An interview with Diamond Rings
by Gregg Shapiro
SPECIAL EXPANDED WEB VERSION
One of the most exciting debut albums of 2010, Special Affections by queer Canadian musician Diamond Rings (aka John O’Regan), was reissued by Astralwerks in June. It arrived just in time for Pride month and was the perfect soundtrack for all the parties and pre-parade brunches. A one-man band, Diamond Rings is dazzling listeners on tracks such as “Wait & See,” “On Our Own,” “You & Me,” “Pre-owned Heart,” and “All Yr Songs.” This interview took place in late spring, and Diamond Rings is performing in Houston on September 15 at Fitzgerald’s.
Gregg Shapiro: John, I want to begin by congratulating you on getting signed to Astralwerks. What does that mean to you?
Diamond Rings: It means a lot to me. It shows other people—other aspiring artists and musicians—that if you work at something and are focused and dedicated and have a passion for something, it’s possible to make it happen. You can make what you love doing into something that’s real and that other people like, too. Astralwerks is rereleasing an album that I essentially made in my bedroom on GarageBand. They are releasing it on a label that puts out albums by Kylie Minogue and Bryan Ferry and Pet Shop Boys—all these fantastic bands that have been making great music for so long, and who are also pretty technically sophisticated. So that just reaffirms my belief that if you work hard and really concentrate on doing your best, other people will recognize that.
Are there any new tracks on the reissue of Special Affections?
There’s a reworked version of “Something Else,” which was the lead single from the album. When we were working on the deal, doing our record label dates (or whatever you want to call them), getting to know each other before deciding things, they booked me on some studio time in New York and I did an acoustic version of that song with a piano and some other things. It was just live off the floor, and it turned out really well. I did a few other songs too, but there was this one version that we really liked. That’s going to be on the record as a bonus.
What is the genesis of the band’s name Diamond Rings?
Originally, it was something that just kind of fit with the sort of brash flashiness that I was trying to project. A big part of what I was doing was kind of a reaction to what was going on in Toronto at the time. There are a lot of great bands, but there weren’t very many that were really striving to perform and do something glamorous and exciting. Canada is a really self-deprecating place. I suppose the name was meant to allude to a kind of quality that I found was lacking in the Canadian music scene.
I really like Brian Eno, and I’ve been reading a lot about him. There’s a quote in his recent biography from Robert Fripp, who was one of his guitar players. He was comparing artists like David Bowie and Brian Eno and himself to diamonds—which I thought was really cool. He was saying that, on the surface level, people just talk about how brilliant they are—that they’re flashy, attention-seeking objects—but beneath that there’s a kind of toughness or hardness to the actual material, just like a diamond is really one of the hardest rocks there is.
They’re near the top of the hardness scale.
Yeah, there’s something solid. It’s not just a flash in the pan or sizzle without the steak, or whatever you want to call it. I really understand and appreciate that double meaning. There’s also a multiplicity of meanings to what I do.
Were there other names under consideration?
No, that was always the name. I have a tendency to come up with band names all the time—it’s like one of my favorite things to do. I’ll find a good name and be like, “Oh, there’s a cool name for a band that sounds like this or a band that looks like this.” So I come up with the name, and more or less fit the musical concept around that, if that makes sense.
Sure. In addition to Diamond Rings, one-person bands—such as Vincent Minor, Owl City, The Ready Set, and fellow Canadian Owen Pallett’s former moniker Final Fantasy—are becoming increasingly popular. Why do you think that is?
Well, it’s cool that you mentioned Owen. For sure, his work was a big influence on me, and still is. He was one of the first artists who went out on a limb and took me on tour with him, back when I was first starting out. I was just playing with my backing tracks on an iPod. Sure enough, he’s putting his neck on the line and having me open for him in churches and stuff. [Laughs]
I think we’re at a point in music history where audiences are really open to different kinds of music and different ways of performing. At least for me, I’m not one who cares so much about seeing an entire band necessarily recreate an album live without using backing tracks, or using different kinds of technology to assist in performing. For me, it’s more about the performance and being able to engage with the audience. I’ve been messing around with a few different setups, and I did shows with some other band members when I was starting out. It got to a point where I just realized I felt that the best way for me to make a connection and inspire people was to do it on my own. Get up there, dressed up with makeup and everything else on, and just really kind of go for it. It was really about finding a way to make myself almost as scared as possible. I imagine the scariest thing I could do on stage, and then I do it. [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s true with other artists or not, but I feel like audiences are ready now, more than ever, to see genuine performances. They don’t care about the package as long as there is a connection.
You credited Owen as an influence. Who do you consider to be your musical influences and inspirations?
Brian Eno, for sure. David Bowie, for sure. Grace Jones, for sure. Salt-n-Pepa, Neneh Cherry. I listen to a lot of music where I live and work—a studio space with some other artists in Toronto. Between the three of us, we probably have eight or nine milk crates of records, so there’s always something on. I think more than anything, though, I’m influenced more by personalities than by what the music actually sounds like. Like I love watching old TLC or Salt-n-Pepa videos, where it just looks like kids having fun, getting paid to make music and loving it, and not worrying about necessarily being cool or being super high-budget or technically polished. It’s just about translating an emotion and a feeling. So anyone who does that and is not afraid to take risks, I really respect.
I’m glad you mentioned videos, because I love the “Wait & See” video. Were Pat Benatar’s moves in the “Love Is a Battlefield” video an inspiration to you?
[Laughs] I’m sure, somewhat. That was one of the first videos we made, and the first without a green screen trying to incorporate other people. The party scene at the end—that’s our loft that I was talking about. We filmed almost every video in the space, somehow, and we were kind of running out of ways to disguise it as something else. It was just about, “Okay, well, we want dancing in the video, and here are my friends that are willing to be in it. Let’s try to do something that we can all remember, and try to do the whole shoot in one day.” [Laughs] We made that well over a year ago, and a few parts are kind of cringe-inducing for me at this point. But it wasn’t about doing something that looked like a Britney Spears video, it was about just doing the best we could with what we had at that time. And it’s still that feeling that drives what I do. Now I’m moving in a direction that’s allowing me to have more freedom to explore different territories.
In “You & Me,” you sing, “My mind has a tendency to wander, my heart has a temperamental beat.” Is this your way of saying that you might not be able to remain faithful in a relationship?
[Laughs] I think, for sure. And with me, at least, it’s not in the typical rock-star sense of being on the road and sleeping around. It’s more that so much of my time and energy goes into my art and into my music, and it can become all-consuming. It’s something that I’m aware of. I’m not necessarily the best at relationships, at least not yet. Right now I’m trying to learn to play the guitar. [Laughs] I’m still learning how to be supportive of other people. It’s hard to balance. But I get so much from performing and creating my work that it’s really kind of addictive and exciting. I’m very much kind of off and doing my own thing. I’ve come to terms with that and I’m okay with that, and I think a lot of the album sort of addresses similar kinds of concerns.
In “It’s Not My Party” you make reference to age and being “grown up.” Is growing older a subject that concerns you?
No. I honestly can’t wait to get older. I’m really excited about it. I really am inspired a lot by artists who have had longevity and have had careers that you can trace and follow through different periods and stages. Also, I think there’s a tendency for music fans and critics to value the work and the opinions of people who have been doing things for a while. Like when Neil Young writes a song, you definitely listen to it differently than you would listen to someone like Kurt Vile. For me, Neil Young is kind of inescapable here [in Toronto]. If you’re into music in Toronto, you’ll have some Neil Young records. I don’t like them all, but I really appreciate an artist like him who takes risks, and is still taking risks. Like his last album [Le Noise]—I thought it was amazing, him and Daniel Lanois just recording noise. To me, that’s the coolest. I like to imagine that I can age and still not get caught in a rut, and keep things exciting and stay excited about music while growing and changing. It will be fun to see how that’s reflected in what I do.
You did a national tour with Robyn in early 2011. What was that experience like for you?
It’s interesting that you mention that now, because when that tour was going on, I was doing a ton of interviews, and I often find that when I’m in the middle of things, I don’t really have a real perspective on it. You’d be calling, and people would be like, “How’s the tour, how is it?” And I’d be like, “Well, I’m in a van, and there’s a snowstorm, and we’re driving to try to get to the show. I don’t know—the tour is stressful.” [Laughs] But in hindsight, it was a really an enlightening and eye-opening experience, for sure. Getting to see a performer like her up close, night after night—someone who has been making music and being a public figure for half of her life—getting to see that and learning from that was invaluable.
I feel very fortunate to have just been able to see the kind of work and dedication that goes into keeping a career going, making great music and engaging with the audience. It’s a lot of work, and I’m really fortunate to have been part of that experience. I learned a lot, and I think my own skill as a performer really improved a lot from that. It was a kind of a sink-or-swim position to be in. I was up there by myself, with two to three thousand people in the audience, and the onus was on me to keep them entertained and engaged and excited. I think for the most part I was able to do that. Like I said, it’s addictive to feel that kind of energy in a room, and have a part in creating or dictating the way people react and respond to what you’re doing. That’s really kind of fun. It just made me more excited about wanting to keep getting better.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.