Rising to Glorious Heights with Montaigne
Chatting with one of Australia's most powerful voices as she celebrates a stunning new album.
Open, honest and down-to-earth are just some of the many attractive traits Jess Cerro AKA Montaigne exudes. At the beginning of our phone call she tells me she has no qualms about conducting the interview in her bed, under layers of blankets, where she is quite comfortable. As we chat, it becomes increasingly obvious that the parameters of quirkiness and humility are where Jess is most comfortable, personally and musically.
Cerro hit the music scene when she was just sweet 16 in 2012, when triple j dubbed her as one of their Unearthed finalists for her original song Anyone But Me. Unlike most eastern states teenagers who celebrate the end of their HSC’s with schoolies, Cerro released her debut EP, Life Of Montaigne. The EP gave birth to two of her most critically acclaimed songs to date, I’m A Fantastic Wreck and I Am Not An End. Bowing out 2014 with an iconic cover of Sia’s Chandelier for triple j's Like A Version, Cerro then dedicated the next year and half to crafting her debut album. Now, 18 months later, Montaigne has finally dropped said album for the world to hear - Glorious Heights.
For just 20 years of age, Montaigne possesses a maturity and diversity to her voice and musical sensibilities that even veterans of the industry would envy. More so, she has a good head on her shoulders, and a good heart, something that will undoubtedly take her far not only in the music industry, but life in general.
I ask Cerro about what she’s been doing over the past weeks in the lead up to her album release, and her response is a simple, “just waiting”. She adds that her team had a bunch of promo ready to launch once the album goes live. “It’s exciting,” she adds, but also a bit nerve wracking. Cerro worked with producer Tony Buchen on Glorious Heights and she credits him for her “creative freedom” and his support in her pursuit of the outrageous and unconventional. “It makes it very easy to write with him,” she tells, expressing nothing but praise for their working relationship.
If you’ve ever heard one of Montaigne’s songs; adjectives such as personal and intimate do not do them justice. Montaigne’s music gives listeners a beyond candid insight into Cerro's darker thoughts and emotions. I asked her how she is comfortable with sharing such private feelings for the world to hear, and she laughs. “Maybe I just like don’t care?! I think it’s probably more likely that I just don’t think about consequences. I never take it seriously until they actually arrive which is probably a flaw but you know, that’s my music!”
Glorious Heights has some incredible and beautifully penned tracks. Bonus track The Debt, is a very raw narrative into Cerro’s high school years. What You Mean To Me is an all-too-real track for the lonely hearts that have been single for so long they do not yet know what real love is.
So does Cerro find it hard crafting brutally honest songs or does she simply approach her songwriting with reckless abandon? “Probably the latter,” she replies. “Usually co-writing with Tony is just me having a bunch of feelings and then things coming out. Or I had already written phrases like here or there of things that might come together and have needed a song for them and then he’s got the backing track going and I’m like ‘that works!’”
The uniqueness of Montaigne is captivating. How doe someone so young conjure such an original sound? “Well I suppose I just have a very good idea of what I like and what sounds I like,” she explains. “I just listen to a bunch of stuff and I know who my core group of influences are and really listen to lots of different music and I’m influenced by a lot of different music.”
Her inspirations stem all the way from Arcade Fire to Vera Blue to Minor Victories. But in general, “Australian music," is a strong focus at the moment. “I love Vera Blue right now, she doesn’t have heaps out right now but I saw her live the other day and was just blown away. So I’m a big fan of her. She’s just so talented it’s gross”. She recalls that during the songwriting process she’d deliberately explore songs or artists she resonates with more in depth, to feed her musical curiosities. The end destination was “unifying all those idiosyncrasies into my own idiosyncrasies.”
Speaking of idols and inspirations, Cerro has nothing but kind things to say about local boys Hilltop Hoods, who she featured on their hit single 1955 and took her as their supporting act for their national tour earlier this year. “Matt [Lambert AKA MC Suffa]'s like an older brother now and I love Dan [Smith AKA MC Pressure] and their families,” she gushes. “Going on tour with them and spending time with them was really beautiful for me. They’re the funnest and loveliest people and they’re just so good-hearted and they took very good care of me and it was a big privilege to be able to sing in those kinds of arenas in front of that kind of audience. So I’m very grateful," she adds, with an honesty that is absolute.
Cerro will be heading out on her own headline tour soon and she can’t wait to see how her fanbase and “team” has accumulated. “You’ve got your first wave of regulars who were there from the beginning, and then people who sort of jump on the bandwagon a few months later,” she says, knowingly. She’s flattered by those who show up to her gigs and for Cerro this connection is what matters most. “People - I’m all about the peeps you know?”
After listening to Montaigne’s full album, and having watched and read some of her interviews, it’s quite clear that this 20-year old is more than just a singer - she’s an intellectual. Throughout the interview I can hear her processing and carefully considering each question I ask to give a well-rounded response, something pretty rare in the music world, where press and interviews are often seen as a chore artists can't wait to get over with.
Her album covers various social topics/issues; religion, anxiety, growing up... Is this a conscious decision on Montaigne’s part? “I think it’s kind of a subconscious, conscious thing” she laughs. “They’re just things I’m passionate about that I think are important to me personally and that’s just what I write.
“I want people to learn more about themselves but I don’t wanna be like ‘learn!’” she clarifies. “I just want to encourage self-learning generally, like as a human being, not just as an artist.”
Being the intellectual and holistic individual she is, it seems as though putting pen to paper is quite an intensive yet rewarding period for Montaigne. She agrees that music is basically a “therapy” for her. “I think I’m in denial about the way I’m truly feeling when it comes to negative emotions - except in my music,” she admits. “My music is where any of my tensions, frustrations or anything comes out, otherwise I’m just like ‘everything’s fine I can keep going’.”
It creates an interesting juxtaposition for Montaigne’s fans, who see her passion and humor on one side, and her dark and evocative lyrics on the other. Cerro has a very appealing, self-deprecating sense of humor; one that she is fully aware of. “Humor I don’t think is disrespectful towards yourself, I think it really helps yourself out and helps other people out and is distracting when bad things happen,” she says, before adding that humour has the power to “belittle the beast”.
Cerro is also aware that she has to toe the line between laughing at herself and acknowledging her deeper feelings to create the best music possible, and to be an artist and person with integrity. “I think laughing at yourself is very important or to get over those darker feelings… but I think it’s wrong to say off the bat just get over them,” she explains. “Processing those feelings is very important for our soul and our spirit and for us to learn about ourselves, and the way things can affect us and it shines a great light on happier times.”
As we wrap up our interview it strikes me just how gosh darn relatable Cerro is. She just seems, human, and her music is the perfect example of someone tapping into those real emotions and experiences. In fact, she leasves me with a little anecdote that offers a sense of comfort to myself, and will probably do the same for you: “I went through a counsellor for a little bit last year and when I talked to her about the things that were happening to me I just laughed at the things I was saying and sometimes they were so bad they were funny and you have to laugh.”
So, take a leaf out of Montaigne’s book, don’t be afraid to laugh at the world or yourself from time to time, because it really can be the best medicine. And while you're at it, chuck on Glorious Heights, because it too might just help cure what ails you.
Glorious Heights out now, and she's touring it later this year:
TUE 13 SEP | THE SPIEGELTENT @ BRISBANE FESTIVAL, BRISBANE QLD (ALL AGES)
FRI 16 SEP | CARNIVAL OF FLOWERS, TOOWOOMBA QLD (ALL AGES)
FRI 23 SEP | FAT CONTROLLER, ADELAIDE SA
SAT 24 SEP | JACK RABBIT SLIM'S, PERTH WA
SAT 01 OCT | BEYOND FESTIVAL, CANBERRA ACT (ALL AGES)
SUN 02 OCT | WILDWOOD FESTIVAL, PORT MACQUARIE NSW (ALL AGES)
MON 03 OCT | CALOUNDRA MUSIC FESTIVAL, CALOUNDRA QLD (ALL AGES)
FRI 07 OCT | UNI BAR, WOLLONGONG NSW
SAT 08 OCT | OXFORD ART FACTORY, SYDNEY NSW
SUN 09 OCT | LIZOTTES, NEWCASTLE NSW (ALL AGES)
FRI 14 OCT | WORKERS CLUB, GEELONG VIC
SAT 15 OCT | CORNER HOTEL, MELBOURNE VIC