The first thing I notice upon meeting John O'Regan, a/k/a the charismatic crooner Diamond Rings, is his "Stay Fierce" t-shirt. With debut album Special Affections, a collection of shadowy and shimmering pop tunes and those enduring Bowie comparisons, "fierce" fits O'Regan. And he wears that word well. O' Reagan doesn't disagree. "It's an aggressive word, but still playful and kind of sassy. The sort of emotion that I wanna bring to the stage every night," O'Regan told PAPERMAG in our all-things-pop chit-chat before his Radio City Music Hall gig with headliner Robyn tomorrow night. He also dished about his penchant for old-school TLC and Janet videos, how to be fierce on a budget (he's a fan of glue guns and Chinatown arts-and-craft stores), and his thoughts on why even the supposed over-the-top pop stars of today are "like mannequins."
How's tour life with Robyn treating you?
It's been great. I'm learning a lot -- that was kind of my goal going in. There's so much to learn just seeing someone, not only who has been doing this for a long time, but doing it at a really high level and more or less on her own terms. Which is totally inspiring to see. It's a treat to try to warm people up for a really good show.
What can we expect from your set at Radio City on Saturday?
What I'm really trying to do is give people an earnest representation of who I am. I have fun, I love music and I love performing and that's how I treat every show. It's almost more like a play or something theatrical than a rock concert, especially since I perform solo. Every kind of movement or gesture -- I try to think everything through. There's moments of spontaneity, but it's just about trying to connect with people and do it in a way that's real and honest, but also put together and polished. Try really hard to present something that's different and exciting.
But there will be costumes, make-up, all that stuff. That's probably more of what people want to hear about. It's a chance to be flamboyant and not worry about coming off as being arrogant or cocky -- that's not why I do it. It's just acknowledging that I'm a performer and people are there to be entertained and see something exciting. I try to remember that every day.
That's what had been missing in pop music until recently. Now it seems like, 'the more theatrical, the better."
I think it's been missing in independent music. I know that word is sort of on its way out and kind of meaningless. But I think, for sure, the pendulum has swung from the skeezy Britney, X-tina realm into a more kind of artistic, flamboyant one like Lady Gaga -- that kind of thing. But ,at the end of the day, it's still all happening on big stages, in arenas, literally. A completely different arena from what I'm in. In Toronto, where I'm from, I just felt there weren't enough people taking risks and putting themselves out there and being fully invested in something. I'm not always playing huge venues and opening for Robyn. The show I put on at a smaller venue like Glasslands in Brooklyn is in a lot of ways gonna be the same kind of thing. And that's why I really started doing what I was doing -- to try to prove to myself and to other people that you don't need millions of dollars to feel good about yourself and look nice and just put on a show. I think for a long time it was something that people weren't into for the indie scene. It was considered fake or dishonest or unreal or something.
Yeah, the whole stripped down, weep/shriek-on-stage thing.
Yeah, it just doesn't work for me so much. It's like, you're up there on stage, you're playing. It's all well and good to pretend you're just a regular person, but at the end of the day, you're not. People are there to see a show and you're on the stage with a microphone and a huge sound system behind you so you're there to utilize that space in a way that's more productive and ultimately more honest. You get the impression when you come to my set that I've actually thought that people are going to be there and watching, and that they might actually want to see something exciting. Not some dude in like, plaid shuffling around with his face buried behind his haircut or something.
You often get compared to Bowie. What happened to all of the mainstream male entertainers who actually dressed the part and took risks? Are you trying to bring that back?
It's not so much an attempt to be a revivalist, I don't think. I'm a new artist and this project to me is still really new and I think for anything that's really new it's inevitable that I'm going to wear my influences on my sleeve pretty proudly. Before I can find my own voice, it helps to have a place to start from. So ,for sure, I have all the David Bowie records and the Grace Jones records. That's all stuff that I'm into. I came up in a really DIY, indie scene and it was very much about being self-deprecating and being real and I was into that for a long time, but then it got to point where it seemed really boring. I think people a lot of times think you're only allowed to really project and treat yourself like a big deal or care about what you look like if you're a mega-star. Even if you do that, it makes you vain or self-important. To me, it's not about that. It's about being okay to celebrate your own body and your own weirdness and doing that is the most liberating thing. So for sure, I wish there was more of that going on.
Does it seem like people are ready for you?
I know that there's going to be some people who don't get what I do and that's fine. The worst thing, the thing I've been trying to avoid the most when I first got on the stage with an iPod and a shitty keyboard, is indifference. I don't care if you hate what I do and it's great if you love what I do. But I want to at least push it far enough that you're going to have to make up your mind. If you're at one of my shows, it's not just like, "Oh, it's okay." That's the worst reaction. I hate that.
And how does that translate to your style?
What I want to do, if anything, is to prove to people that you don't need a whole industry behind you necessarily to be fabulous and to really have fun and to celebrate yourself. The clothes I wear, it's just the crap I find at vintage stores. To me, it's not about what it is but how you put it together and what it says about you as an individual. That's what I'm interested in. Anyone can go out and buy designer this or that. And same with the shows, I don't have somebody handling my wardrobe. It's done at a level that's really relatable. And I wanna prove that relatability doesn't always have to mean that you look like you're in Pavement, you know? It can be something other than that. It can still be a real person. And I guess that's when the music comes into play -- to work hard at writing songs and thinking about what I'm saying, and the clothes and everything are just a way to have fun and engage with people on an aesthetic level.
Who inspires your looks?
I like old pictures of TLC or Salt-N-Pepa, before they were huge and all of their videos were like CGI green screens and space ships and when they had condoms in their hair and were doing their laundry in their dorm rooms. There's something really real about that. It's so honest but it's also still wholly original. You see these groups and artists and you can tell they're having fun being themselves and being freaks and celebrating themselves. And I think somewhere along the way that stopped happening. I guess someone like Gaga is a different case now. I admire what she does, but there's also something really beautiful and exciting about working with limitations. I have a ton of ideas that I'd love to try out if I had a whole team making costumes for me around the clock. My day off on tour was spent going around trying to find arts and craft stores and looking for a glue gun to fix my masks and stuff. There's just something nice about that -- something real and honest.
And it seems like a lot of today's mainstream pop superstars forget about the "honesty" part once they put on a meat dress or what have you...
A lot of the capital pop stars that are getting weird these days -- they're almost sort of mannequins in a sense. A vessel for channeling a vision. I don't know what they're like as people. That's what I wanna feel. When I watch an old Janet Jackson video, I feel like there's an emotion and a realness behind that. She's still sassy as fuck, but it seems there's something honest and just fun about it that isn't over-the-top, that isn't contrived, that isn't obsessively planned out. There's room for fun. That's what I wanna capture. And I think that's what Robyn does well too and that's why it's really relatable. There isn't that extra layer of bull shit. It's just, "Here I am, that's me." Sure, I'm wearing platform Timberland boots, but I'm not untouchable.
Diamond Rings and Robyn perform at Radio City Hall Saturday, February 4th.