We caught up with Jess Cerro, better known as Montaigne, to talk about the hard work and determination that went into her music to reach those Glorious Heights of her recent debut album release and upcoming national tour, and to generally sit in awe of the well spoken motivation behind the works.
Okay first up, when your latest single “Because I Love You” was released, my mate messaged me full of heart emojis over the opening lyrics, “I ate a salad today, I ate one yesterday too”, but that’s actually about a pet peeve of yours right?
The whole song is a dark place; people miss the forest for the trees because the song sounds happy and fun but it’s actually about a really toxic relationship – I don’t know how toxic it was, but it definitely wasn’t the greatest relationship ever. The salad line, it’s a hint of how condescending my ex was to me. He really tried to uphold this teacher student dynamic and he’d always mock me for being vegan, so the lyrics were true to the extent that I actually went from vegan to vegetarian for the last two or three months we were together, because I couldn’t handle being vegan hanging out with him all the time. Towards the last few months, all I was doing was hanging out with him at his house with his friends; I didn’t see my friends heaps, it was just gross. But I don’t mind people making light of it, because that’s the point.
You’ve said previously about how you love to contrast those happy/sad vibes within your song, is that something you set out to do, do you end up staring at some sad lyrics and think lets put a happy jam behind this?
It’s actually the other way, so “Because I Love You” was written completely on the spot when we did that co-write, so Tony [Buchen] wrote the beat and I wrote the piano chords. I was like, ‘This sounds really Talking Heads‘ which is cool; I really like the way David Byrne writes his lyrics, so the song is pretty ambiguous in terms of mood and emotions. So I just wanted to play with that weird juxtaposition.
What’s your process for writing? I’ve heard you have a stash of creative writing works just waiting to be translated into music; is all of it based off those moments or is it just a stream of consciousness?
Pretty much, I mean my stream of consciousness comes from my conscious which experiences my life. A lot of it is stuff I have in a backlog of files dedicated to music of lyrics and melodies. Five were already written songs and then the rest of them were taken from bits and pieces or made up on the spot; it’s sort of a motley assortment of song arrangements, styles and methods.
You co-wrote quite a few songs with your producer for the album, how does that compare to writing solo?
It’s weirdly not that different. There is a difference; clearly one, you’re completely alone and the other one, you’re with someone who can cast judgement or who is receiving what you’re thinking. Even if they don’t say, deep down inside their heads they’re forming judgements about you based on what they’re hearing. But Tony, he’s quite open to who I am and the things I have in my life and he knows everything! I don’t really have secrets from him, so it’s quite easy to write with him and it’s almost comforting once it comes out, having someone who’s gonna be there to console you and be part of that therapeutic process, which is nice.
What is the most personal song, for you, from the album?
They’re all pretty damn personal! Haha, it’s hard to pick out one because they’re all personal as shit! I don’t know, well I’d say the least personal is probably “Glorious Heights” and that’s still quite personal. Maybe… no, you can’t pick.
You’ve mentioned so many artists and musicians as influences and inspirations from Talking Heads to Marina and The Diamonds, Fleet Foxes to The National and St Vincent; do you think its hard for artists to separate their own creativity from what has influenced them?
I don’t think so. I think the very fact that I’m so in tune with my influences means that I have a great variety of different influences; they all come from different genres and write in different ways and touch on different subjects. I think the exposure to all those things and the combination of all those things is what makes [for] uniqueness and originality. By not sticking to just one, by really delving into all kind of things – and not just music but all disciplines – I think that really is what makes creativity most original and rich, because you’re drawing from a gigantic and diverse pool of resources.
Actually the real Montaigne, the philosopher Montaigne, said something really great; “I’ve collected a posy of men’s flowers the only thing of them that is mine is the string that binds them together” – that’s good, that’s totally appropriate.
You probably get asked this in every interview, but how did Montaigne evolve?
I didn’t want to be Jess Cerro anymore, I found Jess Cerro pretty boring – I mean I’m still me and I like me – but I’m not super keen on it as a performance name it, [it] just sounds like one of those generic pop names that people get. I want this to be special, I’m in this to make a massive splash not to just fuck around for a bit, and ‘Montaigne’ feels like a significant name.
I feel that mononyms are always endowed with a sense of importance or meaningfulness and I chose Montaigne because I like the philosopher; I speak French and he is French, and I feel like I share not just similar values or world views, but a way of operating and a way of being.
You certainly come across as quite confident and self aware, do you think this is a result of your music?
I think the drive just comes from the unique circumstances that I grew up with; my dad was a professional footballer and my mum’s quite a strong willed woman. They raised me to be ambitious, not to hold back, to pursue my dreams and make those dreams gigantic and to not be ashamed of them. They taught me to work hard but also at the same time be nice to people, to be compassionate and generous of my time and my effort and my energy. I think that combination of things as well as being an athletic kid, a kid from a middle class family who looked alright and was of above average intelligence, those things combined have led to me having drive.
Also having purpose and having vision; I know where I want to be and how I want to get there, more or less, and if I don’t I am also good at rolling with the punches. I’m just a very malleable and versatile person. Also the thing is, I’ll put up with shit. I’m not a complainer; I’ll put up with what ever I have to do. Those music videos I made for all those songs, they were hard dude, they were extremely mentally challenging and physically challenging. If you ask those directors [though], I didn’t complain once. I was just like, ‘Yep let’s get it done, lets do it’. They were all 13-14 hour days of me just wanting to die, so it takes that level of resilience to just keep doing things.
I have my moments of weakness, the thing that’s made me what I am is the fact that I also have a really strong support network and people who care about me, which is lovely. I have good relationships with my family, my friends, my management and my label and in turn because I treat them well, I treat them with respect. It’s just about being one, a good person who treats others respectfully; two, working hard and avoiding complaining and being slowed down by the obstacles if you can as much as possible and three, just having good luck and timing. I’m largely here because of good luck and good timing.
You started out on Triple J Unearthed and now you’ve sold out the Oxford Art Factory and the Corner Hotel for your national tour, how does that feel?
Pretty damned good! I’m not gonna lie, I’m a fan of where I am at now. Those venues are very important to me because I’ve been to them a lot and I’ve also done support for those venues so now that I get to headline. that’s pretty cool. But again I take everything as it comes, I don’t get overly excited about anything because I don’t want anything to hinder me from what I’m doing, I don’t know, I just don’t get super excited. But I am appreciative of this, I’m stoked about it.
What I’m trying to say is I’m thinking about the next thing; now I’m like, ‘Okay I’m selling these venues, the next one is going to be in Metro and the next one after that is going to be the Enmore’. I’m always thinking ahead but at the same time, living in the moment. It’s not an avaricious or discontented thinking ahead, it’s just like, ‘Oh man, the future is so full of potential’.
Being such a serious vocalist, in the sense that a lot of the musicality relies on your voice, do you have a strict touring regiment that you will be implementing?
Pretty much; I usually go and greet fans after shows but I definitely want at least eight hours of sleep every night on tour so that my voice can recover. I’m actually going to have to regiment an allotted time for me to be able to see people after shows so I can get back in time and make sure I wake up so that eight hours has passed in mind consciousness. [Also] eat healthy, make sure I’m staying active and drinking heaps of water – basically it’s all about water and staying healthy and not using my voice too much so that it doesn’t break down and die.
Something I have admonished myself for all year is the fact that I have yet to see you perform live which I will be remedying when you tour this month, for others in the same boat what can we expect? Will it be different from your support shows?
There really is a difference; I think it’s just more about the majority of people being there just to see you. I think that’s such a big deal and it changes everything, it makes everything much easier. I mean. if people love you and your music, they’re just there for the music and for you and no matter what you do, they’re generally on board with it. Sometimes my banter can be super awkward and not really that prepared; the show can be very sloppy and the people still love it, because they’re sharing in the energy of the artist that they love and the artist is enjoying that right back. It’s a nice reciprocal relationship. This time it’s definitely much more planned and organised and it will be a very good spectacle – hopefully! If all goes according to plan.
All I’ve seen on my newsfeed lately is your name being announced on festival line ups like Southbound, The Plot, Festival of the Sun, Lost Paradise. You did Splendour this year too; do you prefer the festival setting or the intimacy of gigs?
I like both, I’m a fan of both for different reasons. The intimate thing is good because I enjoy connecting with people on that smaller scale, being able to look every single one of them in the eyes and sing to them and have them know that I see them, that I’m aware of them. Festivals are fun because it’s just fun, everyone’s there to have fun and it’s a big setting and its grandiose and spectacular and you can act as much as you want. When I say act I don’t mean fake but be theatrical, be like a player and I really enjoy that.
You can catch Montaigne on her upcoming September – October “Because I Love You” tour. Check the website for shows and tickets.
Photo by Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis Creatives.