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Diamond Rings: Viva La Evolution

1DIAMOND_RINGS_BY_NORMAN_WONG7.jpgIn Diamond Rings' 2009 music video for "All Yr Songs," the new-wave pop singer (aka John O'Regan) poses for a photograph in a variety of guises -- from macho jock to bookish student to glam androgyne. The short clip tells a bigger story. After growing up outside of Toronto playing sports, O'Regan got into music while in college, fronting post-punk band, The D'Urbervilles. Next, the singer cast off the vintage T-shirts and re-emerged as Diamond Rings in shiny spandex and striking eye makeup. Now, as he prepares for the release of his sophomore album, Free Dimensional, out October 22, we check in to hear more about the record and to see where he's at on his evolutionary path.

What can you share about your forthcoming album?

The first album was about wanting to be noticed and to be seen and heard and I think, in large part, the new batch of songs is in some ways about trying to navigate this new world that I'm finding myself in. It's a really exciting place but a new place.

How would you describe your music?

If people ask, "If you had to tell your grandmother what kind of music you played," I'd say what I do is pop but [ultimately] I'm making songs because I'm trying to connect people [together].  It's weird to throw some sort of marketing [talk] on top of that like, "If this singer had a baby and that baby's nanny was this other singer, then it'd be that." If I think too much about what I do, it loses some of the realness or the magic for me so I always want to be at a distance.

You mentioned one of the biggest differences between this album and your first one had to do with your sense of confidence. Did that translate at all into your new look?

It was definitely a bit of both.  As an artist and as a performer, I'm always growing and evolving and a big part of what I do is check in with myself regularly and to make sure that what I'm doing and presenting is what I want to do.  Early on, I was trying a lot of stuff out and having fun with the idea that I could do whatever I want.  It was like, "I'm going to wear that and that and that at the same time because I'm on the stage and I can!" That was a great experience for me but sometimes just because you can, doesn't mean you should or that you should forever.  I think so much of the last album had this real vibrant energy to what I was doing and so it was all about rainbow and colors and this one is very much about stripping that back to light and dark -- light and shadow.  It's more about form rather than color and more minimalist.  There's a lot of strength in that.  It's like the white light before it passes through the prism and refracts and it's a more elemental and essential look. To me right now that feels very powerful. 

Tell me about your background and how you got started making music.

I grew up in a factory town/suburb about an hour east of Toronto called Oshua. I grew up playing sports -- basketball, hockey -- but concurrent with that, I had a strong passion for the arts -- drawing, painting, visual studies. I didn't get into music until I went away to art school and started going to shows and started teaching myself how to play guitar. Around that point, I was playing varsity sports but my heart wasn't into it.  I wanted to be going out to shows and playing shows and being in bands so I quit and threw myself into music. When I finished school, I moved [to Toronto] with the intention of trying to find my way as a musician and as an artist and straight away got really sick and got diagnosed with Crohn's disease.  I spent my first summer in the city in a hospital.  At the time, it was a really big set-back but it gave me the luxury of having the time to be with myself and my own thoughts and write some songs and really think about what it was that I wanted to do.

I was playing with other bands at the time and had done a few performance pieces in school, which in hindsight were more [like] Diamond Rings -- more campy, theatrical, over-the-top, incorporating sound with visual aesthetics and art. When I was playing in bands, it was very much part of this prevailing indie rock mentality of the time -- very anti-image, anti-press shoot, anti-video but I personally had a lot of fun with that.

When did you first decide you would rather do something different than indie rock?

Right away -- right from the first show.  The first time I stepped onstage with eye shadow on, it was like, "Yes. This is it." Since then, I haven't looked back. It's grown and it's evolved and I don't mean to say that I'll always be prancing around in makeup and tights forever but it just feels right.

How much of your life is spent as the persona 'Diamond Rings' versus John O'Regan?

I'm definitely the type of performer that more often than not is in between those things.  I certainly don't pretend and would feel weird being 'Diamond Rings' all the time.  There's something special about doing what I do for a live audience onstage and preserving some sort of degree of theatricality of it. There's also times to be real and hang out with your friends. I go to the coffee shop and some days, depending on what time it is, I'm in my track pants. I'm fortunate that I live in a part of Toronto where you don't have to get dressed up like you're heading down the runway to get groceries. For me, having that kind of separation is important -- I'm not out to totally freak people out and put them off.  There are other artists out there who do that already.

Do you consider yourself a queer artist?

Yeah, I very much identify as something in between. The idea of performing a gender or allowing myself to experience something different or outside of myself, that's what I'm interested in.  I think there's a tendency for a lot of people to draw parallels between my own sexuality based on how I perform gender as a performer.  I don't really identify as one or the other with that sort of [sexuality] binary -- I've always felt more in between and whether that's gender queer or queer, even those labels feel a bit stifling.  If I could just exist in this liminal place that's between all things, that's where I feel most comfortable a lot of the time. To say I'm gay would feel just as weird as saying I'm straight.  It just is what it is.

And speaking of another identity, you've mentioned how Toronto and Canada have inspired you as a musician. Can you talk more about that?

What excites me is that for the first time ever, you can be from Toronto or Canada and not have that be held against you or even be a talking point. For a long time, Canadian music was trying to hide  in the corner or it was trying to ape what was going on in the States 2-3 years earlier but now it feels like a really exciting time in music [in Toronto]. On the Top 40/pop end, there are people like Drake and Deadmau5 who are everywhere and then hardcore groups like Fucked Up who are doing awesome stuff and also people like Grimes and Austra, who are all Canadian. For whatever reason, there's a real energy and excitement in my city and I'm happy to be a part of it.

Photo by Norman Wong

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