IMAGE COURTESY OF NORMAN WONG
When we last spoke to John O’Regan, he was gearing up for his first international tour with Robyn, who he claims is a much better dancer than he is. “She’s had quite a bit more experience performing, though,” he says, laughing. “Talk to me in 10 years, we’ll see where I’m at then.”
Free Dimensional, out this week (Astralwerks), is the culmination of a long journey that began in a hospital bed. O’Regan, fresh out of art school and with stints in various punk bands, had just been delivered a debilitating blow in the form of an unfortunate diagnosis: Crohn’s Disease. Ever the optimist, O’Regan flipped his newfound illness on its head, transforming his plight into an unlikely source of inspiration. “I think the sort of isolation and confinement that comes with hospitalization can really force you to create your own fun,” he explains, leading to him pen music that was “positive and uplifting.”
“I’m think I’m getting there,” O’Regan, 27, says of finding his voice. With a smile, he recalls playing Free Dimensional for his producer’s five-year-old daughter in the studio, who compared it to Britney Spears. Two years ago, O’Regan turned heads with his distinct style, citing artistic sources including the genre (and gender) ambiguousness of David Bowie in addition to the iconic antics of contemporaries Robyn and Lady Gaga. “I’m rarely interested in what artists or musicians do later in their careers,” he adds. “I think the most exciting time is kind of the one I’m in right now, that moment when an artist or performer really comes into their own. It’s a special time.”
For someone who wears eyeliner onstage and abides by the primal mission statement “Stay fierce,” O’Regan responds to questions with warmth and empathy: keen to elaborate on the motivations behind his craft (“My goal is to connect with my own species”), yet personable enough to talk to you about how much he loves Miley Cyrus’s new haircut (“It’s crazy”). O’Regan spoke to us from Toronto, where we discussed the VMAs, outfits, eyeliner, swimming, and the benefits of a background in sports.
JOHN TAYLOR: John! What did you think of the VMAs?
JOHN O’REGAN: I don’t have a TV, so I’m relatively out of the loop when things happen. I did watch the VMAs at my manager’s house, though. The best part was Pink—she had a trapeze artist kind of thing, and flew across the stadium. She was playing a drumpad and synth, on this little tiny stage, and it was super minimal. It was exactly the same setup that I’ve been using live for like, the last two years. And she has the same hair as me right now!
TAYLOR: Was it hard, watching Pink parade around with your haircut?
O’REGAN: I went, “Oh, my God, her stylist has seen my video or something. They’re totally ripping off my look,” and then [Pink] flew across the stage on the trapeze, and I thought, “Well… I’ve never done that.” [laughs] Shout out to her. It was a Diamond Rings moment for 20 seconds.
TAYLOR: Let’s go back to that very first Diamond Rings moment. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I heard that you wrote your very first song in a hospital bed—you had just been diagnosed with Crohn’s.
O’REGAN: I think being sick just gave me a lot of time and space to decompress, and be alone with my own ideas and thoughts. If there was an upside, or a silver lining, to being ill, it’s that I was afforded the luxury of time and space to create, in my own world. Hospitals are such a sterile place, and after spending an entire summer in a cotton gown with no pants, hooked up to a catheter, you kind of want to get out and celebrate, and, play with color—explode with color. When I look back on that, and it was a while ago now, it makes a lot of sense to me. It was like a rebirth, or a celebration of sorts, with me. As a person, and as an artist.
TAYLOR: Is Diamond Rings your phoenix rising from the ashes?
O’REGAN: [laughs] Maybe. I mean, definitely. It’s afforded me a new lease on life. I’ve been able to travel the world, and make a record that I’m really proud of. I’m really mindful and thankful, appreciative of the fact that I’ve been able to make something special, and share it with the world.
TAYLOR: Your videos have a very distinct style to them, the outfits especially. I’m sure Lady Gaga has a lot of help with her visuals, but how do you piece your world together?
O’REGAN: I think what separates me from a lot of the rest of the pop world is that I have a lot of input and a lot of control—I do a lot of that work on my own. I love working with other designers, be it someone making me a chain or a cool necklace at an awards show, or someone designing a jacket for a video. I started out wanting to do everything myself, [but] involving other people can be really exciting and really empowering. I ultimately take direction for myself from within. I’m not interested in just doing something to shock people, or doing something to get attention for attention’s sake.
TAYLOR: So I won’t see you wearing a meat dress anytime soon.
O’REGAN: [laughs] Hats off to anyone who can do that, but that’s just not my style. I think that, at the end of the day, it’s just about finding your own voice.
TAYLOR: I’m particularly interested in hearing how that particular outfit, the one you’re sporting in the album teaser for Free Dimensional, came together.
O’REGAN: It looks cool, right? We were in LA, and thought it would be really epic to debut the album with some footage from Joshua Tree, which, to me, just seemed really hilarious. Everything I had done before was very local and Toronto-centered, because that’s where I’m from. [As] a way of cleaning the pallet, I thought it would be really cool to show something that’s nothing like Toronto or Canada. Just, expansive, natural landscape, and the weirdest outfit that would reflect the setting. We went with a sort of cosmic, space vibe. Have it appear as though I had stepped out of some interstellar vortex, all dressed up in white.
TAYLOR: Do you remember the first time you put on eyeliner?
O’REGAN: [laughs] Well, the first time I tried, I nearly passed out, because I have a thing with touching my eyes. It’s mostly just about staying relaxed. Calm, you know. I think like anything, makeup is difficult to do really well, but it’s not that difficult to do an okay job. It’s kind of the same with playing guitar, or anything else. If you work at for a little bit, you start to see results. To really perfect or hone the craft, that’s when you really have to buckle down and start practicing. I don’t really consider myself an expert an anything, but I like to dabble.
TAYLOR: I read that you dabbled in sports when you were younger.
O’REGAN: Growing up, especially in high school, I think those formative years are hard. At that time, everybody feels insecure, a little bit out of place. It’s really hard to cross those boundary lines we set up for ourselves. It’s hard to be the only kid on the hockey team that is into watercolor painting. But, it’s also really hard to be the only kid that’s into watercolor painting that also plays hockey.
TAYLOR: [laughs] It must have been difficult, hanging with the art crowd by day and practicing with the athletic crowd by night.
O’REGAN: People talk about jocks and athletes being really closed-minded and intolerant, operating under a kind of mob mentality—to some extent, that’s true of the art kids, the theater kids, the music nerds. I think everyone is suspicious in some way. Afraid of what they’re not, of what they are. I think at the heart of it, we’re all a lot of things. Diamond Rings, for me, is trying to be all of those things as much as I can. I think that’s why my show is so high-energy. When I’m getting ready to perform, I’m not backstage smoking half a pack of Belmonts and chugging beers. I’m stretching as though I’m going out to play for a gold medal. I think there’s a lot that people in music and the arts could learn from the discipline that it takes to perform athletically.
TAYLOR: What can those of us in artistic communities—myself included—take away from athletic discipline?
O’REGAN: People need to find a way to let loose. Sometimes, that comes from doing something that’s really repetitive and mundane. I found when I was writing this album, I spent a lot of time swimming. If you spend all day with headphones on, submitting your brain to this full-on, 12 hour sonic assault, there’s something really soothing about submerging yourself in water and just thinking of nothing other than breathing to stay alive. Which, is essentially what swimming is. Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, kick, breathe… [laughs] It’s the closest thing I can imagine to being an animal, staying alive. It’s important to go to that place every once in a while. It puts everything in perspective.
TAYLOR: How long can you hold your breath underwater?
O’REGAN: Not very… [chuckles] Honestly, I’m not very good at holding my breath.
TAYLOR: Sounds like someone needs to practice… [O’Regan laughs] What are your pre-show rituals? Perhaps you’re doing breathing exercises.
O’REGAN: Before shows, I tend to go to a quiet place. I walk myself through the entire performance. I don’t go over—I know the words to the songs. I know the chords to the songs. It’s the in-between things that I like to go over; that’s what separates a good show from a great show. Which songs are blending into other songs, when you’re going to address the crowd, how you’re going to engage them.
TAYLOR: Imagine with me, for a moment… you’re on stage, everyone and everything’s in place, the lights have just gone up. What are you looking at? What’s going through your mind?
O’REGAN: As soon as I turn around and face the audience, it’s game time. You’re on—you’re not off until the lights dim. And, that’s what I love about it, about performing. Just being in that moment.
FREE DIMENSIONAL IS OUT NOW, AND DIAMOND RINGS PLAYS THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN ON OCT. 26. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.