"Who wouldn't want to paint their face? It's the reason that kids go to the summer fair. You can become Batman or a Ninja Turtle. It allows you to embody this identity that is more than your constituent parts, it's this thing that takes over."
John O'Regan is an avid face painter. It's a relatively new hobby of his. Before he discovered it, he was known as the bespectacled vocalist/guitarist for Guelph, Ontario's toque-sporting post-punk outfit the D'Urbervilles. He's so towering and lanky he's impossible to miss in public ― especially with eye shadow streamed like a rainbow across his face. A self-proclaimed regular at the MAC store on Queen West in Toronto, removing his specs for some paint was an intrinsic part of becoming the solo project he's christened Diamond Rings.
"I'm not sure if it was a specific vision I had, but I had been working with [cousin] Lisa [Howard] and one night we decided to really go for something more overt and make a statement," he explains over coffee in the comfiest chair Starbucks has to offer. "It felt good to do and the response was really good. We continued and kept taking it further. I'm trained as a visual artist and have some sense of colour and a steady hand, so it's not too far out of my realm. Once I got used to it, it became like painting ― on your face."
As an art school graduate from University of Guelph, O'Regan, or Johnny O if you like, has placed as much emphasis on his flamboyant look as he has on his songs. Glamour is a major facet of his popular YouTube videos, record sleeves, press photos and stage show. Establishing this image was a deliberate effort to get himself seen and his music heard. "The kiss of death is an acoustic singer-songwriter, especially one who's a lead singer in a band," he says. "That's what you see so often."
In the summer of 2008, O'Regan was just coming off a tour with the D'Urbs, as they're affectionately known. While the tour was a success, something was off with the band's frontman. During some of the dates he was struck by an illness that came to a head during the band's North By Northeast performance. O'Regan began sweating and convulsing, and his bandmates rushed him to Toronto Western Hospital. There he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, an inflammation of the digestive system that causes abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and weight loss. He required surgery and spent most of his summer in the hospital with an IV.
Where most people would be discouraged, O'Regan found inspiration. "I had three weeks in the hospital, so I thought let's try and make the best of this," he says. "It was the summer, fortunately. I could go outside dragging this IV pole around Kensington Market with my guitar [laughs]. I was really haggard looking. But by the end people would be coming into my room on their breaks and we'd do these über DIY shows. We'd pour some ginger ale and it was like a party. That would have been the first time I performed [first single] 'All Yr Songs' ― in the hospital, with the nursing staff, playing my keyboard and guitar. It's not a very glamorous beginning, but that's how I really started conceptualizing the project.
"It was kind of like I had my own subsidized artist residency," he continues. "I had this bed and a desk, and a guitar here, a crappy keyboard there. We couldn't bring a drum kit into the hospital, so the songs started taking on more of this singer-songwriter lyrical quality than what I had done previously. And that was it. I started writing songs just for me."
Even though all of the focus seems to be on Diamond Rings, O'Regan is still writing songs for the D'Urbervilles. The band he co-founded in Oshawa with Tim Bruton at the age of 18 are still kicking and prepping a second album slated for sometime next year ― once he's fulfilled his solo duties.
"The band's been really supportive. But I'm not gonna lie, it's made for some serious conflict of interest, having to sit down and make plans and decisions," he divulges. "I've been really lucky that they've allowed me the space to pursue the project for the last year, and fairly intensely. But it has made our work as a band better. I'm no longer trying to wedge these ideas that are now much better suited for my own music into this group dynamic. I'm more acutely aware of how I fit into that group than I've ever been. As the lead singer I'm often assumed to be the songwriter [and] lead idea generator, which is actually kind of the opposite for this new record. It's very much a band that doesn't have one leader, start to finish. Diamond Rings is a lot different, it's everything me."
For O'Regan, splitting his time between the two is also a satisfying experience, but he also feels that his two day jobs can scratch each other's back. "I'm believing sincerely that there will be a moment to bring the band back into the spotlight and I'm really excited about that," he says. "We played Pop Montreal [in October] and it was awesome. It's still fun to play rock music. And the other cool thing is that outside of Canada a lot of people aren't necessarily familiar with the band or aware that I have this other project. So it will be exciting to bring that to them. I think it's gonna work both ways. I'm gonna learn a lot over this next while that I'll use to help the band as well."
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