Chats with Montaigne

‘My managers brought that up with me. They were like, “Jess, you’re really articulate and you say a lot of good stuff but most interviewers want the short and sweet because they have to fuckin’ listen to this and write it out.” I was like, “That’s a good point but it’s very difficult to stop myself from doing that.”’

That was just under an hour into the interview…


Montaigne is the moniker for 19-year-old singer, Jess Cerro. The Sydneysider first appeared on the scene as an Unearthed High finalist in 2012 before really breaking through in 2014 with her single, “I Am Not An End”, and her debut EP, Life of Montaigne. To cap off a big year, she toured with San Cisco and has started 2015 by touring with Megan Washington.

Next on the agenda is her first headline tour. From there, the sky is the limit for the talented vocalist. I was lucky enough to catch up with Jess for a good long chat about life and music, her friends in the industry, her sexuality, and some embarrassing obsessions as a 13-year-old.

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Huggett (WH): Why “Montaigne”? Why that French philosopher?

Jess (JC): Because I read about him in a book called “The Consolations of Philosophy” by Alain de Botton. It was basically like different sorts of world views that somehow help us get through life. Things about appearance and, for Montaigne in that book, about consolations of death. He was like a YOLO kind of guy. Life’s too short to not try things and to experience life. He was all about not fearing death. He was also very forward for his time. He was very much about being selfish in a good way, about having a focus on yourself, being introspective, reflecting upon your own character, and knowing your own life in order to improve yourself. It’s not a bad thing to talk about or to explore yourself, as long as you’re doing it to make yourself better and that’s a big thing for me. I find that really important. I was just really on board with what Montaigne was all about and I was like, “You know what? It’s also a nice name and I speak French so it all fits.”

WH: So you’re a fluent French speaker?

JC: Yes. I studied for seven years, since I was in year 7, and I was studying it first semester last year. I haven’t exercised it much since, simply because we’re in Australia and there aren’t many French speakers in my circle. Probably if someone put me in a room full of French speakers now and just said “talk”, I would stumble around for a bit but then pick it up pretty quickly. It’s in the back of my mind. It’s ingrained now. It’s there.

WH: Does that mean you’ll ever sing in French or write a song with French in it?

JC: I reckon I probably would, yeah. It’s a beautiful language.

WH: You were in Unearthed High in 2012 but then you decided to finish school. Was that the right decision for you and did you have a plan for after school if music didn’t work out?

JC: Right at the moment I was graduating, I actually wanted to become a secondary teacher because I was really inspired by my own teachers but that dream faded once I reached university. I ended up doing a Bachelor of Arts (Languages) at Sydney and was doing Linguistics and French but because the music thing started amping up a little bit, that was my focus and that was what I was interested in. It’s been my passion my whole life and it’s kinda like, “I don’t want to have to have a backup.” Music is the only thing in my life that I haven’t wavered about. I’ve always been like “I want to be a journalist”, “I want to be a doctor”, “I want to be a neuroscientist”, “I want to be a forensic anthropologist”, so I’ve gone through so many phases and music’s the only one that’s always been like “I want to do that. That’s what I wanna do.” I deferred second semester last year because I was getting very busy and I was just not focussing on my studies whatsoever. I’ve always been academic but at this point in my life I’d rather prioritise music. It’s like a good time in my life, I’ve got the opportunity so I’ll take advantage of it.

WH: You broke through, really, with “I Am Not An End” but “I’m A Fantastic Wreck” was on your Unearthed profile first. That was the first song I heard and I like to describe it as graceful yet eccentric. Was that kinda what you were going for?

JC: The song’s really paradoxical in that it’s sung really confidently but it’s about a person falling apart and trying to keep it together. There’s a very clear progression. The end bit is very orchestral and, like you say, graceful, but throughout the song you get those things just being knocked over and pianos being bashed. The way I wrote it was just guitar picking. It didn’t have chords to it when I first put it down in the demo and then Tony came in. It’s the song we did last, after the first four, and the first four have a very different sound so my head space was there, in those songs and this one was not the same. I had my idea, conceptually, of what I wanted it to be but Tony was very good at extracting that from my brain and producing it.

WH: It’s about this woman who is a wreck, as the title suggests, but is there a story behind that? Is it you or someone you know?

JC: It is me. My songs are never strictly factual or autobiographical. There’ll always be bits of me overlaying with concepts and fictionalised characters and stories. Every line addresses something different. It’s about so many things, about me fucking up in life and trying to rectify my fucked up situations and trying to seek forgiveness for shit I’ve done. Everyone has body image issues and what I tried to address in that song is the wish to like transcend the mindset of “appearance is important” and “I have to look a certain way for society”. You want to do it and then you can’t because we’re human and neurotic and that’s what happens, and we’re also totally indoctrinated with all these pressures and ideas from society. And then being angry with yourself for not being able to go against the grain.

Another part of it is just being able to accept that you have emotions and that you’re entitled to them and entitled to expressing them. I’ve always been quite a stoic person just because I’m always wanting people to see me as strong and confident but then I let it just simmer down, deep down inside my core and eventually just have a breakdown. So I’m trying to learn, I’m trying to tell myself you’re allowed to be a human being. Go for it.

Another little fiction that’s in the song is that she’s an insane person who insists that they still deserve love. When I say insane, I don’t mean mentally ill, I mean murderous. I mean people that do some fucked up shit to other people and someone who’s just like, “I’m a fantastic wreck. I’m doing some fucked up shit but it’s great, isn’t it?”

WH: The video for that recently came out and you described it as “creepy”. What’s the inspiration behind the video, and the concept? What makes it “creepy”?

JC: I, personally, don’t actually find it creepy, simply because I was involved with the whole process. I shot it, I had green paint on my face, and I know it’s doctored. I don’t really have half a face that regrows. A lot of people came up to me and were like “I was genuinely frightened, it was really creepy, it was really weird.” So I’ve kind of got that into my head it is kind of creepy.

The concept behind it is wasn’t my idea, it was Guy Franklin’s. He proposed it to me, sent me the proposal and I read it. He also sent like a gif with the idea, he’d done it to himself, and I was like “That’s what I thought the whole time. That’s how I thought it would be.” It wasn’t, but as soon as I read it I was like “That’s it. That’s the thing. That’s what the video is.”

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WH: You’ve toured with San Cisco and Megan Washington. Are you big fans of their music? What have you learned from touring with veterans of the Australian music scene?

JC: I’m not a big listener. I know their big songs but, past that, I don’t really know much of their stuff. I do now, because I went on tour with them and I heard their sets like every fucking night so yeah, now I know it well. But before that, I was just like “Yeah, they’re cool bands. I don’t necessarily know them well but they’re cool bands.” In terms of learning things, what I take most from these bands is the way they act behind the scenes. Meg is a very, very energetic, very confident person. She’s very charismatic and knows how to talk and I really admire that. I have that to an extent, but when I’m tired I switch off and after gigs I’m usually tired which is the worst. I fell asleep twice, at Melbourne and Brisbane, first two shows in Meg’s tour. I suppose it’s just learning how to manoeuvre in the industry, what attitude you have to have and how you have to behave in order to be successful.

In terms of music, I feel like we’re peers. We’re like colleagues, you know, so in terms of learning, it’s not so much like a teacher-student relationship as like a colleague relationship. It’s really cool to be able to learn, to concede to the fact that you don’t know everything and that you can learn something from other people as well as teach them things.

WH: You got up on stage and sang with Meg in that one song. What was that like?

JC: It’s weird because Meg basically came up to me and was like “We should do a duet.” I was like, “What do you mean?” “During my set, we should sing something. Let me think of a song.” At the Metro, she was like “Come to my change room. Let’s figure this out.” We just sat there and one of her band members got on the guitar and she was like, “Do you know the song? Do you think you can figure it out?” and he was like, “Yeah probably.” We sang it once through and then at sound check we practiced it once or twice. Then we just sang it in front of an audience. There was not like a dramatic amount of practice that went into it.

WH: Next on the agenda is your first headline tour. That’s pretty exciting. Nervous at all?

JC: Not really. I mean, I’m more excited. I don’t really get nervous about live performance, I just enjoy it. I’m confident about my music and about the band I’m playing with. They get it and they like my music as well, which I think is important. I have my doubts but, for the most part, I listen to feedback I’m given. I get good feedback. I think I can play well, I feel like I perform well most of the time. I know that sounds like a very arrogant thing to say but I feel like it should be allowed that you can admit your strengths. I know that I can sing and I know that I can write songs and that’s really all I need.

WH: I guess if you’re not particularly nervous you may not have gone out and sought any advice? Have you got any advice from anybody?

JC: The thing about the music industry is that people love giving advice so I don’t have to ask for it. It just comes to you. I don’t think anyone’s given me advice so far. They’re probably withholding it until the right moment. I could definitely improve my stage speak because I just improv it. I don’t prepare a speech or anything and I’m not particularly witty in general. In terms of performing, people have just said, “Just keep doing your thing. What you’re doing is working so just do it.”

And with Megan’s tour, she went for the 80s prom vibe and had the balloons and the sparkly string and the coiffed hair. We’re trying to figure out what Montaigne’s all about visually. I definitely have plans to make Montaigne like an encompassing sensorial experience, not just music. I want people to be looking at something that’s really engaging and really stimulating.

WH: So when you perform you want to perform as your moniker, as Montaigne? So not as Jess but as Montaigne?

JC: Yeah yeah. No Jess. Who cares about Jess? Jess works at a fuckin’ newsagency. Jess is boring. Montaigne’s a character, you know? It’s an extension of me. I’m totally into the theatrical things. Florence and the Machine does it, Marina & The Diamonds does it, and I’m so down with it. I think it’s so cool. I think people are often disillusioned with life. They’re like “is this all there is?” It’s why there are so many people with existential crises going on. I think if you can make something really fucking exciting and over the top and just grossly melodramatic, then do it.

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WH: Debut EP, Life of Montaigne, can you tell me anything interesting about it like the writing process or how long it took to make?

JC: It took four weeks to make. That’s all we had in budget and time. We started four days after I finished the HSC. The songs were produced at studio 301 and then the live instruments were recorded at Albert’s, my publisher’s, studio. Laurence Pike from PVT did the drumming and Neil Anderson, who’s my current musical director and keyboard player live, played the piano. It was interesting working with Tony at the time because he’s very driven and he knows what he likes. I was just this tiny, tiny little teenager. He just got it. I gave him some references, I gave him artists like Florence and the Machine, Sigur Ross, Owen Pallett, The National, Sufjan Stevens, Bjork, all these people, and he was like “Oh, ok, I get it.” It was amazing. I mentioned Yann Tiersen and he just made the toy piano a thing. “A Cinematic Plea for an End”, there’s that little break between verses where the toy piano plays. First time he played that, I was like, “Oh my God, it sounds like a creepy doll song. I don’t like that.” And now that actually works really well.

“I’m A Fantastic Wreck” has an interesting thing about it. The bit at the beginning that goes “oo-oo-oo-oo-ooooh”, I made up in the morning of recording it. I was just standing in the shower and I just started singing it. I came to the studio and was like, “Hey Tony, I came up with this in the morning. I don’t know where we’d put it but, I dunno, just listen to it.” He said, “Well let’s just chuck it at the start for now and we’ll just record it on loop for a couple of times and see if it works.” And we just left it there. So that just a total accident. Also, when the piano like slams, you can also hear in the second one, there’s the sound of stuff falling over. Laurence is playing the drums in the track and he just knocked over a bunch of stuff and we just kept it in. It was really great. Half of the world’s good ideas are accidents.

WH: Last year you covered Sia’s Chandelier. Were there any concerns when you chose that song about it vocally?

JC: Yeah. So many concerns. My biggest worry was that I wouldn’t be warmed up by that time and I just wouldn’t be able to hit the notes. We did transpose it half a step down so it was half a step lower in key than the actual song but it was still a bit difficult. I chose it because I thought it was a great song vocally. My favourite artists are often my favourite because of their vocals. I really love Florence, Marina & The Diamonds, and Regina Spectre because they’re such strong vocalists. My other option was “Straight Lines” by Silverchair but we couldn’t figure out what to do with it. It’s already an epic song and it’s kinda perfect the way it is.

WH: Any plans to include it in your headline tour? From a fan’s point of view, can I request it?

JC: Yes you can. We haven’t really talked about it yet but your request will be considered. We can take it under review.

WH: What’s something that nobody knows about you? Or something that the public might not know?

JC: I’m bisexual. I’m also a demisexual so I’m not that sexual a person in general. But I do know I like both binary genders.

WH: Do you have any issues with your sexuality with friends, family, music industry?

JC: Family, definitely. I’ve never had any backlash from friends. My parents come from a conservative cultural background. My mum grew up in a conservative Spanish catholic family and my dad’s from Argentina and… They’re just not used to it, you know? I understand. I just wish that they’d just figure out that it’s a normal thing. Friends, music industry, I’ve had no problems at all. Especially because like most of my friends are queer so it’s like, why would they have a problem?

“Pontius of the Past” is actually about that. About bigots and people who are prejudice against things that you shouldn’t be afraid of and you shouldn’t hate, basically. About being sick of like having to deal with all that sort of thing. It’s like an anthem.

WH: Do you have any close friends in the music industry?

JC: I’m really good mates with Gab Strum who is Japanese Wallpaper now. I think he just added me on Facebook one day and was like, “Oh my God, I love your stuff!” and I was like, “I love your stuff too!” We just kept talking and we’re good friends now. I’m good friends with Dave from Gang of Youths. He’s the lead singer and he’s just like the best guy. I’m sort of acquainted with Tkay Maidza. I met her for the first time in person last week when she did the FBi radio performance and she’s really cool. She’s so talented it’s gross. I met Airling the other day at Megan’s Brisbane show because she sang with Greg. Loveliest person I have ever met. So gorgeous and just a really kind person. We might do a co-write at some point because she’s supporting Vance Joy so she’s coming here. Those are my main peeps basically.

Talking about the biscuit that came with her tea…

JC: Did you want that because I’m vegan and I probably can’t eat it?

WH: Oh, so you’re a vegan? What’s the reason behind that?

JC: I’m like the worst vegan ever but yes I’m a vegan. It started off for health reasons and later, when I researched it more and found out about the ethical and environmental reasons, I was like, “I can get on board with that as well”.

WH: Do you find it difficult though?

JC: The thing about veganism is it’s not about perfection it’s about minimisation of impact. I’m wearing leather Docs right now. I’m only really dietary vegan and, even then, I eat honey because it’s good for your throat. My desire to not waste food is also a priority over my veganism. I won’t eat meat. If someone accidentally gives me meat I’ll pick it out or I’ll say,“I’m sorry but I’m not gonna eat this.” But if it’s just something small like butter or mayonnaise I’ll eat it.

WH: Last chance to share anything exciting or embarrassing with our readers.

JC: I went through hugely embarrassing phases, all throughout my adolescence and childhood. When I was 14 and 15, I was obsessed with the Jonas Brothers. I even bought a purity ring because they all had purity rings. Like, fuck that now. I went through a massive Glee phase, like huge Glee phase. And before that, when I was 13, I went through a huge obsession with Kingdom Hearts in Japan. I’m very prone to obsession. I used to make music videos set to the cut scenes from Kingdom Hearts. It was great, they were pretty good. I was really into that.

WH: Was it your own music you’d create or…?

JC: No, no, no. So I did one to one of t.A. T .u.’s songs, I did one to one of Linkin Park’s songs, to “Your Guardian Angel” by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. That video actually has like 30,000 views now. It’s a shit video.

WH: Oh, so they’re all on YouTube?

JC: Yeah, it’s all still on there. I had an alias, it’s an anagram from like one of the names from Kingdom Hearts. Just like an entire backlog of dorky videos.

WH: Can we get this YouTube channel to become public any time soon?

JC: Umm… I don’t know. I spoke really embarrassingly as a 13 year old because, you know, people commented on the videos and I would reply and it’s just like, “Oh my God.” I’ll consider it and, if I feel generous, I’ll send you the link to it and you can publish it. Oh, also, Twilight. One of the videos on that channel is like Twilight soundtrack songs that I’d have chosen for the soundtrack. Worst, the worst. Typical 13 year old.

Unfortunately, I never got that link…

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Montaigne’s first headline tour starts April 23 @ The Milk Factory, Brisbane.

Huggett out.

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