Orville Peck on “Bronco”
Photography by Julia Johnson Web Exclusive
Orville Peck’s Pony explored queerdom in country music in a fashion that inspired many to highlight the genre’s silenced chapters and marginalized voices. The masked wonder himself is also a walking paradox: his frilled guise actually allows him to sing songs as his truest, most candid self. Now signed to Sony Music, Peck’s three-chapter followup Bronco gives him means to carry out his artistic vision without restraint.
From staying one step ahead of his devils to all the fleeting liaisons of his bullet train existence, Peck has kept all the receipts of his heartaches and trysts during the pandemic. As a result, Bronco became a bellow from the deepest of canyons to the highest of peaks of his soul, “running wild” and fully in stride. It’s also a wholly cinematic experience: collaborating with director Austin Peters, Peck made a series of music videos that add another storytelling layer to his songs.
“C’Mon Baby Cry,” for instance, visits dusty roads and seedy dive bars under the glistened Wall-Of-Sound backdrop and a vocal performance echoing the great Roy Orbison. Peck, who has a background in ballet, locksteps and maneuvers around flying bottles and hasty purgatories with grace and gusto. “Curse of the Blackened Eye” sees Peck being chased by an effigy of trauma — played by none other than The Walking Dead ‘s Norman Reedus. Knowing he can’t outrun him forever, Peck turns around and gives this threatening character a warm lasting embrace. Like a warped, modern-day version of Cinderella, the curse transforms into a tangible person, something present and in plain sight.
To reveal more about Bronco and the happenings that informed the project, Orville Peck took a moment in between rehearsals for his mammoth tour to have a chat.
Jasper Willems (Under the Radar): How’s the trails? Has touring post-pandemic been different from touring pre-pandemic? Orville Peck: Yeah. Well, on a literal level we have a lot of protocols that we put in place. I mean, the protocols are ever-changing at the moment, especially in the U.S. But when we went back on tour last summer, we were one of the first bands to go back out on the road, and we felt a responsibility to keep ourselves and our audiences safe. But we also wanted to show that it could be done responsibly. We did three pretty big tours over the summer, and not a single case of COVID amongst our band or crew. We kept a really tight bubble, testing all the time, and showed ourselves-and hopefully some other people-that we could do it during the pandemic in a safe way.
What about yourself? Are you easing back into it, or is it like riding a bike?
It’s been interesting. When the pandemic first hit I was on tour, and my whole tour got canceled, I think we were about a week into it. It was supposed to be this massive world tour for Pony. And I went into a crazy depression for months-because my work had stopped and I’ve been going so hard for so long, going for so many years touring, flying all over the place to shoot things and to record things. I realized I had abandoned other parts of my life in order to keep this crazy work schedule going.
Not only that: when I realized my work had stopped, I was really unhappy with the rest of my life, and really unhappy personally, I ended up in a really bad place. So I went into this terrible depression and sense of hopelessness. I kind of crawled out of that by writing Bronco, the album because almost a catharsis in getting all these feelings and trauma off of my chest in a way that I’ve never done in my entire life.
The result of making Bronco was that I was going through this beautiful, radical self-acceptance, and I found myself not just as an artist, but as a person as well. And I kind of lost myself a little bit. So after writing and recording that album and going back on tour, I think I just had a whole new appreciation for it. I was in love with it again. When the pandemic hit I was really run down. I was touring so much, I was not feeling like my authentic self anymore. I wasn’t loving what I was doing anymore because it felt so… hard.
Honestly, I was in such a terrible place personally. So going back on tour with this newfound confidence in myself and a new found happiness. It was definitely the best touring I’ve ever done. Just on a personal level, because I was just in such a better place in my life. And kind of been in a place I’ve never been in my life until now.
Your mask allows you to deal with bright lights and complete anonymity at the same time. That feels like a pretty harsh schism, did that have anything to do with your depression?
No, I don’t think what I do on stage is any different than what I do off stage, because I come at it with a lot of sincerity, so it’s less that, and more so… well, what I just said. When everything stopped, I realized I had been putting all of my effort and energy into work and touring. And then it starts becoming work. I was neglecting all these other areas of my life, and escaping all these other areas of my life. The fact that I was so busy with so much going on, I was using that as a way to not reconcile with things, and confront the things that were going on in my life.
To paraphrase the great Tom Petty, you were running down a dream. Which reminds me, “Any Turn” reminded me sonically of that very song.
I’m a big fan of what they call ‘patter songs,’ very famously “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Or R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” There’s a bunch of ’em: Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I love those songs because it’s always a challenge to learn all the lyrics, because it’s so crazy. I wanted to write one myself and I thought: ‘What’s the most manic, chaotic, fast-moving subject matter I could sing about?’ Well, tour and tour life! So that song is all about touring and every single word and lyric is a reference to a really specific memory that’s either an inside joke or something crazy that’s happened on tour. There’s probably over 200 memories in that song alone!
Maybe this is one of those songs that’ll keep getting longer as you acquire new tour memories.
[ Laughs] I’ll have to do updated versions!
Pre-pandemic, were you already thinking about what Bronco was going to sound like?
Yeah, I knew I was going to be making a second album. I was really worried about it to be honest, because historically speaking, sophomore albums don’t do very well. [ Laughs] And I’ve gotten such a wonderful response and success off of Pony. There were times when I was worried I wouldn’t be able to live up to that again. Or make an album that people liked as much again.
And quite honestly, if the pandemic hadn’t hit, maybe I wouldn’t have made an album I was as happy with. I might have been more concerned with what people thought or what I was supposed to be doing. Or what people wanted to hear: I probably would have put more thought into it in that sense. But because I found myself in the circumstance with the pandemic and where I was at in my personal life, for the first time since I was-god, probably since I was a teenager -I was able to write music with no insecurity, no pretense and no care what people would think about it or who was gonna hear it or how it was supposed to sound.
It was such a pure cathartic process, to write this album: each of the songs was something I needed to get off my chest for a very long time. They all feel like therapy in a way. By the end of it I think I’ve written about 20 songs. I was so proud of it and happy with it. I knew I had an album and I decided I wanted to call it Bronco, I wasn’t caring about what people were gonna think about it.
This record feels very much like you are rummaging to the wreckage of your past. “Kalahari Down” for instance sounds like a very specific memory from your days growing up in South Africa.
That song-it’s funny because everyone thinks I’m Canadian. Which I’m not. But I’ve never spent time correcting anyone where I’m from. I used to just like that it remained a mystery… I didn’t want to give that away yet. Even though I’m really proudly South African…in the industry, all my friends know I’m South African. I go back all the time, I always talk about it. But I didn’t feel like it was important to share until the right moment. With “Kalahari Down” I wanted to finally talk about where I’m from and the feelings I have about it, the memories I have of it. It’s a song about guilt and regret leaving someplace you love to pursue your career, to make your world and your life I guess. The bittersweet nostalgia of missing home. And the feelings that come with that.
You’re releasing Bronco in three separate episodes; it doesn’t feel random the way things are sequenced. Have you thought about a story arc of sorts in making Bronco?
Yeah, definitely, the sequencing on the record itself was really deliberate, I took a couple of months to make sure it’s all in the right track listing and order. And with the release I wanted to make sure people listened to it like an album, like an old school album. I think a lot of music these days the unsaid intention is that there are maybe one or two bangers on that record, they put those out first and the rest is kind of wrung out and a bit like filler. They hope the two singles make it to radio and they’re on to the next album.
It just feels a little disposable, which is fine too! But it’s just not my style of doing things. Because it’s so important to me and I feel all of the songs are their own story, they all deserve equal attention I suppose. So that’s how we decided to do Bronco in these chapters. We were very specific about the mix of songs we wanted to release with each chapter, and the story we wanted to tell. And direct everyone a bit on how the album is supposed to be listened to, so it’s kind of my sneaky way of forcing people to open their ears and listen. Rather than just click play on the single and forget about it.
I recall you saying in an interview that you write from a very visual place, and now you have the budget to also really make these visual elements tangible within the songs. It kind of makes me wonder how close some videos are to your original concepts?
Yeah absolutely, sometimes the videos draw on something specific, sometimes it’s about capturing the overall mood. Sometimes it’s really specific: for instance, the video for “Daytona Sand,” I had the storyline of what the video was about very early on when I wrote the song. When I pictured the video, I wanted it to be like this wild action movie set in Florida basically.
I’m surfing on a truck and stealing a car and all this crazy stuff happening, same is “Curse of the Blackened Eye”: the whole song is about trauma or abuse, whatever it is following you around and haunting you, no matter what environment you’re in. You could be at a kid’s birthday party or be at the bar. You could be wherever. And it’s always sitting in the corner watching you, so the idea for the video came so easy with that. I’d be doing all these mundane things and going about my daily life, then there’s this curse following me everywhere. And I can’t shake it.
It’s been amazing to work with Austin Peters on that, he’s one of my really dear friends, he’s so talented: we just work together so well. It was really easy to make all the visuals connect to how I pictured them when I wrote the music.
It helps to have Daryl from The Walking Dead playing the living curse.
I’m lucky I’ve had some great cameos in the video. They’re all just people I’m friends with: I met Norman Reedus a year ago, Margaret Cho is in the first video and she’s an old friend of mine, and Kornbread. “Hexie Mountains” has another cameo that’s coming this week. I’m lucky to have a bunch of my friends, who happen to be very talented artists and actors.
Who’s duetting with you on “All I Can Say”?
That’s Bria [Salmena], who is in my band and sings on a bunch of songs on the album. She is an incredible singer and musician in her own right. She’s like my right hand woman, she’s in my band, we write together…yeah, she’s incredible.
Obviously, being signed to a major label, you get a bigger budget and more possibilities to carry out your vision. Was that a bit daunting at first? Or were you more like ‘Damn, I’m about to light me some big ass fireworks?’
Yeah, when they tell you you can work with Jay Joyce and record this album in this way, it’s amazing. I grew up poor, even when I made Pony I was working two jobs. I barely had the money to even make that album. So yeah, of course, I feel incredibly lucky. We definitely used it well. Jay Joyce and myself both agreed there’s a certain energy to my live show that doesn’t always translate to previous recordings. Which is fine too, because Pony was its own thing anyway.
But Bronco, the spirit of it is this wild, liberating energy, we knew we wanted to capture some of that live feel, so what we did was we flew my band down to Nashville, in the middle of the pandemic. This was probably in the summer or late spring. We rehearsed the whole album for two weeks and then we went to the studio and basically cut live off-the-floor takes of the songs. This album was basically recorded live. There are songs with literally no overdubs at all, just one take. There are other songs where we added some percussion or where I added another vocal track, to do some harmonies. But for the most part, we sat down and played it like a band, and we’d do full takes.
“Let Me Drown” that’s a song-the strings, the vocals, everything-that’s all one live take that we did in the studio. “City of Gold” was also a one take as well. It was cool to make music in that way because I think it makes the difference, because I’ve done music the other way where the vocals are recorded in two different cities over a period of months, the guitar parts come from Los Angeles, the drums are from Nashville, and everything’s pieced together. I don’t like recording music that way, I think it loses a bit of life to it. It was so special making music this way, I don’t think I could ever go back to doing it the old way.
The title track is the perfect example in my opinion, it just sounds like a band in a room.
Yeah, the band and I are so excited to play that song live, it has this bombastic energy. It’s funny, that’s the first song I ever wrote that’s got that spirit to it in the sense that essentially, you’re fed up about being anything less than being yourself. It’s this anthem of radical self-acceptance, I suppose.
I guess that’s also the theme of breaking free as well. What you sing in “Curse of the Blackened Eye”-”It ain’t the letting go, it’s about the things you take with.” You meet all these people and places in your trails, and every encounter is a lesson, or can add something constructive to your existence.
I think it’s about the good, the bad and the ugly-not to quote an Western [ laughs]-but I think that song especially-and Bronco in general-is about breaking free and letting go. Acknowledging what you don’t need in your life, the things that are negative in your life, or traumatic in your life, haunt you or weigh on you. A lot of songs on Bronco talk about regret and resentment, guilt, trauma.
Then the things you take with you are also about the good, the special things you hold, the things you gained a new perspective on that you didn’t realize you loved or needed. I think the pandemic in general did that for a lot of us, it put a lot of things in perspective for a lot of people. I think all of us can relate to the fact that each and every one of us probably shaved off something we don’t need: a person or a habit or a type of behavior. I think all we realized a thing or two when life stopped in that way, you know?
Originally published at https://www.undertheradarmag.com on April 7, 2022.