By Andrea Poteet
The first thing most people notice about Diamond Rings is the eye makeup.
Often streaked across his pale face in a glittering rainbow stripe, it’s an integral part of the look Canadian-born John O’Regan envisioned while creating his solo electro-pop project with a fittingly dazzling name.
The makeup and gender-bending outfits provide a distraction that spurs the quiet Toronto 26-year-old out from behind his computer and onto the stage.
“Getting on stage by yourself and trying to engage with people is not always the easiest thing to do,” Diamond Rings says. “The look and the reason that things have evolved in the way they have is because I need there to be a risk in it for me.”
Growing up as an only child outside Toronto, Diamond Rings idolized bands from the Ramones to Grace Jones. When he attended art school at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, he studied the sights and sounds created by those theatrical artists almost as much as his coursework, often borrowing pieces of their styles to create his own. But after leaving his role as frontman John O of the post-punk Guelph band The Durbervilles, Diamond Rings says he wanted to craft a unique look to go hand-in-hand with his biographical lyrics showcased on his debut, “Special Affections,” set for U.S. release this month by New York-based record label Astralwerks.
“Part of the style process is about putting myself in a position where I feel not entirely safe, a bit afraid to be totally honest,” he says. “I think that keeps it fresh and keeps it exciting and dynamic, so anything I can do to kind of force myself outside of my own comfort zone is a bonus.”
Part of that comfort zone involves keeping people guessing. Whether discussing his style, sound or sexuality, he refuses to be boxed in.
“Not that I’m unwilling to define myself, but I personally don’t see it as being something that’s necessary to do,” he says. “It ultimately limits what I’m capable of doing as an artist and as a performer. I’m into just doing what I do and putting it out there and letting people figure it out for themselves.”
His ambiguity extends to his fashion. His ensembles include anything from zebra print stripes to bejeweled basketball jerseys. A former high school jock, he says adding a twist on team sports apparel into his style is his way of turning rock tradition on its head.
“When I think of the music I grew up being into, jocks were kind of the enemy,” he says. “I kind of bought into that a little bit myself. I quit all the teams I played on and kind of threw myself into music and for a long time saw the two as being kind of in opposition to one another. It’s only been recently that I’ve realized that those kind of dichotomies are kind of stupid.”
His unique style is showcased in his videos, like “All Yr Songs,” and “Wait and See.” The low-budget attempts were shot in about a day with help from his friends in the Toronto arts community. For the video for “Wait and See,” which follows Diamond Rings and his friends dancing their way to a Halloween party, the handful of extras were friends who answered a Facebook post asking if they wanted to be in a music video.
“It’s one that I watch now and kind of cringe a little bit,” Diamond Rings admits. “But it’s part of the process for people to see that we’re kind of thinking of this as we go along. We’re not waiting for permission to do something or waiting to have a big budget or the right skills. It’s more of just making it happen and doing the work and putting it out there. That’s what I think is valuable.”
That motto extends to the creation of his solo project, another spur-of-the-moment invention, birthed while he was hospitalized for Crohn’s disease shortly after moving from Guelph to Toronto in the summer of 2009.
“I brought my guitar into the hospital and I had some colored pencils and a pad and paper,” Diamond Rings says. “I pretty much treated it like a forced residency. It was really good. I had a really quiet and relaxing space in which to think and get my ideas out. There were a lot of anxieties and frustrations that I was feeling about moving to Toronto and living in a big city on my own and all those are kind of expressed in the record.”
The result was “Special Affections,” a moody mix of confessional lyrics in Diamond Rings’ brisk baritone tossed over clubby computerized beats. Sharing his solo effort with audiences has been nerve-wracking, he says, but at shows like South by Southwest and his current tour opening for Robyn, his U.S. audiences have been a receptive, diverse group.
“I try to make music that is not limited to any one style and kind of carries over to the kind of people who are interested in what I do and inspired by it,” he says. “They’re not just one demographic. I want my shows to be inclusive and to be open and to be safe for people to come and express themselves freely. So far, so good.”
with Diamond Rings and Natalia Kills
7 p.m. June 4
Royal Oak Music Theatre
318 W. Fourth St.
$20 (advance)/$22 (door)