A Conversation with Diamond Rings by former KWCW General Manager Andrew Hall
A lot has happened for John O’Regan, the Toronto musician who performs as Diamond Rings, since his first single showed up on a split 7” with PS I Love You in late 2009. Between then and now, he released his debut album, Special Affections (which has since been re-issued on his new label, Astralwerks), played both more intimate headline shows and opened for artists as big as Robyn, and worked to discover how his own music and performance works as a solo artist as he begins work on Special Affections' followup. We met with O'Regan while he was on tour earlier this fall supporting Twin Shadow at Seattle's Crocodile, where we discussed all of these things and more.
KWCW: You’ve been out on tour with Twin Shadow for a few weeks since the beginning of September or so. How do these shows compare to playing some of the bigger venues you played earlier this year, like when you were opening for Robyn?
DR: It’s cool compared to doing bigger ones, like Robyn-scale. I find I can let my guard down a little bit more with the audience between songs and fans don’t expect maybe quite so much of a full performance as they do when you’re playing to 3000 people. It’s almost like you have to maintain and keep a sort of elusive, impenetrable persona at all times, or it’s almost as if people don’t know how to relate, whereas for this scale of show the audience is a little more willing to see me as a person in addition to as a performer. So it’s been kind of refreshing in some ways, but I love playing really big shows too, because everything about them is so much fun. It’s louder and brighter and just bigger.
KWCW: You made your first album mostly in GarageBand. How do you turn computer music into something you can interact with and move around on stage?
DR: I move around a lot on stage, and I think that’s one way to do that. Again, it’s something that I’m always negotiating and figuring out as I go. I don’t know necessarily if what I’m doing right now is the best way to communicate my message to a large group of people, but it’s where I’m at. Where I go from here will be informed by the experiences I’ve already had.
KWCW: And how does playing as Diamond Rings compare to playing with your band, Matters?
DR: It’s a lot different. I perform as a solo artist, so that’s the big difference. It’s a total 180 almost. They’re both fun and interesting ways to perform, I don’t know if I like one better or not.
KWCW: You signed to Astralwerks earlier this year. Has that changed the dynamic of the Diamond Rings project at all?
DR: I guess, for me, in terms of motivating me to want to try to make better songs and poppier-sounding songs and reach as many people as I can. It’s kind of given me the idea or the feeling that that might be possible as I continue working on the new songs that I’m working on. I think it’s made me more ambitious.
KWCW: What shape is the new Diamond Rings record in?
DR: I’ve written and recorded some things. They’re just fuller, I’d like to think, and more focused. I’m a little more confident in my ability as a programmer and a vocalist so with that confidence comes a desire to expand the parameters of what I’m doing as well, so hopefully it’s broader and bigger-sounding.
KWCW: Your lyrics often reference other musicians; the first song on Special Affections references Arthur Russell, and you mention Talking Heads and Joy Division in other places.
DR: Lyrically, I’ve always been interested in the idea of sampling or referencing other lyrics. I think that so many people do so many things with a drum pattern, or a snare, or a break, that doing that as a vocalist is a unique way of interacting with music from the past and bringing it into the realm of what I’m doing and hopefully maybe informing the people that do take the time to read the lyrics and listen to maybe give them clues or hints as to where I’m coming from and what inspires me.
KWCW: There’s a sense that a lot of musicians in eastern Canada - and I’m probably generalizing here - but it seems like a lot of people in Toronto, and Montreal, and elsewhere, are really supportive of each other within the circles that have shown up on an international scale in the last couple of years. Do you think there’s any reason that Toronto’s been particularly conducive to that sense of community?
DR: I can’t imagine that it’s much different than anywhere else, really. I think there’s always groups of artists that are like-minded that happen to be working at the same time and at the same place, whether that’s Brooklyn, or Toronto, or Seattle. I think more often than not it just comes down to how the community is portrayed in the media, and how people are writing and talking about music. I for sure have a ton of friends in Toronto whose music I respect and admire. I’m hardly ever in Toronto anymore; I have some friends who I haven’t seen in a year, so it’s funny to ask me that on tour. I probably feel more dislocated and disconnected from any semblance of a community now than I ever do. But I think there’s great music everywhere and I’m really fortunate that I’ve been supported by other people when I was starting out and continue to be supported now that there’s a place for me in the world. But I think there’s good stuff happening anywhere and it’s up to artists to write their own stories and sing their own songs and hopefully get recognition.
KWCW: As you go into working on new music in the next year, are you going to continue doing Diamond Rings as a distinctly solo project?
DR: I don’t know what shape my live performance will take for my next tour. It’s kind of both exciting and daunting at the same time. I feel very much now similar to when I did when I was first conceiving of Diamond Rings in its current manifestation, and I spent a lot of time really learning through trial and error what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do and I think the next album is going to inform that for sure. As of right now, no, I don’t really know what I’m going to do, but I do know that it’ll be different.
KWCW: I first heard you when “All Yr Songs” came out several years ago and got a bunch of press, but since then, it seems like your work has become much more dance-oriented. Were there any dance producers or people in mind that you were listening to and interested in?
DR: I listen to a lot of stuff. Usually with any song I kind of start out with an idea of what I want it to sound like. Most are failed attempts to realize something that is always kind of beyond my grasp, whether that’s wanting to make an instrumental track that sounds like Usher, or The-Dream, or something. That’s what exciting about music; the idea of making an attempt, of making an effort, of stepping in a direction, and owning it, whatever the result is. I think that’s what it’s about, and what I’m interested in doing. With Diamond Rings, I make the kind of music that I feel like making at any given time, and I try not to question too much where that feeling or inspiration comes from, or that it feels honest and real and exciting and kind of scary. If I know I’m a little frightened, then it usually means that I’m moving in the right direction.