Diamond Rings talks about the making of his new record before his much-anticipated return to Montreal
Up until a few months ago, many considered Toronto’s towering synth-pop frontman John O’Regan to be the country’s electro diamond in the rough.
That charming DIY aesthetic, the makeshift laptop glam beats, the sports jerseys and rainbow face paint, etc. But after a slew of rave reviews for his debut record, Special Affections, opening for Robyn on her North American Body Talk tour, releasing his slickly produced sophomore record, Free Dimensional, enlisting the help of three musicians (including Montreal’s ever-versatile Graham Van Pelt) for live performances and paying a visit to the Lenos and Lettermans of the world, the cat’s out of the bag. Our favourite pompadour-sporting New Waver – a former frontman for disbanded post-punk act The D’Urbervilles – is currently taking his distinctive baritone, vintage synths, on-stage sparkle and flamboyant raps to various North American cities.
NIGHTIFE.CA caught him on the DR tour bus to talk about loving oneself, aging gracefully and jamming to Britney (Spears, silly!) in the Mile-End.
A lot has changed with this sophomore record, mainly due to newfound access to great recording facilities and talented collaborators. But something that’s remained constant through the transition is your lyrical call to embrace oneself and own up to who you are. Has that been intrinsic to the DR identity since day one?
Yeah, I think so. It’s a very personal, creative outlet for me. Also, when performing solo and making records on your own, as much as I have a great team and tons of support, at the end of the day it’s still just me, my music and my words. I think having songs there to support me as I’m doing what I do is important. If other people can take meaning or inspiration from them in the same way I do, that would be great, but at the end of the day, it’s just about … I don’t want to say me, but to some extent, it is. I’ve got to be happy with the work that I’m making and the things that I’m saying. And I am.
You’ve always talked about how an artist’s aesthetic sensibility is just as important as their musical output. Beyond the obvious ‘80s influences that everyone’s already alluded to, could you think of an artist or a band whose aesthetic you’ve always really dug?
They have a new album out, but I’ve always really admired Pet Shop Boys for what they’ve done with their image and their aesthetic. It’s been quite consistent, and has evolved in a way that is graceful and elegant. I admire artists who have lasting careers and who can age gracefully, not standing on stage pretending that they’re still 25, like a lot of pop stars do. I think embracing that change that happens within us as we get older and gain experience and wisdom, I think that’s really essential. I’m not there yet (laughs), but hopefully as I continue to make music and grow as an artist, I’ll be able to face up to those changes in a true and honest way as well.
An interesting component to Free Dimensional is the inclusion of first-rate Montreal producer Damian Taylor (Björk, The Killers, Austra) into the mix… What was it like to have a creative collaborator to bounce ideas with, instead of operating in a vacuum, as had previously been the case?
He’s really experienced and professional and a really great creative mind. I was also more confident and aware of what I was doing, as a writer. Hopefully we were able to meet in a happy place between what he wanted to do and what I wanted to do. That’s always the goal, right? He’s got really great ears and a really fantastic studio up on Van Horne. It was nice to be able to get away, to come to Montreal and be creative in a different place as well.
I imagine being away from your daily Hogtown distractions allows you to be more focused…
Definitely. It was really important to have that time and that space to work, away from some of the distractions of being at home. I just had a tiny little apartment and my computer, a few keyboards... Every day, I’d just wake up and go to work, until we couldn’t listen to anything anymore! By then, it was sometimes quite late.
We had a few all-nighters up there, and it was really special. Being able to find a collaborator who’s really willing to give all of himself to the project. That was really special.
Did you listen to loads of music other than your own together in the studio?
Definitely! You always need a break. When you’re as big a fan of music as the two of us are, you kind of always want to be… you’re always YouTubing stuff, and just sort of acquainting yourselves with each other’s musical vocabularies. I think that’s essential when putting an album together with someone, that they understand not only what you want to get across and your own music, but what you listen to and draw inspiration from.
What was the strongest common ground, musically, that you found?
Probably in the realm of pop music. His younger daughter is really into anything Top 40, really – Britney, Rihanna and all that stuff. I think that a lot of the messages that music gets across and a lot of the ways that music communicates is really direct and really immediate. We were hoping to give my own work that sense of immediacy.
So you blasted out tons of Britney and Rihanna?
Totally! I think sonically that stuff is practically flawless, and when you’re a perfectionist like I am and he is, that sort of pristine quality is what you’re chasing and trying to capture. Hopefully, the battle is always trying to retain some personality and uniqueness within that. To keep it clean but still, to some extent, special and unique.
I remember the first time I saw you at the (now-defunct) Cabaret Juste pour rire during Pop Montreal. You were totally a powerhouse up on stage, running from the mic to the keyboards, engaging with the crowd and commanding the room. Do you miss the intimacy of being alone on stage?
No, not at all. Those early shows just allowed me to do what I’m doing now. And it’s all about moving forward and trying new things. Rather than being stuck in the same thing over and over again.
It’s just about taking opportunities as they come to you and trying to evolve and grow in a way that feels right. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next, but I know it’s going to be different from what I’m doing now.