Once in a while, a rare breed of pop star comes along. One who not only knows a good hook, but is also super smart, self-aware and a true lover of music.
Diamond Rings is that kind of pop star, and Toronto is lucky to have him. While his first album — a cool, crisp, electro-synth effort — was simple in its musical layers and totally fun in its lyrics, his latest reveals a less-confused man, amped up. He hasn’t found all the answers, he’s still finding himself, but the beats are bigger, the choruses catchier and the code to writing the ultimate pop song is almost cracked.
“The root of the album is a theme of self-empowerment and self-reliance and confidence that the first album didn’t have,” John O — aka Diamond Rings — says of Free Dimensional
. “The last thing I want is to come off cocky and arrogant, and I hope that people don’t think I’m a jerk. Some of the confident songs come from a desire to pump myself up. I wanted to write anthemic music, and it’s obvious I want people to like this record.”
Though it may not be apparent at first, John accomplishes that goal. The songs may not be the big, brash radio bangers we hear from pop stars like Pink and Carly Rae Jepsen, but take some time and the solid sounds of a pop classic slowly infiltrate the mind.
John’s an art-school kid, raised on theories and rock ’n’ roll. He got his start with Guelph indie-rockers The D’Urbervilles before dropping the jeans and plaid and donning every neon colour known to man with his 2011 debut, Special Affections
. “We started out with a celebration of excess of ideas and a real energy, like, oh my god, I can wear that all at once?!” John says of the early look and feel of Diamond Rings. “The first album was all about the rainbow, embracing everything all at once. Every texture and pattern all at once. I just want to do it all. [Free Dimensional
] is almost back to form, rather than colour.
“It’s like black and white and chrome and laser. Laser isn’t a colour, but a thing. I became obsessed with raw materiality and form. Appearing more like a shape. White light hits the diamond and refracts light to create the rainbow. So as much as this album is bigger, at its core it’s a distillation of everything I was, pulled back into one tight, uniform package.”
Gone are the fluorescent yellows and pinks, bright tights and midnight-blue eye shadow, and here are the simple flesh tones, blood-red lips and large, alien outfits. After partnering with New York designer Charles Youssef (the man responsible for many of Gaga’s angular ensembles) and renowned Toronto jewellery designer Alynne Lavigne, the new look is now complete.
The album amplifies this new side of Diamond Rings. He’s less of a pop star and more of a pop thing. The bright, futuristic dance effort was recorded in John’s tiny but charming Toronto bedroom studio and produced in Montreal with Damian Taylor. Taylor has produced music for Björk, Robyn, Arcade Fire, Austra and the B-52s. He’s like a pop-music scientist.
“It was cool because Damian has a young daughter who’s super into pop radio and people like Britney Spears,” John explains. “For the most part it was just the two of us in the studio, so we’d bring her in when a track was done to give us the thumbs up. What does a girl in junior kindergarten think of this track? Most of the time she said they weren’t as good as Britney’s. By the end we started dialling it in, and they became almost as good as Britney. For what I was trying to go for with this album, that was a glowing endorsement. You write a pop song and there’s nothing to hide behind.”
Britney, Kylie, The-Dream and Crystal Castles albums were touchstones John and Damien used while recording. Mixed with that winning pop formula are lyrics exploring John O versus Diamond Rings, love and growing up.
“I feel very much that Diamond Rings is me projected through a massive amplifier,” John says. “Like through a car stereo. Me at 11 on the volume dial, which I think is really cool because people want a show; they want to see that confidence. They don’t want to see that when it’s 10 in the morning and you’re getting your morning coffee.”
The towering, tenor-voiced pop thing has done a lot of growing up on this album. His stance on his sexuality is firmer than ever — “identify first and foremost as a human being” — and he feels no desire to define his gender or sexuality.
Best of all he remains weird.
“I think sometimes I can be my weirdest in a T-shirt and jeans,” he says. “Sometimes that’s what people don’t expect. I’m having fun with playing with all these different ways of presenting myself.” —Phil Villeneuve