“COVID Saved My Life”: Orville Peck On The Deep Depression That Inspired ‘Bronco’
"For the first time in my life time stopped and I was faced with this shocking reality that my personal life was a disaster."
The second ‘chapter’ of Bronco, four songs from Orville Peck’s sophomore album, is filled with down-and-out imagery: grey seasons, dried wells, black eyes, harmonicas echoing out over empty badlands. Despite this, there’s a quiet optimism throughout, even if Peck pauses when I say so.
“There’s definitely a theme of breaking free,” he says, after mulling it over. “In all of those songs, I’m singing about these negative things with the freedom to acknowledge them and call it like it is and without judgment.”
Written in 2020 during a “deep, deep depression” when Peck was “the most unhappy [he’s] ever been in [his] life”, Bronco doesn’t necessarily capture throwing off the darkness. Instead, we hear Peck’s first steps of accepting where he was, after crashing from the biggest year in his life. His 2019 debut album, Pony, transformed him into one of the year’s biggest successes, an accidental nexus of several cultural movements at once.
Combining a playful approach to country tropes and sounds with the undisguised queerness of his love-and-loss songs about drag queens and cruising, Pony is equal parks, dark, camp and eerie, matching steel drums, country crooning, and whip snaps with a sense of mystery, thanks to Peck’s distinct uniform. He’s never seen without a leather-fringed mask and cowboy hat. The fit adds an undeniable (if not confusing) eroticism to his music and performances, with Peck resembling an unknowable BDSM-cowboy with very piercing eyes armed with two chords, the ‘truth’, and a deep, occasionally funny baritone.
If you want, you can easily learn who he ‘really’ is, though it provides little insight into Orville Peck as an artist and figure. The mystery remains within the music and aesthetics itself, even with the full biography.
Meanwhile, in 2019, reservations around country were dissolving (again) thanks to the likes of cross-over stars like Lil Nas X and Kacey Musgraves, while Miley and countless other pop acts played with ‘yee-haw’ imagery. Critics moved on from an obsession with ‘authenticity’ and ‘realness’ in artists while queerness in pop music also became less interesting of itself, demanding deeper interpretation.
After Pony, Peck covered what felt like every other magazine; he performed at Dior shows in a custom suit and mask, and worked on follow-up EP Show Pony, featuring a duet with Shania Twain. In what might be the most emblematic show of his success, Peck was announced for both the 2020 editions Coachella and its country-cousin festival Stagecoach, the first artist to ever play the two side-by-side. Then COVID came.
“When my tour got cancelled, I had just come off a really crazy busy time and schedule,” he says. “For the first time in my life — like many of us — time stopped and I was faced with this shocking reality that my personal life was a disaster. I felt really empty and uninspired without touring, [which] I’d been using as a buffer to a lot of things that I had to sort out. I restarted my life on a personal level.”
Like many of us, Peck created his own routine for stability, thinking of writing as a 9-5 job, heading into his studio each day and staying put. Rather than writing for an album, he wrote for himself; eventually, Bronco formed.
“I think [Bronco‘s] the first thing I’ve ever been proud of in my life,” he says. “Pretty much everything I sing about in this album was some sort of catharsis or release. It came about in a really beautiful way — in an ironic way, if it hadn’t have been for COVID, this album wouldn’t have existed. COVID kind of saved my life, as an artist and as a person.”
Unrestrained And Untamed
Released in three chapters between February and April, Bronco is fifteen tracks that expand Orville Peck’s sound further, as hinted at on his 2020 cover of queer club anthem ‘Smalltown Boy’ or take on Gaga’s ‘Born This Way‘, featured on the 10-year-anniversary rerelease of her album of the same name. While Peck inflects both tracks with a country twang, he flirts with their original DNA.
That willingness to experiment comes across on Bronco, especially when compared to Show Pony, an EP that, while intended to bridge Pony and his next work, received mixed reviews, as some critics questioned whether Orville Peck was a sustainable project. Peck describes his writing process as led by visuals, in that he writes around cinematic images in his mind — no doubt why Pony‘s opening track ‘Dead Of Night’ has soundtracked several films (Scream, Possessor) and shows, most recently a standout scene in Euphoria‘s S2 first episode of Nate and Cassie in a speeding car.
“I’ve been so lucky in general with my songs being placed in pretty awesome shows and movies. It’s always very flattering,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of the show and loved the first season. There was a basic description of what the scene was gonna be but it was fascinating because [showrunner Sam Levinson] wrote the scene to it, which I didn’t know until watching it. And there’s no dialogue over any of it. I think the coolest scene in the episode, it’s like a music video almost.”
But we heard that cinematic touch less on Show Pony. It lacked the same world-building and theatricality of his debut in favour of more straightforward (but beautiful) ballads alongside a fun if not frivolous Shania duet and ‘Fancy’ cover.
Bronco, from the two chapters (just over half the songs) we’ve heard, is dramatic and moody, if not more up-tempo, inflected with bluegrass, ’80s guitar rock lines reminiscent of INXS and the post-punk from Peck’s past lives, sounds previously teased out in live shows. And the more stripped-back songwriting prowess of Show Pony — without the bells and whistles, so to speak — comes through too. Chapter 2 might lack the exaggerated cowboy affectation that first attracted fans, but it’s the most beautiful Peck’s voice has ever sounded, smooth and warm while singing some of his saddest lyrics yet. Bronco might not be as cohesive as Pony, but that’s the point.
“We chose to do it the chapter way because each song is its own little story, and has a totally different image,” he says. “A lot of the imagery to me felt big and expansive in a way that I’d never imagined before. Pony was so introspective and almost confessional, a lot of the songs feel like secrets and loneliness. Show Pony felt big and showy and a bit more camp and boisterous in some ways.”
“The reason I ended up calling it Bronco is it just felt unrestrained to me. I felt confident in the stuff I was singing about, even the really negative stuff, even the really private stuff…all the imagery to me of this album feels liberating.”
So far, the imagery has been markedly bigger, with a budget to match Peck’s vision. Lead video ‘C’mon Baby, Cry’, shot by repeat collaborator Austin Peters, is half dive bar live-show and half neon musical, with elaborate stages and cameos from Margaret Cho and Drag Race S14 star Kornbread Jéte. Peck invites a sad boy to open up to him; patrons pelt him with beer bottles. There’s a joy here, as the song reaches for connection.
But Chapter 2 alone covers dark topics like abusive relationships (‘The Curse Of The Blackened Eye’), deep longing (‘Hexie Mountains’) and depression (‘Trample Out The Days’). This is nothing new for country, and Peck is surprised that his queer perspective on these themes is still considered an anomaly.
“A lot of the themes of country are heartbreak, disappointment, loneliness, unrequited, love, regret — all of those are fundamental things that as queer people, we all feel at some point in our lives, in a massively traumatic way, usually [laughs],” he says.
“It’s a no-brainer that there would be gayness and queerness within country music. It seems like the perfect landscape for that.”
“And sometimes [we] never stop dealing with them throughout our own lives. Not to say, of course, other people don’t feel those things, but those are huge parts of the way that we grow up because we have this shame embedded in us. To me, it’s a no-brainer that there would be gayness and queerness within country music. It seems like the perfect landscape for that.”
The idea that he might be a gimmick or tourist in the genre frustrates him too, less for people discounting his own work than a misunderstanding of how country isn’t a static genre, despite the inherent nostalgia within its sound.
“When you think of the really iconic figures of country music, they all received the same reaction where people said, ‘Shania is showing her belly button, that’s not country’. Or ‘Dolly’s got her boobs out, that’s not country’, ‘Willie’s smoking weed. That’s not country’. And then you know, 10-15 years go by and everyone’s like, ‘this new thing isn’t country because you know what’s country? Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.’
“It’s almost like a retrospect genre in a sense. So when I [hear that] I’m an anomaly or my place in country [is questioned], I think that’s actually a good sign, because I feel like I’m in good company.”
Jared Richards is a critic writing on Gadigal land who writes for NME, The Guardian, The Big Issue and more. He’s also Junkee’s Drag Race recapper. He’s on Twitter @jrdjms.
Photo Credit: Julia Johnson