Orville Peck Was Scared of the Sophomore Slump. With ‘Bronco,’ He Became Fearless

Orville Peck Was Scared of the Sophomore Slump. With ‘Bronco,’ He Became Fearless

In 2019, Orville Peck was the name on everyone’s lips. A gay country singer who only appeared wearing a fringe-covered mask, Peck captured the attention of the industry with his debut album Pony, as well as his follow-up EP Show Pony, proving himself as one of the fastest-rising alternative country acts of the last decade.

And then the pandemic happened. “I went into a really dark, serious depression for four or five months,” Peck tells Billboard of the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown. “I just decided to overhaul my whole life right then, and I debated the idea of even continuing to make music or do a second album.”

Struggling with the idea of the “sophomore slump” and feeling anxious about his ability to live up to his own high standards, Peck says he found himself listening to music that offered him some “nostalgic familiarity,” like Merle Haggard, Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd. Suddenly, the light bulb came on.

Two years and a lot of songwriting later, Peck is ready to show off Bronco, his unruly, wide-ranging second album (out now via Columbia Records). Spanning 15 songs and three mini “chapter” releases, the star’s sophomore effort sees the crooner taking bigger swings within his genre, as well as embracing a deeper, confessional songwriting approach, while also managing to keep his high-camp cowboy aesthetic fully intact. “To be honest, it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “And it’s the first thing I’m genuinely proud of in my life.”

Below, Billboard chats with Peck about reshaping his approach to songwriting, the cultural shift of queerness in country music within the last three years, and how his work with stars like Lady Gaga, Harry Styles and Beyoncé helped him find validation.

You did a lot during the pandemic: you covered “Born This Way” for Gaga’s anniversary album, you opened for Harry Styles at his “Harryween” Madison Square Garden shows, and you worked with Beyoncé for her Ivy Park Rodeo line. What is that like for you to work with all of these massive artists?

It’s been amazing. It was really just a string of really … I don’t know, I guess I’m not someone who would normally find validation in stuff like that, and I actually wish that I could a bit more, because it perpetuated a pattern of me being really hard on myself. But that string of a few months, when Gaga reached out, and Beyoncé, and these people that are so undeniably iconic in this industry and people that I’ve always looked up to … just them not only knowing who I am, but being a fan of what I do and wanting to work with me, it was very affirming. It erased a lot the remaining imposter syndrome that I think I had with all that quick amount of success. I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t a wonderful boost to my confidence. It honestly helped set me up for a lot of the confidence that’s on this album in a lot of ways.

You’ve talked a lot about how you were inspired by ’70s country and California psychedelic rock when putting Bronco together. What was it about those genres that spoke to you?

Before the pandemic hit, I had an idea of what my second album was going to be. And that idea was actually largely based on, I suppose, a lot of fear and anxiety about the whole sophomore slump thing, and the fact that I knew Pony had gained me all of my success. I was really nervous that I wasn’t going to make something as good as Pony, and I was really nervous about what other people were going to think. My mind was in the completely wrong place for writing an album — worried about other people’s opinions and the pressure I was putting on myself.

When the pandemic hit, I went into a really dark, serious depression for four or five months — I was in a really bad situation relationship-wise and in my personal life, and I was just really unhappy and not at all in a good place. I kind of just decided to overhaul my whole life right then, and I debated the idea of even continuing to make music or do a second album. What actually came out of that is I started remembering the things I loved about making music; when I was a teenager, the thing that brought me a lot of comfort was music. So I started listening to a lot of the music I listened to in high school and that I hadn’t listened to in a long time — Bakersfield artists like Merle Haggard, and a lot more of the folk, ’60s & ’70s side of country, as well as a lot of California psych like Jefferson Airplane and The Mamas & The Papas, even some Pink Floyd, just going back to some bands I haven’t listened to in a long time and looking for some comfort and that nostalgic familiarity to comfort myself. At the same time, I was using songwriting for the first time in years as a kind of cathartic release, so I think the combination of those two things sort of influenced one another. I started to write these very sincere, almost therapeutic, diary-like songs, with the sound being influenced by that era of music that I had revisited.

It struck me how vulnerable the lyrics were on songs like “Let Me Drown” and “The Curse of the Blackened Eye.” Was that a tough active shift to make while in the writing process?

Oh, yeah! I was really nervous about it, but that anxiety only came after the fact, weirdly. I suddenly realized I had an album on my hands, and then I suddenly thought, “Oh God, that means people are going to hear this stuff.” There’s a song on the album called “City of Gold” that I actually had no intention of putting on the album, only because I wrote that song in my bedroom as something for myself, I suppose, to release some stuff. I thought it would never see the light of day because I felt so exposed. But, when we decided that we liked the melody, I played it for the band. I told them, “I’m gonna change all the lyrics and I wanna put all these big instruments on it so it’ll be this big song,” and they were all like, “No, I think it’s pretty good as it is.” I was like, “No, it’s too mortifying!” But when we got to the studio, Jay Joyce, the producer, said the same thing and was like, “Why don’t we just try it once, sit down with the acoustic and play it over and over until you feel like you’re in your bedroom and no one is listening.” And, of course, that final take is the one that made it onto the album — it’s one live take, and me getting to a place where I wasn’t feeling any insecurity and was fully vulnerable, which needed to happen.

I’ve always been fascinated with the contrast between your emotional vulnerability as a songwriter, and the lens of high-drama, camp, queer aesthetic you render all of your work through. Is it a balancing act, trying to achieve both of those goals at once, or do you feel they complement one another?

I think they absolutely complement one another. I’ve always been more interested in the intersection of performance and sincerity; it’s always my favorite place to make art from, and my favorite kind of art that has always captivated me. Some people think that, in order to be sincere, something can’t also be showy and performative. For me, I think it’s actually when you combine those two things that it almost becomes the most sincere. All of the kind of extra stuff I put on top of the sincerity is still coming from an authentic place — all of it is just me being myself. If it’s authentic, then they are completely complementary, and it’s pretty obvious when it’s not authentic. Instead of whispering who I am, I’m screaming it.

Orville Peck

Orville Peck

Bronco is also a great title, continuing the theme from Pony and Show Pony. Do you see yourself keeping that streak going with future albums?

Yeah! I’m someone who believes in evolution as an artist, and I never want to stick myself into any sort of boundaries — so the short answer there is I don’t know if it’ll be a continuous theme, but it’s my suspicion that I am gonna go along with that, at least for now. I found a useful way to title my albums that can express and represent what part of life I’m at. That’s the process with it — with Pony, this was my first, lonely, frightened little album, and then Show Pony was my glitzy attempt at confidence, and now Bronco is all about breaking free and being untamed and unrestrained. Who knows what the next one will be?

I have to imagine that it helps almost as a sort of writing prompt, as well.

Totally! I’m also really deliberate about what I do, and always thinking within the terms of my legacy as an artist, and I don’t like anything to be sort of flippant. Musically, aesthetically, it’s all brought with a lot of intention.

The marketing strategy of this album has been really fascinating — why did you decide to roll Bronco out in a series of four-to-five song chapters?

Well, when the album was finished and I sent it to the label, we were trying to figure out what the singles would be in the traditional rollout structure where you release maybe one or two. Everybody had a different favorite song, and even those opinions would change all of the time, which is a lovely compliment to the record and its sonic diversity. I felt like, if we put out one of those on its own, it wouldn’t be able to tell the story of the entirety of the album, because it is intended to be played as an album. So the strategy became a situation where we would deliberately pick certain songs and release them in chapters so that each chapter could help progress the vibe and the story of the album to people. It also became our sneaky way of sort of forcing people to listen to it, rather than just throwing a single out there and then dropping a full album two months later. It didn’t feel like that typical process would do it justice, I wanted people to sit and listen to each song carefully.

The other thing that helped with forwarding the narrative with the album were the incredible videos you’ve put out with Austin Peters. I love seeing an artist and director become regular collaborators with music videos — what about Austin made you want to keep working with him?

Austin has become one of my best friends ever since I worked with him on “Queen of the Rodeo,” and we totally see eye-to-eye on our aesthetics and our references. We work in such a shorthand, I never feel like I have to compromise with him. It’s so easy that it just felt right to have him to do all of these videos with me. Plus, that way, we were able to map out and keep a continuity through all of the videos. It’s keeping it all within the same idea of the chapters and the rollout strategy — I wanted everything to feel coherent in telling the story of this album. To be honest, it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done, and the first thing I’m genuinely proud of in my life.

Since you last put out an album in 2019, a lot of the cultural landscape has shifted for queer artists — obviously Lil Nas X has become this cultural phenomenon, but we’ve also seen traditional country artists like T.J. Osborne coming out and maintaining their position in the Nashville scene. What’s that like for you to watch as an openly queer person working in the country scene?

It’s really great. Not just with queerness, but also with race and gender and all different kinds of things, there is this big reckoning that’s happening in country music specifically that has been long overdue. The thing that’s really beautiful to watch is that there are a lot of us in country music who, for some reason or another, were marginalized or left out of the industry, either for our sexuality or our gender or the color of our skin. I think we’ve gotten to a point where the machine of country music is slowly starting to accept and is being forced to realize that, not only do we all have seats at the table already, but that listeners want us there, and they want to hear our stories. We do belong in these spaces — not only do they want us there, but they genuinely love having us.

I mean, we are essential artists to the genre; we sell out tours, we sell records, and I think it probably took that level of capitalist acknowledgement for the industry to accept it, which is no surprise. It’s s–tty, but it’s what it is. At the same time, it’s very affirming. The more T.J.s and the more Mickey Guytons and the more Brandis and all of these other people who are going and telling their stories authentically without apology there are, the more it’s going to inspire more people to come out and be themselves in country music, and know that there is room for them at the table. It just takes a few people to show that, so I think it’s beautiful. There’s still a lot of work to do, but it’s definitely a totally different landscape than even just a couple years ago.

I love that Bronco is practically built to be played live — you’re heading out on tour next week, are you excited to bring this to a live audience?

Oh, for sure — we recorded almost all of the tracks in a style that is meant to be live off the floor, because we wanted to capture that live essence. So, yeah, they are written to be played live, and I’m so excited because it’s been literally years since I’ve gotten to play new material live, and I just don’t know what to expect. I wish I had a better answer for what people can expect from this tour, but the exciting part is that I don’t even know because we’re all going to be experiencing this for the first time together, us and the audience. I’m just really stoked to see which songs give what effect. I’m so, so excited.

Orville Peck Was Scared of the Sophomore Slump. With ‘Bronco,’ He Became Fearless In 2019, Orville Peck was the name on everyone’s lips. A gay country singer who only appeared wearing a fringe-covered mask, Peck captured the attention of the industry with his debut album Pony, as well as his follow-up EP Show Pony, proving himself as…