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Orville Peck on His Lonesome New Song, ‘Summertime,’ and Why Self-Quarantining Is One of Music’s Great Themes

Orville Peck on His Lonesome New
Tracy Hua

“Who was that masked man?” is a question that, frankly, people are asking just a little bit less now than they were, say, a month ago. But Orville Peck still stands out from the pack of the rest of us who are just now figuring out that a little cloaking can be a good thing. His fashion statements, facial and otherwise, have helped made him a nearly overnight sensation on the alternative side of the country music fence, although the heightened sense of honest mystery in his music might accounts for that even more than the magnetic enigma of his persona.

The fresh-faced (well, we think he’s fresh-faced) new icon of alternative country is back with new music just 13 months after he caused a stir with his debut album on Sub Pop, “Pony.” His new song and video, both titled “Summertime,” arrive via a new deal with Sony Music. And Peck is eager to push more out soon, though he’s slightly cagey on the subject of how much more.

“Even though the album’s been out for a year, I wrote those songs even a year before that, so I feel really excited to have new music coming out after working on it for a long time,” he says. “I had such a crazy year, with a lot of really amazing touring and everyone’s lovely reception of ‘Pony.’ I’m pretty excited about what I’ve been writing and dreaming up for a while.” Does it portend an entire forthcoming sophomore album? “Mmm, it may,” he demurs. “I’m old-fashioned; I like to give a little bit of mystery to everything. But I’m not ruling out anything.”

Variety spoke with Peck about what he sees as prescient themes in the new song and hints at Easter eggs that may have been laid in the offbeat, FX-filled video. Even despite a previous shortage of country music stars who’ve shielded their faces, explored gay themes and been eaten alive by Mother Nature in their videos, he maintains he’s a traditionalist to the core.

VARIETY: Tell us about the new song. What does summer represent to you, lyrically?

PECK: The reference to summertime in the song can be not necessarily a literal reference to the season, but could be a reference to a place or a time or a person. The song is very much about missing somebody, even though they might be right there next to you, or missing somewhere that may be just out of arm’s reach. So it almost feels even more torturous because it’s not completely gone, but  it’s not necessarily attainable right at the moment. I wrote this a long time ago, so it’s funny because I feel like it seems quite topical to what everyone’s going through at the moment.

Can you explain more about why that feels fitting now?

There’s a lot to be said about the internal struggle that we can all go through when we’re feeling isolated or frustrated or somehow held apart from something we love, whether the barrier is visible or not. I think everyone’s experiencing a bit of that at the moment — or a lot of that at the moment. That’s in the literal sense of isolating and quarantining. And then also in a strange, cerebral way, too, I think it’s making us reaffirm who we are on a solitary basis, and also remember what we miss, now that it’s gone, on a kind of communal basis.

The video has some lovely, romantic imagery, but it also gets slightly on the sunny side of cinematic horror, with you getting caught up in animated vines. There’s some humor in the image of you being consumed by a tree while you’re strumming on your banjo.

We wanted to touch on or add onto the themes of what the song is about, and go even further with this tone of how we treat nature and how nature fights back. And we wanted to do it with a bit of a  wink. I think there’s a lot of that in the history of country music: There’s hokum and there’s a lot of wordplay and humor in songs that can be very heartbreaking or serious. So I think we wanted to touch on all of those things and have something feel visually beautiful, but also maybe a little tongue-in-cheek — and just add a little excitement, I guess.

Does being with Sony now give you a bigger visual effects budget than you might’ve had previously?

[Laughs.] Yeah, I think that’s probably true. Regardless, I’m someone that’s used to coming from a DIY place, so no matter what record label I’m with or how much a budget is, I’ll still be someone that’s on the set helping build stuff, getting my hands dirty.

Since people look to you for fashion, can you talk about the leather giving way to the extreme floral outfit? And then the fringe on your mask is braided, instead of hanging down freely — it’s hard not to think of a mask version of Willie Nelson’s braids. 

Yeah, there’s definitely some Willie Nelson inspiration in the braids, for sure. That’s a look I’ve done in the past, actually, a little bit. But we kind of thought that with this video, it was important to be able to see me singing the words and give it that connection, so it didn’t just drown in visuals. So we wanted to maybe wear the fringe-braided mask just to kind of reach through a little bit and keep it feeling connected for everyone. And then, yeah, there’s some nods to fashion moments. There’s a pretty big nod to a little bit of an obscure fashion moment that I won’t give away. But I’d be happy if people figure it out. [Laughs.]

You represent a kind of outsider art that you probably aren’t likely to easily shed, and as you said, a DIY aesthetic is where you come from. But is signing with a major an indication that you feel this has a lot more potential to grow into the mainstream?

The biggest focus, definitely for me and I think for any artists, is to keep growing and evolving. And I think that involves growing your reach, and the span of who gets to see your art or hear your music. Especially in this day and age, you can definitely use all the help you can get with that. I think we live in a special time at the moment, where, luckily, there’s enough of an embracing of unique, singular artists these days, whether that be on an indie level or alternative level or mainstream level — no matter where you place your hat, I think you can still kind of be proud to be singular and continue to push the bar or whatever. For me, it wouldn’t matter if I was on a major label or an indie label or no label at all, I would still be doing the same thing. I’d just have less resources. But I’ve done plenty of things with no money and just a hope and a dream.

We know people who are completely fascinated with everything about you, and then there are a lot of people who are still trying to figure you out. Maybe they were a little bit scared by your look, and then they see an interview and find out that you’re actually kind of a friendly, inclusive personality and not someone they should be frightened of. So you’re at a point where you’re all over the board in terms of having people who are already obsessed with you and then people who are, maybe, yet to be obsessed.

Yeah. I like hearing that, because I would hope that… I mean, I think I’m a pretty complicated guy. [Laughs.] And if people don’t necessarily get it right away, that’s okay. A lot of the people that inspired me growing up, and that continue to inspire me, I haven’t necessarily just been handed the understanding of who they are as an artist or what they’re trying to say. I personally like doing a lot of discovery and finding something that I can really connect with, and I have no problem working for that a little bit. So I like to make other people work for that a little bit too.

You have your roots in a very retro kind of country music. There is kind of a lost side of “country-Western”: the Western part, in terms of those sort of deep-voiced, cowboy-styled storytellers. That is not necessarily the strain of country that won out in the end.

When I hear a lot of people referring to what I do as something new, of course I recognize that in a sense it is, and it’s from my perspective, which is of course going to be a little bit (different). But I consider myself quite a country almost traditionalist, in a sense. Most of the country I’m inspired by, or the lens of country that I write through, is actually a very purist form of country. I think people might be surprised to hear that I consider myself almost stuck in some ways and ideas of what I feel country music is. So it’s just ironic that people look at me as this renegade figure, kind of trying to shake up country music. What I’m actually trying to do is just write my love letter to a very, very bygone time of country music, that still exists for sure, but deserves a resurgence and a bit of a spotlight shown on it for people to discover. Because there’s so much incredibly touching and moving music and art and performers that came out of that era of country music that I think are really, really special.

You do throw people off the traditionalist trail by obviously giving them some other things to focus on.

I think the funny thing is that country fans — of which I am one, more so than most people; I am like the biggest fan of country that you’ll ever meet, and I’m guilty of this as well — country fans are very defensive. They’re very protective. They’re not casual about allowing something to be called country, for some reason. And it’s always been the way it’s been. This same argument that people have about me or Kacey Musgraves or whoever it might be has happened countless times throughout the history of country music. If anyone watches any documentaries on the Opry or learns anything about the Nashville scene, there were always these figures coming into country music changing and evolving the sound, and everyone questioning whether it was country music or not. Then all those people suddenly become canon, you know? And then there’s the next batch of people that have to really prove themselves. Of course that can be really frustrating as an artist. And I do believe 100% that if you write music from a sincere place, and you are inspired by whatever form of country music, and you want to tell a story sincerely, and you want to say that that’s country music — I believe that’s country music. Because I think that country music is about many things that don’t involve banjos or anything else like that.

But at the same time, I’m a stickler for that time-old question about: What is country, and who gets to decide? So I laugh at it, because I know that I’m in good company. I mean, this all happened to Willie and Johnny and Kris and everybody else under the sun. So at least I know  I’m going through a very important rite of passage. And hopefully I’ve kind of cleared the space a little bit and people can realize that we are going through another revolution of country at the moment, and it has a place for everybody, not just what people think of as country music.

One thing most country fans really want to know — and this applies whether they’re fans of mainstream country or alternative, whatever strain they gravitate toward — is, is this person really serious about it? And I think people do eventually get the picture that you’re really serious about this and it isn’t just a mask you’ve put on … so to speak. It’s not a passing pastiche you’re having fun at the expense of — this is where people can get worried about a Lil Nas X as well as Orville Peck.

Yeah. To be a country singer has been a dream of mine since I was 8 years old. I used to dress up as a cowboy every day when I was a kid and, you know, put a handkerchief over my face, like a mask. So this isn’t anything new for me. It’s something I take very, very… I would hate to say the word “seriously,” because it sounds too… [Laughs.] But I take it very much to heart, and I would say my only agenda is just trying to be as sincere as possible. Which is a struggle for everyone, you know. It’s something I’ve struggled with just as a person, and I think that writing country music and being a country musician has actually really, really helped me to open up and be a sincere artist that writes from the heart.

People are debating the issue of releasing music during a pandemic: Is it a challenge or an opportunity?

I think it’s the most important time to be making art. I hear a lot of kind of conflicting arguments about the business ramifications or whatever. But when in our lifetimes, really, have we as a planet so globally gone through something that really is affecting everybody across the world, and all gone through it together? So if we were to stop making art and music right now, I mean, for me, I would be at a loss. I really hope that people don’t stop making art and putting out music, because I think that is something that has carried definitely me, and all of us as a society and a civilization, through the hardest of times — even harder than the coronavirus.It’s the least as entertainers that we can do, to help keep people feeling in high spirits, or maybe forgetting about the hard data. That’s what music and art has always been for me, so I don’t know why it would be any different now.

On an equally topical but maybe slightly less sober note: Obviously masks are on everyone’s minds right now. Yours are not necessarily, like, industrial-grade or medical-strength. But do you have any advice for people who are suddenly thinking that they need to figure out how to turn their panic into a fashion statement?

Listen, I say, get the bejeweler out. Rhinestone those things. Add some fringe to it and make it your own. Express yourself with it, you know? I think we could get some good rhinestone ones. It would look great with, like, some Porter Wagoner-type…

What would Porter Wagoner do during a pandemic? Maybe that’s a good question for all of us.

[Laughs.] I don’t know. Maybe not. He was a pretty wild man behind the scenes.