Although he learned piano, guitar, and saxophone at a young age, John O (as his friends call him) was more into playing dress-up with his cousin Lisa while dreaming of a life beyond the Toronto suburbs where he was born. Of course, being the only kid on the block that wanted to pair a ballerina tutu from the tickle trunk with hockey gloves didn't always make things easy. As he explains, "when I was in high school I never really identified with that macho jock attitude but because I played on the basketball team I couldn't hang with the goths and punks either. Let's just say I spent alot of time alone trying to figure myself out."
After leaving home for the internationally acclaimed fine arts program at the University of Guelph he gave up sports to pursue art and music full time. "It got pretty tough staying up partying at a show and having to board the bus for an away game the next morning. Eventually I had to choose between the two and pursuing my art just seemed like more fun." Finally free to immerse himself in classes that ranged from performance and video art to gender theory and politics, John O soaked up knowledge like a sponge while also making time for the occasional stage show of his own. "I remember this one time some friends and I built this huge cave out of cardboard that we spray painted neon. We put it in the gallery at school and performed a karaoke version of Technotronic's 'Pump Up The Jam' inside of it with nothing but our underwear and crazy makeup on." Laughing, he adds "that was actually my term project one year."
When not running around in his underwear John O was probably better known as lead singer for acclaimed Canadian indie rockers The D'Urbervilles, a group he co-founded with his best friends Tim Bruton and Kyle Donnelly while the three were students. The band would go on to tour across North America before graduation and when the dust finally settled he found himself living in the promised land of Toronto. "I'd always imagined being in the city as a child but as I got older and started getting more and more excited about art and music it became my only real option."
Diamond Rings began in earnest as a simple attempt for John O to collect his thoughts and start to make sense of his new life the big city. "When I first moved to Toronto I definitely wasn't out partying. I was staying in and writing songs in my room." After performing a few shows for friends at loft parties and hole in the wall bars it wasn't until he released his home recorded video for the tune "All Yr Songs" that crowds started to take notice. Directed by roommate/videographer Colin Medley with makeup and styling courtesy of big cousin Lisa Howard (who'd become a professional makeup artist in the years following their romps in the tickle trunk) the video featured green screen trickery, over the top choreography, and daring androgynous outfits. "I definitely don't think I could have gone as far with the video if I hadn't worked on it with family and friends. Lisa and Colin know where I'm coming from and it felt like we were just being kids again."
With momentum growing, his next single "Wait & See" upped the ante and featured John O and friends dancing their way towards a raucous Hallowe'en party in tights and high tops. The clip had audiences buzzing at his subsequent sold out SXSW showcases and also led to opening gigs for artists like La Roux and Owen Pallett. He continued to confound public expectation with the release of a 12″ dance single "Show Me Your Stuff" and an accompanying music video drew comparisons to such disparate forebears as Nirvana, Klaus Nomi, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio circa Basketball Diaries. John O states, "life in the 21st century is so saturated with information that we need artists more than ever to help to recontextualize this mess of imagery in a way that makes sense but also brings something new to the world."
Although initially pegged in some corners as a novelty act, audiences have now begun to identify with Diamond Rings' unique brand of pop songwriting and his overtly glamourous live sets. Showcasing real human emotion and honest vulnerability is rare enough for a young man – let alone one who matches his eyeshadow with his Air Force Ones while dancing about onstage with the reckless abandon of a teenager in the bathroom mirror. But there's something surprisingly mature shimmering beneath the glamour, hidden in John O's immediately iconic voice, and whip-smart lyrics. It's this complete package that has even original "Riot Girl" Kathleen Hanna proclaiming herself a member of the growing legion of Diamond Rings fans.
Now Diamond Rings is finally settling down long enough to deliver a fully realized album, the much anticipated "Special Affections". In keeping with his predilection for confounding public expectation, the album dabbles in a wide range of styles and soundscapes. Spacey slow jams give way to aggressive guitar rock that leads seamlessly into shuddering club beats and soaring synth lines. Tying everything together are the heartfelt lyrical sentiments of a young artist interested in far more than getting his audience to "just dance". "I'd compare my music to the Starz on 54 cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" that they did for the soundtrack to the movie Studio 54," John O says, adding, "I do not believe that there needs to be a disconnect between popular music and lyrical honesty."
In addition to the previous singles "All Yr Songs" and "Wait & See" (as well B-Side "You Oughta Know") "Special Affections" gives Diamond Rings fans seven new songs and ties them together in a stylish package designed by the artist himself. It's folk music for the iPod generation and it's about time – finally.