John O'Regan (Diamond Rings)

Sure, when you first see the face of John O'Regan, aka Diamond Rings, you might notice all that colorful makeup across his face.  And you might notice the shiny lips as well.  And you might call him "glam" and not pay attention to much else.

But I think you'd be missing the point.

Because, you see, this is about a lot more than a guy wearing makeup.  It's about theatre, and while Diamond Rings is, in his words, "fastidious" in his songwriting process, he also likes to engage his audience in the visual aspect of his craft.  After all, he's been an illustrator for longer than he's been a songwriter.  It's a creative outlet that, as you'll read, informs his songwriting process. For one, the way he approaches the subject of a painting resembles the way he approaches the topic of a song.  But what's interesting is that he has no idea what a song is going to be about until he picks up a guitar and starts playing.  He's not one to approach songwriting with a ready-made idea.

It's no surprise that Diamond Rings cites the Talking Heads and Devo, bands who took a more artistic tack to their music, as influences. He wants "full sensory stimulation," not just aural stimulation.  So I wouldn't hold your breath for an unplugged set from him.

Diamond Rings' debut album Special Affectionswas released in October on Secret City Records to rave reviews, including the all-important Pitchfork seal of approval.  Read my interview with him after the video. 

Something that's immediately apparent is your connection to other forms of art besides writing.

I've always been interested in drawing ever since I was a little kid. I went off to art school and when I graduated, drawing was the only thing I thought I was really good at and had a passion for.  I didn't get into music until I left school and got exposed to a bunch of different types.  And I started learning about musical history as well.  I was drawn to musical performers who drew from their own artistic training, like the Talking Heads, and whose music was informed by their art.  I was also drawn to those who took a more artistic approach to their work, like Devo.  They all had an all-compassing look. 

At the time, and still now in places like Toronto, it's an aesthetic that's not very popular.  There's an unspoken sentiment within the a lot of the independent music community where good performers are the bands that take things to that level, where everything is considered and serves a purpose, either musically or visually.  Some people call it contrived, but those are the things that I've always liked.

What kind of drawing did you do?

When I was little it was simple stuff.  Like pictures of hockey players from the newspaper and the players from my baseball cards.  I wanted to recreate the world I could see, exactly.  A total realistic representation.  In a way, you can see that in the music I make.  The sounds I am trying to create, whether it's a drum sound or a guitar tone, they always go back to a specific reference point.  Like I'll be listening to a Janet Jackson song on the subway and get really into how the snare drum sounds. Then I'll go home and try to recreate it on my own.  So a bit of that has always stuck with me.

And what are your drawings like now?

The liner notes for the new record contain the only painting I did all last year, a really big mural on the wall of our apartment.  It's a big 6x6 mural that we photographed for the record.  Drawing is still something that I bring to all my endeavors.  But that's why I moved towards music and away from visual art, because I felt like it allowed me to reach more people and was more full sensory stimulation, with a visual component and an auditory component. 

How does being a visual artist make you a better songwriter?

It's more how I got started.  I got to a point where I was able to draw anything I wanted.  I honed my own visual sense to the point where the key to drawing and visual representation is having the patience and focus to really examine something, and examine it objectively.  Not to look at it the way you want to imagine it. 

Give me an example.

Say you are drawing a tree.  We have a preconceived idea of what it looks like, and often if you really engage in looking at it, you're going to be taking your pencil to places you wouldn't normally be going.  It's about being able to look at the world for what it is and not what you want it to be.  And that translates into what I do musically, to be able to really listen to music and break it down into its constituent parts, rather than just hearing an all-encompassing mush, like you would do if you were half listening to music while walking through the aisles of the supermarket. You might pick up on the tune or the lyrics, but you aren't listening to how the hi hats are syncopated.  That patience to break things down, to think about how a song is put together, that's what I'm always working towards.

The other musicians I've talked to who are also illustrators seem to have a keen eye and awareness of what's going on around them.  They are hypersensitive to their surroundings.

Absolutely. And as I moved through school, it stopped being a challenge to just sit in class and sketch a model.  So that's when I started moving towards a theoretical approach to my art, moving towards conceptual art and getting more into performance.  It became more about abstraction and a more cerebral approach to art.  That's when I started putting on more performative pieces that still had musical elements to them. 

Like what kind of pieces?

I was building stereo systems by scavenging old boom boxes and taking them apart and putting them back together in different ways.  These were big elaborate sound sculptures that were hooked up to cassette players.  It was all about the distortion and manipulation of popular sound.  I would hook up an old boom box to a Sony Sports Walkman with Nirvana playing. That's what led me to where I am now. I view Diamond Rings as an artistic project: the look, the sound, all those things.

photo by Norman Wong

photo by Norman Wong

It's theatre, really.

Exactly.  The whole performance.  The songs are there and they have to be catchy.  But that's the foundation for what I do, and everything on top of that is what makes it unique. 

Take me through what happens when you write a song.

I'm not the kind of person who locks myself in a room and fills up a diary or notebook with endless scribbling and prose.  I need to start with some sort of musical base. That begins with simple chord progressions or riffs, just fiddling around on the keyboard or guitar until I find chord changes that feel natural and nice. And feel slightly off.  I always want to avoid something that sounds typical.  I stumble around and have fun until something feels right, and I don't question what makes it feel right.  I just know. 

What happens next?

From there it becomes a matter of shaping a vocal melody to that structure.  I'll start mumbling a bunch of nonsense words until I find the right melody.  Then I add the lyrics and get fastidious with the whole thing.  I break everything down to the very last syllable and find words that flow nicely from other words, so that what I am enunciating comes across clearly and directly.  I am not the kind of singer who can do a bunch of ooohing and aaahing and the drawing out of words.  I like directness, and that's why some of my songs come close to being raps.  I want things to fit and be organized syllabically.

Once that happens, I play it on the guitar and dress it up by making it more contemporary.  That's when I start to add drum machines and synths and elements of popular music that bring it out of the realm of being a folk song. The songs at their core are folk songs.  You can play them all on guitar or piano and they sound fine.  But I did not want to create a Neil Young song from the 70s.  I wanted to create something new for my own generation, for people who grew up with Super Mario Brothers and video games and ringtones. 

So do you start with a lyrical idea when you go to write a song? It sounds like the music drives your lyrical content.

I need the music.  The emotive response I get from listening to the way the chords flow into and out of one another, whether they are hard or fast or slow, shapes the way I am going to sing, if the vocal track is going to be more aggressive or pensive, for example.  It's impossible to come up with a theme that matches that feeling until I am acutely aware of what that feeling is going to be.  Once I know if it's going to be aggressive, for example, then I can use words or phrases that address how I want the listener to feel.

How often do you get inspired by your experiences? 

That happens sometimes, and I have a notebook or phone to record those ideas.  It might be a jingle or a part of a slogan, or fragments from another song.  It might be something I see.  That's often how I arrive at song titles.  It's nice when something tweaks you the right way, which can become a jumping off point. Even within that, I rarely set out and say, "This song is going to be about so-and-so topic."  A lot of times, it comes from writing and reworking and getting into something over time.  I usually don't know what something is going to be about either lyrically or thematically until it's done.  Then I go back and reread it, and instantly it takes shape and I totally know what it's going to be about. 

I've read songwriters who liken the process to digging a giant hole and just dredging without purpose.  You unearth all this stuff and pick things from the dirt that you want to use, and then you put everything back.  Often I don't know what I'm after until I've found it.

Earlier you mentioned that you were factitious with you songwriting process.  What do you mean by that?  

Especially lyrically, I get anal about how the words go together.  I want my songs to be airtight, without any space for arbitrary decision making where I might say, "Well this word kind of fits.  It's good enough. I'll just bend and mold until it works." I want everything to go together and come across as effortless. The irony is that the songs that sound like they were written in afternoon usually aren't.  I want it to sound like it was just plucked out of the sky.