Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — Diamond rings, John O’Regan says, are glamorous and tough. That’s why they’re the namesake of his on-stage persona, an act that has busted out of the Toronto music scene to earn superlative-laden reviews across the continent. One reason for the success is the fact diamond rings are mesmerizing too.
It’s difficult not to keep your eyes on O’Regan. For one thing, you have to make up your mind whether his act is an artistic form of self-expression or a schtick. One listen of his hit “I’m Just Me” should convince you he’s much more Ziggy Stardust than Gary Glitter, which is to say that Diamond Rings has substance and cred. It’s quite possible the persona O’Regan has created is the most interesting act to come out of Canada since Arcade Fire. “I’m Just Me” comes across as a mantra for the sexually uncertain, the androgynous or the transgender, but like any great song it has universality to it, appealing to anyone who embraces their individuality when it clashes with bullies or the sensibilities of the establishment. There’s both a rebelliousness and a sweetness to the song, underscoring the duality O’Regan talks about in himself and his performance.
While most audiences are now hearing about Diamond Rings for the first time, O’Regan isn’t an overnight success. He’s been toiling in Toronto for several years, fronting the electro-pop band The D’urbervilles, recently renamed Matters. In Toronto, the 27-year-old spends his days in Roncesvalles, a historic neighbourhood known for its Polish heritage and proximity to High Park.
“I tend not to leave that neighbourhood when I’m at home. Being away, being in a rock band there is so much stimulation, a lot of long nights, a lot of loud music and loud clubs, and although Toronto is great for all that stuff, when I’m home it’s rarely what I want to do,” O’Regan said during an interview three weeks ago in a suite in the Ritz-Carlton Toronto.
Roncesvalles is beyond West Queen West, an area that’s become a cultural hub for the city, with vintage clothing stores, nightclubs, and a pair of notable boutique hotels, the Gladstone and the Drake, that are a breeding ground for artists of all sorts. O’Regan’s part of town is much more low key, although it does have two of the city’s best new restaurants in Hopgood’s Foodliner and Barque. Despite his flamboyant stage presence, O’Regan struck me as very much an introspective artist devoted to pushing himself and his work as far as he can, and that makes Roncesvalles a fit for him. It lacks the bustle and distractions of other areas of the city, allowing him to hole up and make music.
“Ideally, we’d be in a big place in the suburbs where we could practice all day with big speakers in the basement and really crank it up,” said O’Regan, who is from Oshawa, an industrial town an hour from Toronto.
Diamond Rings Shining Bright
He studied studio arts at the University of Guelph, an education that comes through in his lyrics, which are taut and thoughtful. The word “baby” is seldom used in the songs on his album Free Dimensional. O’Regan has clearly paid careful attention to the likes of David Bowie, Grace Jones and Lady Gaga, whose theatrical alter-egos became a conduit for their music. A DJ, too, O’Regan began Diamond Rings as a one-man act, but now has a backing band, which allows him to be a more compelling and improvisational frontman.
There are times when you watch Diamond Rings in concert and you could swear you are seeing and listening to a blond Dave Gahan singing “Personal Jesus” or “People Are People.” While Billy Idol may be the ’80’s rocker who comes to mind when you first glimpse O’Regan, the deep baritone that pervades Diamond Rings’ songs is much more reminiscent of Depeche Mode’s lead singer.
The other thing you realize about O’Regan is he’s got a lot of cheerleaders. His sold-out performance on November 29 at the Mod Club in Toronto had the feel of a coronation. Diamond Rings made appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno within days of each other earlier this fall. “Put Me On,” a track on Free Dimensional, was featured on iTunes as a free download last month. Multiple interviews on CBC Radio have been among his media responsibilities in recent weeks.
At the Mod Club, friends from as far back as high school and supporters from the Toronto music scene joined hundreds of others to encourage “Johnny O” to carry Diamond Rings as far and wide as he is capable. For a musician recently named Toronto’s favourite male singer in a newspaper poll, it’s a challenge he is ready to take on.
“I’ve wanted to make music and play music and travel the world for so long,” O’Regan said. “To get the opportunity to do that right now, I’m really grateful.”
More About Diamond Rings
Tour Dates: Check the Diamond Rings website for 2013 tour dates, which will be announced soon.
Leno or Letterman?: When asked which late-night talk-show host was more likeable, O’Regan laughed and said, “They were both nice, but Leno was definitely warmer.” Letterman, though, has recently sent O’Regan a thank you for appearing on the show and welcomed him to come back.
On Playing Live: “Sometimes the best shows aren’t the most perfect,” O’Regan said. “I think the excitement of playing live is walking the line between staying true to what’s on the album and playing it perfect, but also lending a bit of humanity to it because the live show is very much about being in the moment.”
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