Music

'She's just such a boss': how Orville Peck teamed up with Shania Twain on his new Show Pony EP

The masked Canadian country singer releases the anticipated followup to his Juno-nominated, Polaris Prize longlisted debut album.

The masked country singer releases the anticipated followup to his Juno-nominated, Polaris longlisted debut

Orville Peck was set to release his Show Pony EP in June 2020, but amid the global protests against anti-Black racism he postponed it so as not to pull focus. (Sarah Pfeiffer; graphic by CBC Music)

"I went to Las Vegas to work on 'Legends' with Shania [Twain] the day before quarantine started. So she was literally the last person I hung out with before going into quarantine."

Orville Peck laughs quickly over the phone from Vancouver, still not really believing that he spent his last pre-pandemic days of March on Shania Twain's ranch, recording the duet he wrote for the two of them before he even knew she'd be interested. That duet, plus four new original songs and one cover, is being released Aug. 14 on Show Pony, Peck's followup EP to his critically acclaimed 2019 debut album, Pony.

Peck, who uses his pseudonym and trademark cowboy hat and fringe mask to obscure his identity — "I use it as something to enhance the artistry of what I do," he told the New York Times in 2019 — self-produced and self-released his first ever single, "Big Sky," in 2018 before being picked up by Seattle label Sub Pop and Toronto label Royal Mountain Records for the release of his debut full-length. The ascension wasn't overnight, but it was quick: Peck garnered a spot on the Polaris Music Prize long list in 2019, a 2020 Juno Award nomination for alternative album of the year and graced the covers of big-name magazines including GQ and Harper's Bazaar Men, also appearing alongside now friend and DJ Diplo on Attitude Magazine when the producer's country album was released earlier this year.

Peck enlisted Toronto psych-rock band Frigs to record Pony, and their playing infused Peck's music while staying true to the songwriter's country — and punk — heart. Peck's work juxtaposes his theatricality with the sincerity of his songwriting, questioning gender norms and stereotypes of masculinity while wielding that immensely powerful baritone. 

"Legends Never Die" is the closest to pop-country that the masked country singer has written yet, and it's unsurprising given that he had the pop-country crossover queen in mind from the minute he started writing. Peck's voice twines with Twain's gravel-tinged vocals for an inevitable honkey tonk-leaning hit, and the joy on his face when she appears, in matching fringe, for her first verse in the official video feels genuine. (The COVID-19 appropriate drive-in venue is a nice touch, too.)

"I kind of wanted it to feel like if Neil Young and Crazy Horse wrote a '90s country-rock song for Shania Twain [laughs], if that makes any sense at all," says Peck. "I wanted it to have this lazy, hot, sweaty, cowboy feel to it, like working out on the ranch and feeling exhausted by the heat, but enjoying all of it at the same time."

It was incredible to be around her working because she's just such a boss- Orville Peck on working with Shania Twain

Peck says he began writing the duet as a "pipe dream" when he heard Twain was a fan of his,  and sent it around to a few people. (He's been a fan of hers since elementary school, naming "Forever and for Always" as his favourite Twain song.) When he met Twain for the first time at the 2020 Grammy Awards — "It was amazing because she was wearing this crazy outfit, and I was wearing this crazy outfit" — he found out that she'd heard it.

"She told me that she loved it and she couldn't wait to start working on it," says Peck. "So obviously, that was pretty thrilling. I think my brain exploded that day."

Twain and Peck's back-and-forth on the song is both natural and delightfully playful, a testament to Peck's writing as well as the two Canadian artists' mutual appreciation and comfort together in studio. A hint of Peck's awe comes through as well. "I'm at her place in Vegas, we're riding her horses, we're hanging out. I mean, it was just surreal," he says, of the experience.

"It was incredible to be around her working because she's just such a boss," he adds.

Peck was set to release Show Pony in June 2020, but amid the global protests against anti-Black racism and the second wave of Black Lives Matter, he decided to wait so as not to pull focus. 

"Love you all for being kind people and I can't wait for you to hear the album — but let's use this month to get our shit in order because this is only the start of the marathon for equality," he wrote via Instagram, two days before the planned June 12 release date. That month, Peck also helped raise funds for anti-Black racism organizations, including participating in a virtual event for Wynwood Pride in Miami that raised $16,000 for the Bail Project, Central Florida's LGBTQIA+ and POC Contigo Fund, Equal Justice Initiative, Impact Justice, and the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts collective.

Now, two months later and while self-isolating in his former home city of Vancouver for two weeks after having travelled from his current Los Angeles home — "Day 11 today of my quarantine," he says, counting on the calendar. "Haven't lost my marbles just quite yet but getting close" — Peck is ready to release his highly anticipated Show Pony EP via Columbia Records.

"It's kind of the middle sibling between Pony and what the next album will be," says Peck. "Thematically and musically, it has songs that could exist on Pony. And then I think it also has a very confident evolution and new perspective as well."

"So that's kind of why I called it Show Pony, because … it's been, you know, dolled up and it's got ribbons in its hair and it's had its tail curled and it's kind of been primped up. But at the end of the day, it's kind of still the same sad little pony," he adds, laughing.

Peck says he always has songs sitting on the back burner, so the new tracks on Show Pony have been simmering for years. His first single, "Summertime," was originally going to be on Pony, but Peck didn't feel that it was quite right. He re-recorded it to get the melancholic, slyly titled song that would fit perfectly onto his new EP, and coupled it with a gorgeous video that's punctuated with floral bursts and a banjo solo. 

Show Pony showcases Peck's innate sense of story, and his desire to challenge the traditional country narrative to push for an industry that's both inclusive and boundary-pushing. His cover of Bobbie Gentry's 1969 classic, "Fancy," which he first heard as Reba McEntire's cover in the 1990s, is possibly the best example of that, as Peck slows the whole thing down, playing with gender pronouns to create a song that is refreshingly altered.

"I kind of include elements from Bobbie's version, I include elements of Reba's version. And then I, hopefully, tried to put my own take on it both sonically and lyrically from more of a queer perspective and change the pronouns bit."

I'm not really someone that easily talks about my feelings and things like that, I've really had to learn to do that through my songwriting, which is kind of now my favourite thing to do.- Orville Peck

While Peck has a penchant for (gorgeous) costume and hiding his face, he is vulnerable and accessible in his work. His new song "Kids" is simple, heartbreaking proof of that: "I keep thinking we'll disappear but years go by/ still neither one of us has died," he softly sings, closing out a National-esque chorus that is a reflection of the friends he lost in his teenage years. Pulled from his 16-year-old-self's journal and pushed by a conversation with a childhood friend, Peck wrote "Kids" on the spot in studio and created his own cathartic, private moment with his thoughts.

"I'm not really someone that easily talks about my feelings and things like that, I've really had to learn to do that through my songwriting, which is kind of now my favourite thing to do — to really push myself to be as sincere and exposed as possible, I suppose."

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