Diamond Rings defies laws of time and space. Electro-pop maestro John O makes music that exists outside specific eras, distilling encyclopedic knowledge and passion into laser-like beams of emotional immediacy. Physical limits don't bother him much, either. True to his D.I.Y. background, he composes highly personal songs in a tiny bedroom studio in Toronto's West End, yet is increasingly concerned with Diamond Rings reaching the widest possible audience. But don't be confused by these twists and ripples. A degree in astrophysics isn't mandatory to appreciate Free Dimensional, the second Diamond Rings full-length. A good heart and working ears are all the tools required.
The expansive and mysterious opener, "Everything Speaks," sets the stage with its jump rope rhythm, buzzing tones that sweep like searchlights, and a modest declaration: "I know when to trust my vision." The sweet, insidious grooves of "Hand Over My Heart," effervescent with handclaps and rubbery bass oscillations, are laced with existential reflections on the foibles of growing up in the public eye. Whether the words brim with confidence as the beats hit hard ("I Know What I'm Made Of"), or the arrangements are pared back to spotlight John O's charismatic, expressive baritone ("Put Me On"), there's an emotional complexity at work throughout Free Dimensional that complements and personalizes Diamond Rings focused take on modern pop.
Free Dimensional retains the melodicism, clever juxtapositions, and lyrical honesty that garnered kudos for Diamond Rings' 2010 debut, Special Affections. What's different this time around is how the songs were conceived and produced. "I wanted the first album to have that homespun quality," John O explains. Back then, he was wary of too many high-tech bells and whistles. "A big part of being afraid of something is not understanding it," he admits. "Once I became more comfortable with the medium of electronic music, it was only natural to want to improve."
The success of Special Affections had afforded Diamond Rings some amazing opportunities, like supporting Swedish pop star Robyn on her 2011 North American tour, which in turn fed John O's desire to step up his game. "Spending a month on the road with her was mind-blowing. I learned a great deal about what it takes to make music that has a lot of impact. That was a big part of this whole experience: coming to terms with the fact that I wanted to make something direct and impactful, and that I could trust other people to help me do it, but at the end of the day it would still feel like me." Hence John O's decision to enlist producer Damian Taylor (Björk, Austra, Robyn, The Prodigy) to help bring Diamond Rings out of the bedroom, both literally and figuratively, on Free Dimensional.
Taylor was already a fan, impressed as soon as he heard Diamond Rings' debut single "All Yr Songs" back in 2009. "I immediately recognized a strong element of a 'classic' songwriting approach, but was hooked by the fact that he went absolutely contrary to the regular strategy of trying to make his music sound classic, which to me is a recipe for making bland, uninteresting drivel," says the producer. "Instead, John O turned the whole thing on its head, with a healthy sense of humor, while keeping his music honest and emotionally resonant." Taylor's mission was to retain all those special qualities, while showing John O how judicious use of production tools could actually heighten the ability to connect with listeners.
The lead single, "I'm Just Me," underscores John O's goal to present the best possible version of Diamond Rings on Free Dimensional. "That song is about owning this idea of who I am," he says. Yet it's also open for listeners to interpret and adopt as their own. "That's why I write songs: to make something somebody else can identify with." "I'm Just Me" captures both the exuberance and terror of embracing one's true self, a direct reflection of John O's emotions while making the album. "It's okay to be yourself, to trust who you are and your own vision. We're all unique, and the things that make us special from everyone else are often the things that we fear to address. Hopefully this record encourages people to celebrate those differences."
John O raised the bar for Diamond Rings lyrically throughout Free Dimensional. "I wanted to challenge myself to write and sing about big themes, like love and heartbreak, fear of rejection and fear of success, these universal topics that a lot of people can relate to. That felt really risky to me, because it's really obvious when a song is doing that and doing it well—or doing it poorly." Luckily, the fact that John O writes his own material sets Diamond Rings apart from the myriad chart acts who lean heavily on hired guns to supply music and lyrics, allowing him a greater degree of specificity. "I can cut closer to the heart of the matter because whatever I'm writing about is something I'm fully identifying with."
Even as John O pushed himself to expand his writing voice, he and Taylor also endeavored to demand more from singing—which in turn fed back into the material they were recording. "I'm a self-taught musician, so in the past, whatever notes or chord progression popped into my head first became the song and I'd shape my
vocals accordingly." This time, John O transposed sections or entire songs to make sure they sat in the best possible place in his register, a change of tack he's still coming to grips with. "I wouldn't have ever done that before," he admits. "I grew up playing in punk bands, where that kind of thing would've been unconscionable."
John O's other goal for the new album was just as ambitious, and points back to Taylor's observations about Diamond Rings' "classic" approach. Critics and fans often like to categorize music according to the technology, timbres and techniques that defined an era, but John O aspires to circumnavigate that. "The intention was to try and create a sound that was, as much as possible, not beholden to any specific time or space." There are elements sprinkled throughout Free Dimensional that hint at genres or artists that have inspired Diamond Rings, but synthesized in a wholly unique, timeless manner. "I really wanted the album to feel as though it was very much of the here-and-now, but also indistinguishable from what's come before—and what is yet to come—in music."
"As an artist, I'm living in a really privileged time, with so many different ways to enjoy music at my fingertips," he adds. "I have my cassette tapes up in my bunk bed, an iPod for the subway, and DJ turntables out in the living room. There are no rules right now, and that's really exciting. I wanted to make an album that would encapsulate that idea."
By pushing further into the public sphere, Free Dimensional takes more risks than if John O had simply stayed locked away in his bedroom and only looked inward. "You play this game of push-and-pull between making something accessible that can connect, but that also doesn't pander. I'm exploring that balance in my work right now." That's not to say he doesn't have several album's worth of noise rock tracks fermenting on his hard drive. John O readily acknowledges that at some point, Diamond Rings will probably drop something as defiantly boundary-pushing as Side B of David Bowie's Low. But that can come later. "I have to earn the respect and the attention of my audience, and prove myself in the popular sphere first," he concludes. "Until I'm there, I'm doing everything I can to make music that people will totally understand."