COVER STORY: Unleashing Bronco
Orville Peck talks his vulnerable sophomore album before bringing the new tunes to Houston.
Standing in front of bright stage lights in a dive bar filled with drunkards and despondent cowgirls (including queer comedienne Margaret Cho), Orville Peck sings “I don’t want you to be afraid / Let me see you cry” to a tattooed, teary-eyed cowboy. This scene from “C’mon Baby, Cry,” the first music video from Peck’s new album, Bronco, lays the foundation for the rest of the collection. It’s a celebration of Peck’s evolution as an artist, his embrace of personal and musical vulnerability, and his strength in moving on from the past and onto the metaphorical glitter-filled dance floor—much like the literal one in the final scenes of the video.
Ready to unleash Bronco and take his show on the road, the multi-talented artist will be stopping in Houston on May 10 to perform at White Oak Music Hall. He can’t wait to return to the Lone Star State, and reveals that he’s particularly excited to make a stop in Houston. “Last time I was in Texas, we had an after-party on some weird satellite tower—it felt very Friday Night Lights!” he laughs. “We were on some weird water tower or something and I can’t remember how we even got there, but it was very fun.”
Peck notes that Houston’s unique Gulf Coast location is what makes it so appealing to him. “The thing I love about Texas is that every region is so different. I love Houston because it’s swampy and it feels like Louisiana vibes. I love Houston, and I just think it has a very unique vibe that the rest of Texas definitely doesn’t have. It feels like its own place.”
Reminiscing about his previous works, he refers back to his 2019 debut album. “Pony was kind of a frightened confession, I suppose. I was still very nervous and trying to be vulnerable, when I had never been vulnerable in the art I made.” The singer, who dons intricate face masks with long tassels that veil much of his face when in public, explains how his 2020 EP, Show Pony, was another step toward gaining the self-confidence he’d sought for so long. “I built on my confidence with that album, but I was still nervous and worried what people would think at that point. I had built a fan base, so there were lots of expectations for that album.”
The release of his latest project coincides with a release of his artistic anxieties and hesitations. “With Bronco, I didn’t care what people thought of it. It was incredibly cathartic for me to write it at the time I wrote it.” Listing country legends such as Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton among his musical influences, it’s no wonder Peck followed their lead, dropped all of his defenses, and submitted to letting his heart lead his creative process. “I wrote from a place of total vulnerability, with no pretense or worry about what it should sound like or how it would be received.”
Bronco is being released in three chapters, leading up to when the entire album drops on April 8. Peck hints at his latest musical inspirations throughout the album, expertly walking a fine line and not devolving into what the artist refers to as “wedding-band throwback music.”
“Musically, my inspiration was ’60s and ’70s country and rock, like California country, and psychedelia music like The Mamas & The Papas and Jefferson Airplane,” the masked singer says. “I was listening to a lot of Beach Boys and exotica-tiki music. I like to take inspiration and evolve it to my own sound.”
The artist, who collaborated with country icon Shania Twain on 2020’s “Legends Never Die,” is two-stepping into new territory with the creative direction of his music videos. “I do all of them with my good friend Austin Peters,” he says. “I have a very specific vision with everything I do, and I have my hands in all areas of it. With my previous albums, I worked with different directors and people. [The aesthetic was very much me], but I would hand over the [creative] reins to other people, because I thought that’s what I had to do and I wasn’t as secure in taking charge.”
Finding the right creative collaborator was key for Peck, who had five music videos for his new album in the can at the time of this interview. “I wanted to work with a director I get along with, who understands the project creatively and can collaborate with me. It’s been a beautiful thing working with Austin because we work so well together that we are finishing each other’s sentences!”
Being categorized within a genre that doesn’t necessarily scream “gay rights,” Peck explains that his sexuality was never a deterrent in his quest for country-music stardom. “I would love to say it was a difficult journey, but it truly wasn’t. I have always been out, I’ve always been myself. I played in bands before this project, and as a working musician and actor I’ve always been openly gay,” the artist explains. “My only agenda with this project was that I challenged myself to make really authentic art, because I’m not someone who is easily truly vulnerable and able to show the most embarrassing parts of myself. I think that rings true for gay people, because I think we carry a lot of shame.”
Peck deduces that his process as a songwriter, combined with his foray into a newfound emotional openness, turned out to be a match made in heaven. “To me, writing about men goes hand-in-hand with being vulnerable and authentic. I didn’t think I was flipping a script, I just thought that opening up about my sadness and disappointment in love [would challenge me to be] vulnerable. Of course, now I recognize how important the impact of [being a gay country singer] is, and I take on the responsibility proudly and happily.”
The deep-voiced crooner anticipates this tour will be a mixed bag of emotions. “I will always love [my previous albums], so we will probably play a lot of those songs. It’s the first time in over three years that we’re playing a lot of new music, and I’m so excited. The songs are so incredibly personal to me that I can’t wait to play them live,” he says. “I’ll probably get pretty emotional when I play them, because a lot of the songs hit close to home. It’s been about a year since I recorded the album, and I get really emotional performing them. I feel like I’ll get choked up a lot.”
Along with some brand-new tunes, fans can also look forward to seeing a different physical side of Peck. “The whole spirit of Bronco is about me breaking free from a lot of negative things in my personal life, like depression, anxiety, and certain relationships. I felt like it was time for the look [of my masks] to also evolve slightly, because I believe in evolving as an artist.” The artist breaks out in boisterous laughter as he recalls the initial fan response to the new look of his masks. “[My team and I] were all laughing because my new masks reveal my ears, and we were joking that it was like I was doing Victorian-era porn. It was so salacious to people online that I would dare to show my ears!”
His entire touring team is more like a chosen family for Peck—a concept many queer folks are familiar with. These tight-knit relationships come in handy when the rhinestone cowboy finds himself on long trips away from home. “My band and my crew are all so close. We are a big family of best friends and spend a lot of time with each other. We love to do things in the towns we are in together. We like to drink beer and laugh. It’s a lot like summer camp. I just try to kill time by being super-present and off my phone.”
The gift of Bronco is one that Peck is excited to share with his fans. Just as he pleads with the character in the “C’mon Baby, Cry” music video to emotionally free himself and cry, Peck hopes his new album will allow listeners to embrace any emotions they might be harboring as well. “I would’ve never said this before this album, but I hope people feel inspired to open up and be themselves, show themselves, and be proud of themselves, for better or worse. I think I try to really expose myself on this album. At some points it even feels mortifying, to an extent. But that’s an important place to go to in the pursuit of authenticity, which is my main focus in my personal and musical life. I want people to be inspired and embarrassed with me.”
What: Orville Peck’s Bronco Tour
When: 7 p.m. on May 10
Where: White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N Main St.
This article appears in the April 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.