Sydney based artist Jessica Cerro, better known under her stage alias Montaigne, made her mark on the Australian music scene in 2012 as a Triple J Unearthed Finalist. Since then, she’s been refining her sound, making music and touring with bands and musicians like San Cisco, Megan Washington and Boy and Bear. This year, she announces her first national headline tour in April, alongside the release of her eagerly-anticipated debut album.
Thanks for taking the time to do this. I studied Michael Montaigne in high school, and I remember being struck by his quote “I have never seen a greater monster or miracle in the world than myself”. What was is that inspired you to perform under the stage name Montaigne?
Firstly, so siq that they taught you Montaigne at school!! I wish they taught me Montaigne, but alas I had to do some exploring to find him. That’s stuff schools should be teaching though.
That very quote is one of the things that drew me to him, and in fact embodies in one sentence much of what my song ‘I’m A Fantastic Wreck’ tries to convey. What drew me to Montaigne is what draws most people to him - how much of myself I saw in him. Montaigne represented the average human. There were peculiarities about him which made him unique, as everyone is, but he wrote about profoundly mundane things from his own perspective and was happy to do just that.
He observed life is at is, rather than how it should be. He believed that life should be lived without fear of death even though he feared death for a large portion of his life, and he was totally honest in his writing. Much of the way he is with his writing, I want to be, and hopefully am. I also just wanted to spread his name round, and I speak French so, I chose the name for both meaningful and superficial reasons.
The EP you released two years ago Life of Montaigne feels centered around the uncertainty one feels in that post-high school haze where you’re trying to find your feet amongst the pressure and expectations of those around you. But in a way, you’ve subverted those feelings through making your music so powerful, and bold. Can you tell us about that?
I think the feelings of adolescents are often considered as unreal or irrational or not to be seriously considered but I think that’s quite an unhealthy and condescending way to look at it.
That pressure and those expectations are very real and the power of music I feel reflect the strength of those feelings well. That’s how I felt when I wrote and recorded the songs and I don’t think I’ve embraced those feelings rather than pushed against them.
This is how I feel, and it’s not all good, but I’m going to accept the fact that not everything is good and nice and it is in fact the bad stuff that often builds character so fine. I’ll deal with it. That’s the spirit, I guess. If you like yourself as a person now, after high school, you should be grateful that you did and felt all the things you did in high school because you wouldn’t be where you are now without that time. It’s formative and important and I think the songs are wrote are descriptive, as Montaigne is about his writing. It tells of what was happening to me inside and outside of me and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Your lyrics vocalise themes of loneliness, pensiveness and trepidations, but the way they’re performed is almost opposite of that. You give power to those parts of yourself which are often seen as something to be hidden. Was that a conscious choice?
Not really, interestingly enough! I think I just subconsciously love contrasting elements in almost anything. I’ve mentioned Bluejuice’s music before, being exciting pop with rather dark and depressing subject matter. Bjork as well, she sings about dark things in an ecstatic manner, or about vulnerability with extraordinary power (maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to her? Maybe not). I’m generally - outside of music and performance - a rather equanimous person, and when fiery, am so mutedly, so I think music and singing is just the place where the passion in me emerges. I’ve always been open about almost everything in my life so it kinda just amplifies tenfold in music because it feels safer to reveal personal stuff about myself in songs.
In regards to the video clip for Clip My Wings, you’ve spoken about how filming was a physical and mental challenge for you. I get the impression that you’re someone who always pushes yourself to grow. How do you deal with bouts of stagnation or procrastination?
It’s tough. I don’t really deal with it to be honest. When I have too many days off consecutively I go kinda crazy. Especially because I don’t have much money right now, so I can’t exactly go out for lunch or dinner with a mate, or see a movie, and I avoid paying money for transport so everywhere I go I try to do so on foot or on my bike. I’m also a workaholic when it comes to music so other leisurely activities can distract me for only so long. Not very zen, I know. I’m hoping my inner zen master returns at some point.
You recently started Nomtaigne as a way to teach people how to eat consciously for the planet (vegan). How have you found the response since?
Amazing! So many fans have told me that they’re gonna try to make the steps towards veganism, or have already done it. Even friends! I just hope people are doing it for the right and best reason though - of course good health is a strong point for veganism but the most important is the ethical one. Animals in both the meat and dairy industry are tortured, raped and slaughtered on the daily and we in Western, developed societies have a choice to eat plant-based and not participate and sustain that system of violence. I hope people realise that. They should be doing the background research that accompanies eating vegan, like watching Cowspiracy, or Live and Let Live, or The Cove etc.
You’re just finishing up on your first album to be released this year. What kind of head space were you in while making the album?
While writing it, I was pretty stressed and pretty happy-unhappy. There were good things and there were very bad things and it made for great bittersweetness. While recording it, things were fine, though. Everything had sorted itself out. So the writing is quite emotional. I was also reading How Music Works by David Byrne, listening to a lot of Talking Heads, watching a lot of live Talking Heads and Queen and Jacques Brel videos on YouTube, listening to lots of pop, electronic, 80s rock music. That’s where my head was at in terms of influences. People like Bjork, St Vincent, Empress Of, Majical Cloudz, a bunch of stuff. Because of my love for performance too, I was thinking a lot about how the tracks would translate live. That consideration had a large influence in my direction of the music and production.
Do you have any other forms of expressions just for yourself? Do you journal, paint or secretly dress up as Bowie alias in your bedroom?
I journal, I write stream-of-consciousness stuff often. I also like being an amateur photographer and really like taking photos of the sky. Music is almost my whole life though. A lot of if not all of my energy is directed towards musical output and input.
Finally, you’re unapologetically ambitious - you recently wrote about how your ultimate goal is to become one of the greatest performers of all time; reaching the heights of people such as Freddy Mercury, Bjork, David Byrne. What traits, talents and achievements do you hope to emulate in order to achieve such longevity in the industry?
I don’t hope to emulate anyone. I want to be me. I’m going to be the best version of me that the industry has ever seen. My heroes are just there to remind me that anything is possible when you have faith in yourself.
For information on Montaigne's fourthcoming album you can follow her on instagram @actualmontaigne or check out her tunes here.