“Now I’m growing older/ I’m getting bolder/ Comfortable in my own skin” sings John O’Regan of Diamond Rings in “I’m Just Me”, the first single and something of a thesis for his disco-fied second album Free Dimensional (out this week on Astralwerks). If cover art and music video are any indication, more than ever O’Regan likes that skin covered in outfits shiny and spiky. The early, 2010 aesthetic of Diamond Rings – the one that accompanied his debut Special Affections – was that of a suburban Toronto high school provocateur: shooting hoops in a silver sequined jersey; wearing football pads and makeup; playing guitar in a leather jacket with a rainbow banner across the eyes, all while delivering legit, homespun dance pop in a decidedly non-camp baritone. It was some kind of button-pushing genius. Now, however, it’s full-speed glam, as O’Regan is working his own hybrid of (get ready to Google, kids) Aladdin Sane, Klaus Nomi, Grace Jones and Thierry Mugler. And he’s working with voguers and jacket-singeing lasers.
A new immersion in house and techno resulted in Free Dimensional becoming a much more club-embracing record [O’Regan co-produced with Montreal whiz Damian Taylor, recently of Björk Biophilia renown], and, he explains, it was a moment at a 2011 Katy Perry show that convinced him to crank up the fidelity. O’Regan has also doubled down on the clear-as-a-bell message in his music: Diamond Rings is more than ever on a mission to spread the gospel of empowerment and being oneself, whatever kind of pop peacock that self may be.
We last spoke in March of 2011 at South By Southwest, and at that time, your plan was to spend that summer working seriously on the second record. But then, the first album Special Affections got reissued, and it seems like the whole life of that album was just extended.
Definitely. All of the touring I did following that, going out with Twin Shadow, playing three or four months more shows, going to Europe, that all sort of gave it a second life. Which for me was actually great, because in that time I learned a lot about being a performer. I was able to play with a lot of really great bands, and see how a band works. And now, I have my own band, and a lot of what I’ve been doing and using on stage I’ve been kind of nicking from those other artists. I really tried to treat those performances as a learning experience.
Twin Shadow in particular?
So most of Free Dimensional was written in the fall and winter?
Yeah and the summertime too, was when I did the first batch of writing, getting stuff done. And then basically anytime I wasn’t touring last fall and winter, I was up in Montreal with [producer] Damian Taylor [The Killers, Prodigy, Björk’s Biophilia], who I co-produced with, doing vocals, doing guitars, mixing everything. And I ended up writing a bunch of it in Montreal last winter too. I stayed for a month in January, I got a place there.
“I feel like [my songs are] still conveying the same message, but just coated in a way that has a few more layers of gloss. It’s like we spent two more hours waxing the car.”
Going into this record was there any overarching thing that you specifically wanted to do differently from Special Affections?
Yeah, I knew that I wanted it to be a step up, sonically. I had this real epiphany moment when my creative director Lisa and I went to see Katy Perry in Toronto, at the hockey arena where she was playing last summer. And somehow “All Yr Songs,” one of my first tracks, made it onto the playlist that they were playing before her set. And that was really cool, on the one hand, hearing it in that context, this bedroom, lo-fi recording being played in this big hockey arena. But on the other hand it sort of showed how different what I was doing sounded from everything else that was from, let’s face it, what a large percentage of the population is really into. I think as a pop artist, or one that strives to be a pop artist, ultimately I want to connect with people, as many people as I can. So I knew that I wanted songs to kind of speak that more populist language, sonically. I didn’t really change my approach lyrically or emotionally. I feel like they’re still conveying the same message, but just coated in a way that has a few more layers of gloss. It’s like we spent a two more hours waxing the car.
And I would add, it’s more of a full-on club-oriented record. As much as the first album was electropop or whatever, there were still rock underpinnings. But this is a much more dance-oriented thing.
Totally, yeah there’s a few rock moments that I kept in for the Canadians.
[Laughs.] I like those too!
Yeah I do too. But for sure, I started listening to more dance music, house and techno, I started DJing more. Just getting into that language. Because it is a language, a style in which you try to communicate. I focused a lot more on drum sounds, and I also started working standing up. Which for an electronic artist I think is rare. I haven’t met anyone else who stands up. I had a sit-down desk and I got rid of it cause I started working all day on these songs and I started feeling really sluggish, like I was a banker or something. So I got rid of the desk, put my computer up, and started recording like that. And it just all has a more dance-ready feel because I was dancing when I was making it!
Nowhere is it more dance-ready than in “I’m Just Me”. You’ve got it all in that video: voguers, space age outfit, even lasers!
A lot of lasers. We got the laser techs from Rush! And the costumes are amazing too, by this New York designer Charles Youssef, but the back of the one-shoulder jacket that I’m wearing actually got singed by the lasers. We had a great choreographer, and all the amazing vogue dancers from the House of Monroe in Toronto, who put in all their time and energy. It just all came together. This was the first time that we’d been able to actually pay people to do something, and have money to make it cool. But also, “I’m Just Me” was the first song I wanted people to hear, in part because of what it conveys lyrically. It just cuts right to the heart of what Diamond Rings is about, which is, you know, self-empowerment.
Exactly the words I was gonna use. And being yourself. Time and again you go there, with “Stand My Ground” and “(I Know) What I’m Made Of”. That was a theme on the first record but it seems even more so this time.
Yeah there’s more confidence to this one.
Why do you think this is a theme you keep coming back to?
I think music like that, when I hear other artists present a very confident, empowering message, like Robyn, a lot of early house and dance music is about being strong as a person. I just find it really resonates with me when I’m feeling down or unsure or uncertain. I think people forget sometimes, with any artist, and me included, there’s this tendency to assume that as people ascend through the ranks or become more popular, that the nagging self-doubt goes away and you’re like a superhero or something. Which is totally not the case. If anything, I have even more uncertainty. So I think I wanna do songs that just will be a way for me that when I’m out on the road, being able to sing something that is so impassioned and confident, it’s just great.
You close the record with the most sentimental track, “Day & Night”, a song about being away from someone special when you’re on the road. How autobiographical is that? Is there someone that you’re away from when you’re touring?
There was when I wrote that, for sure. But that song for me, I just wanted there to be a song that I could play and the band could play every night that was gonna make us feel awesome on stage. When I wrote it, Damian was like “You need that song you can play at the wedding, and everyone’s hugging each other.” We’ve been playing it these last few shows, and it’s the best.