Orville Peck has been keeping journals since he was 16 years old. All the heartache, reminisces, and other written-in-place memories have provided him with some riveting stories, in song. “Sometimes I go back on things and take lyrics from journal entries that I had when I was younger,” says Peck on how he crafted his latest EP Show Pony. “All of my songs, essentially, are many years in the making, and then some things on Show Pony came up in the studio. It’s a mix of different periods from my life.”
Behind his leather-fringed mask, Peck exposes more on Show Pony. Stripped down from 2019 debut Pony’s more electric production, Show Pony viscerally opens Peck’s past childhood reflections, presents tales of lonesomeness, being queer, and… ultimately getting ready for the Show. If Pony was hanging around the stable, Show Pony is ready for the spotlight.
Still textured in slow brooding croons, Show Pony‘s country medleys percolate through Peck’s Southern-goth and cinematic, Lone Ranger blues. Getting caught up in the nostalgia, “Summertime” opens on affecting lyrics Asking where the time’s gone / Dreaming with the lights on / Trying to keep your eyes on / Something along the rise.
Originally written for Pony, Peck wanted to flesh out “Summertime” for Show and later revised it while recording in Nashville. Shifting from Toronto to Nashville with some vocals done in Los Angeles, Show Pony was predominantly recorded on tour in 2019. “Show Pony found itself among the highways of North America, which gives a nice touch to the kind of outlaw feel of it,” says Peck. “When I listen to Show Pony, it definitely brings up ‘On the Road’ again by Willie Nelson, where it just feels a bit transient.”
On Show Pony, Peck drifts through the outlaw-ridden Americana of “No Glory in the West” to a story of distant love on “Drive Me, Crazy.” Night after night, Peck would sit up late at night on the tour bus, watching trucks passing one another in the night. Hearing his bus driver on the CV radio talking to the other bus and truck drivers, Peck starting thinking of the more amatory tale about two truckers who are in love, yet they’ve never met.
“I had this idea that I wanted to write a country love song ala Elton John piano power ballad about two truck drivers who are in love with each other, and they only ever see each other when they pass each other on the divide, on freeways at night,” says Peck. “They’ve never even met—everything is through the radio.”
Going through journals when he was 18 and in a very different place in his life, all these emotions started flooding out, and eventually turned into “Kids.” Reopening the wounds of friends lost when he was a teen, the acoustic-driven track cuts deeper, and ended up being the most private song on the album for Peck, bellowing Running out into the night / Getting low on luck it’s time to fight / You call me up telling me all your frights / Because neither one of has died. “I think I imagined it was going to be a slightly understated kind of song,” says Peck. “I knew I wanted it to be quite stripped down, but I think that might be the most private song I’ve ever written, lyrically. It’s about it’s about me, and some friends that I sadly lost when I was young.”
He adds, “I wanted to just make it really simple and understated but try and pack as much vulnerability into the lyrics as I could, which is something I haven’t done before. It’s challenging, just as a person, to be so open about certain things, so I really tried to challenge myself lyrically with that. It’s funny, because now it’s my favorite song on the EP.”
A first collaboration for Peck, Shania Twain joins Peck for the more country-pop revelry of “Legends Never Die.” When Peck first heard that Twain— who was the last person he was able to meet before everything shut down during the pandemic—was a fan of his, he didn’t believe it.
Then, without really knowing for sure, he started writing the track with her in mind.
“It was a lot of me battling the denial of whether that was true or not true because I couldn’t believe it,” says Peck. “Then I had this pipe dream after hearing that. I had yet to do any kind of duet or a feature on any of my songs, and since there’s such a rich history of duets and collaborations within country music, I put a lot of expectation on it as to who that was going to be the first one.”
From the start, “Legends” was meant to be more of an up-tempo country rock song with a laid back, hot, and sweaty feel, says Peck. “I wanted to merge those two feelings together, because it brings to mind a lot of the ’90s country rock,” he says. “That’s kind of what I wanted to achieve with her, because I couldn’t really think of a duet that she had done that was like that, and I know that she’s so capable of different vibes.”
Donning a skin-tight leopard-fringed get up reminiscent of her “That Don’t Impress Me Much” days, Twain is a force on “Legends” dueling with Peck on You get one chance, when you strike the match/ Ain’t nothing in this life gonna hold me back up whether strapped to a motorcycle or in a drive-in concert setting. Peck jokes that the lyrics pretty much sum up his surprising collaboration. “In my experience,” he says, “you gotta really shoot for the stars.”
Following his union with Twain, Peck pays homage to another woman of country, closing on his rendition of the Bobbie Gentry classic “Fancy.”
“I’ve been performing ‘Fancy’ for quite a while now, but I decided I wanted to do a studio version for the EP, because it was written by the incomparable legend Bobbie Gentry,” says Peck about her 1969 song of childhood poverty and prostitution, which was also redone by Reba McEntire in 1990. “Her [Gentry’s] version feels so important and of the time it was written. It felt very ahead of its time, but also so of the time it was written, and then Reba covered it and her version had its own mark. I felt like that song deserved another evolution to kind of pay respect to both the previous versions, but also give my own take on it.”
Picking off haunting echos of Nick Cave, Peck’s vocals thump through his own gloomy “Fancy.” “It was also my own perspective, which was a queer perspective that hadn’t been added to the song before,” says Peck. “I think it’s an incredible song that has its own life really, and I just wanted to get my version in there so that hopefully 10 years from now, someone else might cover it and they can put their spin on it, and that song can keep living on and on.”
There’s some iteration in the titles, but Show Pony steps into another sonic F range from Pony. “It’s like the middle sister between what Pony was and what the next album will be—sonically, thematically,” says Peck. “It feels almost like an evolution from Pony and that’s essentially why it’s connected in the title.”
He’s also always had this fascination with the figure of a pony. “I feel like a pony could be perceived in so many different ways,” says Peck. “It’s kind of lonely. It’s kind of sad. It’s a little bit out of place in the sense that it’s not quite a horse. It’s not even a donkey. It’s just kind of there, and it also has this queer connotation for me.”
Feeling more confident after Pony‘s reception encouraged Peck to dig deeper Show Pony with lyrics and bolder instrumentation. “That’s why it’s called Show Pony, because it’s been dolled up and it’s got ribbons and its main is ready for the competition,” says Peck. “But at the end of the day, it’s still just this sad little pony.”
Writing for Peck is not a process, and it’s mostly enjoyable, never laborious. It either starts with an idea, a lyric with a point of view, or a melody, which he’ll usually record into his phone. “I’m kind of all over the place,” laughs Peck. Mostly, he just misses performing live.
“I love writing music,” says Peck. “I love everything about my job, but my absolute favorite favorite thing will always and forever be performing. So that’s really taken a lot to get used to, not being able to perform, not being able to interact with the fans in that way, or just getting out on stage, which I really underestimated how much I rely on, and how much as performer, we really feed off that. It’s been a complete baptism by fire for me to suddenly wake up each day and ask myself, ‘what am I going to do?’ I’ve never had that in my life!”
Peck admits he’s a bit of a dark cowboy. There’s always going to be shadowy vibes and more murkier musings in his music. Now, he just finds it amusing since pre-COVID, he’s been less of loner these days.
“It’s so funny, because I’m usually surrounded by so many people now,” says Peck. “I have a very caring team. I have an amazing label and so many people supporting me. I’m literally never alone anymore, and I still write these kind of dark lonesome songs. It’s just ironic, because I don’t think we ever really truly get rid of that. I think when you’re kind of a bit of a lone soul, that stays with you through everything.”
Living in lockdown, Peck is thinking up new creative projects, some not necessarily linked to music, and is already working on the next album.
“I feel grateful that I am in a place in my life where I get to not only have a job that I enjoy, but a job that other people seem to enjoy as well,” says Peck. “It helps motivate me to keep doing things and living out dreams I’ve had since I was a little kid.”
Peck adds, “There’s a entire universe in my head that extends into all kinds of mediums and formats. Hopefully, when life starts to return back to normal, we get to explore a few more of those.”