aware. Along with his queerness comes a wonderful sense of playfulness; he speaks about his love of John Waters movies and pop music. He’s highly articulate in a way that seems like he’s picking polished words to get his point across. It feels as though he’s calling you in but keeping you at arm’s length. It seems he’s simultaneously performing and not performing; he’s both the fictional Orville Peck and Orville Peck’s creator, the person who’s come up with the whole masquerade. 

And it’s working. Peck’s star has continued to rise since Bronco came out. The album was released to significant acclaim, and its accompanying tour is playing theatres across North America and Oceania this summer, culminating in a two-night residency at Toronto’s Massey Hall in August. “I don’t think of myself as anonymous at all,” he says in the short YouTube documentary The Orville Peck Story. “This is just an expression of who I am, deep in my heart.” 

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Like any good country singer, Peck is a student of Dolly Parton, and like any half-decent gay man, he’s a devotee of Whitney Houston. Fitting, then, that his most devastating live performance is one he gave in 2019 in a New York City studio, a cover of a song his two idols share. Wearing a bedazzled denim jacket with “Versace” emblazoned across his chest, Peck eases into I Will Always Love You. It’s a simple and authentic performance, one lacking the neon cacti and bombastic bands he typically plays with. It is perhaps the closest we’ve yet seen to the real Orville Peck. He doesn’t hit all the notes, and his guitar chords aren’t always on tempo, but his Parton-esque spoken delivery of the song’s tearful bridge sounds positively mournful. Through the holes in his mask, Peck’s eyes close, the music seeping through his body. The last chord rings out, that last “you” hangs in the air.


This article appears in print in the July 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here, or buy the issue online here