Learning how to play by heart

After a year of teasing us with his captivating music videos, Diamond Rings is bringing his Special Affections to Kingston

Known for his Bowie meets Vanilla Ice aesthetic, O’Regan has a no regrets approach to life.
Known for his Bowie meets Vanilla Ice aesthetic, O’Regan has a no regrets approach to life.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Diamond Rings video. As my eyes flashed from John O’Regan’s pink and blue eye shadow to his impossibly lean spandex clad legs, I was instantly in awe of his ability to pull off bona-fide pop star while dancing before a green-screened image of the Toronto sky line in “All Yr Songs”.

His launch to underground notoriety over the past year may have been sparked by that video, but his memorable live sets and the highly anticipated release of his debut Special Affections prove he’s showing the right stuff to stay on the rise.

Speaking over the phone on the morning of his record’s release, he sounded excited and relieved to be moving into the next stages of his latest sonic pursuit.

“It’s been a lot of work,” he said. “This album is really an experiment in my opinion. I wanted to do something that incorporated elements of electronic music … It’s a style that fits the high rises and street cars and buses and captures that kind of intensity and vibrancy.”

O’Regan’s no stranger to the stage. Some will recognize him from his main gig as the front man of Toronto rock act The D’Urbervilles. After a few years of balancing his work with the band and attaining his art degree at the University of Guelph, it was an organic evolution when his focus turned toward his solo endeavor after graduation.

“I think it was a matter of me finishing up school,” he said. “School takes a lot of time, even if it’s art college. It involves you running around in your underpants a lot of the time.”

After devoting the time he once spent as a student to his songwriting, he gained the confidence to move to Toronto to find a way to incorporate his background and training in art into his musical practice, subsequently taking himself where a band couldn’t.

“I eventually decided to go for it and play a few shows,” he said. “[The record’s] about Toronto, it’s about my experience moving here and not really knowing what I was going to do with my life. It’s just about figuring yourself out and figuring out that it’s a long process and not everything will make total sense. It’s about enjoying life and seeing the beauty in it.”

Any second-guessing on the way his work may be received is shrugged off with the blue-eyed glamazon’s simple adage, “No regrets, coyote.”

Inevitably, his music videos became an extension of the art he was doing.

“The videos are a really collaborative process,” O’Regan said. “Especially the “Show Me Your Stuff” video. They come from everything, the people I’m collaborating with, my friends watching YouTube videos and trolling the internet for interesting things. It’s a form of collage for me, finding these elements I like, that I gravitate towards, and re-contextualizing them in a way that’s an homage to the original artifact while taking it somewhere new. Those separate elements rubbing up against each other.”

The performative quality to his art is evident from the bleach blonde coif on his head to the meticulously cleaned high top kicks on his toes. With style best described somewhere between Salt, Pepa and David Bowie, the value of the visual aspect of O’Regan’s pursuit is clear.

“We went through a big period in the 2000s where independent music sort of neglected the visual and counter-performative aspect,” he said. “I have these songs with a few distinctive looks, Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer paired with something that sounds like the Juno soundtrack, it’s a way to blend all those worlds.”

His penchant for denim, bling and glitter might seem like an effort to grab attention, but his aesthetic is as much a facet of Diamond Rings as the array of drumbeats in his tracks.

“I was trying to push myself to this point where I was almost sort of uncomfortable in a way,” he said. “Whether musical or visual, that’s what makes things exciting, finding that place where I’m unsure and uncertain, like tip-toeing up to the edge and jumping off, seeing if you have wings.”

If you’ve seen O’Regan’s live show, you know his fearless nature permeates through each gyration and piercing stare he throws at the audience. His concert costume has become a second skin for the 25-year-old, but he told me there was a certain level of anxiety that came with the first time he brought Diamond Rings to the public.

“It was a NXNE show with PS I Love You and it was really the first time I decided to play in the way I do now,” he said. “We’d discussed what I wanted to present and what I wanted to do … the first few songs, the first few moments were terrifying but totally thrilling, it’s a feeling I’ve never been able to experience in another way.”

After a visit here last August for the Wolfe Island Music Festival and a gig-packed summer, O’Regan is making a triumphant return to Kingston, this time with a particularly personal partner in crime, Paul Saulnier of PS I Love You. The bands have been on a similar journey since the release of their 7” split last year and the coincidental October release of both bands’ debut LPs.

“I like to think things like that go unplanned, I try not to ask why but just go with the momentum and the energy,” he said. “I mean to some extent it was linked but were on different record labels. There wasn’t a lot of talk in having the releases connected but we’d been working on them at the same time.”

O’Regan hinted their show tomorrow at The Mansion will be one for the books. When the duo share a bill they’ve been known to join forces on stage for a couple hypnotizing tracks.

“It’s going to be fun, we’ve been great pals for quite a while now and it’s been an adventure,” he said. “I hadn’t seen [PS I Love You] play in months and they were the best I’ve ever seen them, I’m really very excited for the show obviously.”

Diamond Rings plays The Mansion tomorrow night with PS I Love You, Agpak Mum and Switchyard Sullivan. Tickets are $8.

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