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Interview: Montaigne

Last year she reached ‘Glorious Heights’ and since then she has hardly come down, stopping only to revel in her very normal life between shows. Sydney’s rising powerhouse vocalist Montaigne a.k.a. Jess Cerro gave us her two cents on life paths, Venn diagrams, and fighting off dragons.

You started out as a triple j Unearthed finalist in 2012 – how did that experience change your course?

Oh, it completely changed my course. I wanted to be a football player and study overseas…well, I don’t know if I wanted to be a football player; I wanted to use the conduit of football in order to get a higher education at an American Ivy League college, and look where I am now (laughs). So it’s changed things radically.

Could you even imagine your life now if you hadn’t done it? I mean, it must be crazy.

I don’t even know. I can’t even, quite frankly. I have no idea. I actually watched this movie called “20th Century Women” which came out a week or two ago, and there’s something they say in the film [that had me thinking] “that’s so f**king true”, and it was “whatever you think your life is going to be, forget about it because it’s not gonna be that.” It’s never the thing that you project into the future, and even an imagination of an alternate life – I reckon it wouldn’t even come close to what the reality would be. I have no idea, quite frankly (laughs).

It’s been an amazing journey for you, I know, and since that beginning you’ve noted a few musical influences including Florence + the Machine and Coldplay – amazing artists. Given the opportunity, who would you most like to collaborate with?

Either Bjork or David Byrne. Bjork is just out of this world.

It’s been almost 10 months now since you released your first full-length album; Can you give us an insight into your life in the aftermath of ‘Glorious Heights’?

(Laughs) It just depends. You know, if I’m on tour cycle I’m in the van, I’m on the plane, I’m hanging out at sound check, playing shows and sleeping in hotel rooms – that’s sort of how those days are spent.

Then there’s the days in the interim when I’m just waiting for another show to come up on the weekend. It’s just me pottering around my house doing my washing, cleaning my room, vacuuming the floor, making dinner for myself and going to comedy events. I go to a lot of comedy improv and I also listen to a lot of podcasts, I go running a lot, I play AFL on Tuesday nights and soccer on Mondays and try to hang out with friends.

Sounds like a pretty normal life.

Yeah, a normal life. That and writing songs (laughs).

Those comedy shows seem to infiltrate your performance style on stage, do you find that?

I think so! I generally tend towards silliness and I think now that I’ve increased my intake of comedy that’s only augmented things. I’m really into physical comedy – I think it’s because I’m a very physical person, so I’m into people like Aunty Donna. A lot of improv requires things like miming and air action, like a hand chopping a tomato or a man getting into a car, so yeah, that does kind of inform the way that I move onstage, I think.

It’s so dramatic, I love it! What’s your favourite track to play from ‘Glorious Heights’?

I’ve started really getting into Lonely, I think just because it’s a pretty universally appealing song. It’s just one that I think everyone experiences – it really taps into that primal deficiency that we all feel of there being this meaninglessness and emptiness to our lives which we fill with stuff, you know? Like going to comedy, or being in love – whatever. Often my substitute or filler for the void is love and being in a relationship.

Sometimes I feel like maybe the only reason why I have a crush on a particular person – especially if they’re clearly unhealthy for me – is because I’m just lonely, and that’s basically the premise of the song. The thing is, especially in a performer-to-crowd relationship, everyone just f**king gets on board with that. Even if they don’t know the song, they hear it and go “wow, you’re really speaking to me on a really fundamental level”, and they might not realise that consciously, but I do. When I sing that song, I definitely feel like I’m screaming into the ether, but as I’m screaming into the ether, everyone is doing it with me (laughs). It makes me feel much less alone, so that’s really nice.

You say you have a billion songs you’ve written yourself, what does the writing process involve for you?

Just heaps of emotions, hey? (laughs) I was feeling really emo yesterday, and I was listening to I Know by Fiona Apple and I actually got teary. I never get teary – I’m a very stoic person and I pride myself on my equanimity, but yesterday I was teary. It’s really dreary and ugly and grey and cold and rainy in Sydney right now so I was in my room from 4pm yesterday, just lying down listening to music. I took a pause and looked back on these texts that I shared with this person that I messed things up with and just started singing a song into my phone. I recorded it, improvised lyrics and melody – everything like that, and at the end of the song actually just cried (laughs). So my songs end up being a really pure, raw fusion of emotion that I’m feeling, and that was the first time I’d ever improvised a song and decided not to change it in anyway.

I’m A Fantastic Wreck was literally just me being like (sung) “I want to taste tears/I want to free the beast from its cage”,  wondering where [to go] from there, and then just [writing] the rest. The songs come really easily when I’m particularly emotionally unstable. That’s really the only requirement, because I think the rest of it is already within me. I know how to craft a melody and to write words; there just needs to be a stimulus. So the process is really just me sitting down and being like, “wow, I’m really sad right now! Let’s talk about it (laughs).” Then I might listen to a song I’m really into and then want to really emulate the mood and general melody of that and model it loosely off of that song, or maybe I’ll just do it entirely subconsciously. But yeah, that’s the vibe, I guess – it’s all emotion-based.

It’s really cool. With all of those emotions and melodies in mind, how do you decide which tracks make it onto your next album?

Part of it is just figuring out which ones are the best ones. I mean, so far it hasn’t been hard because with ‘Glorious Heights’ we had about 15 songs and 13 of them got used. It’s just what works with [the particular project] you’re working on. The one I’m about to embark upon had this really strong concept for it, but I’ve kind of moved on it now so it’s evolved in my mind as I’ve written more songs…When choosing a song, there’s a Venn diagram; one circle is pertinence; two, vision; and the other circle is “goodness” (laughs) and palatability. The sweet spot is the middle. Sometimes you have to just go for one circle or the other, but ideally every single song would hit in the sweet spot.

Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?

Yes, I would (laughs).

You have likened your problems to dragons you have to continuously fight off. What’s been the most significant problem you’ve had to overcome on your journey so far?

(laughs) It’s not really one I can talk about…it’s like a very, very, very, very big thing, an impactful part of my life, and the one part of my life that I can’t talk about. It sucks, but I also have to protect some people.

Apart from that, I guess it would be my ex-boyfriend who definitely changed me for the better, but inadvertently. I didn’t change for the better because of any of his doing or learning from any of his particular beliefs, but I became a totally different person while I was with  him and sort of subsumed myself to his dominant personality. Then when we broke up I was like, “wait a second, that was all wrong and really unhealthy”. Learning from that has been fruitful, interesting and confronting.

It sounds a lot like the inspiration behind Because I Love You.

Yep, that’s the one.

You hit the nail on the head there then. How did all of that experience impact who you are today?

I think it all impacted me for the better. I really like who I am now and the way I have reshaped myself in light of those events. I pride myself on my ability to be quite a fluid, flexible human being who’s willing to accept the reality of their mistake-making and then learn from it, evolve and grow. I think I did that with him. We all mess up a little bit because everything’s really complex and hard. Because of him, I now [know] that when I’m dating I need to not self-sacrifice so much and be a bit more selfish.

The thing about me is that I’m very, very giving. When I have feelings for someone, I will do anything for [them]. Do you need me to drive you to Wollongong? I’ll f**king do it. I’ve been trying to reign that in a little bit, just because it gets so embedded and if that goes on for too long, then you’re giving too much of yourself without a counterbalancing force from the other end. It becomes unhealthy and there’s a power imbalance. I sort of took that on, but I feel like I’ve gone a little bit too far towards the other end of the spectrum and now I’m too hard-shelled so I’m trying to rebalance myself. It’s an ongoing thing, and I think these are things that humans learn from. It’s all for the better.

There might be some irrevocable mistakes that you make, like I have made in the past few weeks, but you move on and learn, and better things come from it. I think that’s what I’ve learnt as well – you might have something that seems quite perfect and wonderful, but that might end. That’s really sad, but it’ll always be supplanted by another thing that arises one day. There’s never a “best of” anything, you know? You never get to the peak, I guess.

So you’ll never release an album called ‘The Best Of Montaigne’?

No. No, no, no (laughs). It’s gonna be like ‘Some Tracks By Montaigne’, that’s what it’ll be called.

I love that. Can you give us a glimpse of what’s coming next in The Life of Montaigne?

I have tour in July and August, which will be fun. We’re sort of working on that, and I’m gonna plan some things – start working on my album and doing pre-production and co-writing with Tony Buchen who’s produced all the stuff I’ve released so far.

I’m trying to really sort of branch out in my appearances – I’m a person of multiple interests. I’m not just stuck into music; I really enjoy writing and comedy and film and all creative pursuits, as well as veganism and activism and being a voice for all these things that I’m passionate about, so I don’t know! In the future I’ll probably be dabbling in a bunch of that stuff.

Maybe you could write a song about vegan activism?

That would definitely go off.

Catch Montaigne touring around Australia next month, and check out her track Lonely below! 

Montaigne Tour Dates 

Adelaide UniBar
Capitol, Perth
Mojo’s Bar, Fremantle WA
Karova Lounge, Ballarat
170 Russell, Melbourne
The Triffid, Brisbane
Metro Theatre, Sydney
Yours & Owls Festival, Wollongong

Get Tickets HERE 

Written by Jess Martyn