Sub Pop Records artist Orville Peck is keenly aware that first impressions are very important.
“When I first started working on the project,” Peck says, “I wasn’t sure what the response was going to be, or what kind of label would want to take a masked cowboy singing about men.”
Peck recently released his debut LP, Pony. It’s a sprawling outlaw rhapsody, nodding at everyone from Elvis and Johnny Cash all the way to The Velvet Underground and X. On Pony, Peck presents a vast, intersectional landscape for listeners to get lost in, one that he produced and assembled almost entirely by himself.
“I’ve been a fan of Sub Pop since I was like 12 or 13,” Peck says. “I love that they’ve been around for a long time, listening to artists on their roster and not holding them back from their artistry. I’m very hands-on with the artwork, the aesthetic, everything. But they didn’t take me on with any strings attached.”
Peck has played in many bands over the years in a variety of capacities. But with Pony, he’s finally at the reins from top to bottom.
“There’s something really liberating about being in charge of a project that I can really make how I want it to be without worrying about other people’s input,” Peck says. “I wanted to make this record feel ultra-personal and also connect with people listening and bring a nostalgia to it, so that my personal songs, in a way, can become personal to them. I think about records like Patti Smith’s Horses … Neil Young does that, too. They are these diary-entry songs. But as a listener and as a fan, you can take them and make them your own.”
As a debut, Pony presents listeners with an unexpected ride, one that his western aesthetic might hide. “I wanted to root it in the golden era of country or outlaw country,” Peck says. “People think that country is conservative, but I feel like country has more parallels to punk music and rap — rebellious, subversive. Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline — those are subversive people. It’s all tied into wit and theatricality. I think those are the things that lend to an interesting artist. It’s just bold storytelling.”
Surprisingly, Peck’s obsession with cowboy culture doesn’t come from a firsthand experience.
“I didn’t grow up in North America at all,” Peck says. “I was born in a desert in the Southern Hemisphere, and I grew up there more being obsessed with the iconography of cowboys and country music. I grew up a loner, so I always thrust myself into stories and music as an escapist thing. I think that kind of made me into a cowboy, not just aesthetically, but philosophically as well.”
Peck’s vision for his project is monumentally well-formed for a debut, so much so that it begs the question of whether or not it plays well with others. As Peck ventures forth on his first big U.S. tour in support of Lord Huron, he’ll be playing to some audiences that have never heard his name.
“Being the kind of artist that I’ve chosen to be visually and sonically,” Peck says, “I think no matter what I do, I run the risk of walking out on stage and people thinking ‘What the fuck?’ But honestly, to me, I genuinely believe the type of music I’m making connects to everyone. My experience has been that there have been people that have had hesitation, but they come around.”
With the dusty cities of the past behind him and a big sky ahead, Orville Peck rides into a bright, burning horizon — we’d do well to follow.
Orville Peck. Opening for Lord Huron. 8 p.m. Sunday, May 12, at The Van Buren, 401 West Van Buren Street; thevanburenphx.com. Sold out.