Talking to the new Baroque pop wonderkid Montaigne reminds me of having conversations with my younger sister – it’s a rollercoaster that is both fun and exhausting, and makes me feel very old. Absolutely brimming with hopeful exuberance, Jessica Cerro chatters with passion and the occasional swear word for which she quickly apologises, “It’s just the mood that I am in today.” It has been a quick rise to fame from being a finalist in triple j Unearthed High competition in 2012 to deferring uni to focus on music full time this year, being represented by Wonderlick, and having your interview phone calls moderated (shout out the record label dude who cut off our interview! I get it – 26 minutes is pushing it.) Montaigne recently dropped the new for “Clip My Wings” which is a george-esque art-pop tune with soaring vocals and a driving orchestral backing as well as supporting guitar and keys. Unfortunately I was not able to see the video as it had not been released at the time of talking, “I don’t know why…all the backhand bullshit.” Her irritation is due to her excitement of the release. She wants people to be able to see the hard work of the directors and animators. But she wouldn’t give me a hint as to what it could look like, coyly saying “you’ll just have to look at the single cover.”
I start off self-indulgently asking how she got into music (my favourite question.) I should have guessed that Montaigne has always had music in her life from early years when her and her sister used to sing karaoke together, “We never played music…but my parents have tape of me [singing] when I was about 5 and she was about 3.” Her eccentric musical inspiration can possibly be explained by her father’s tastes that she says were a bit of everything from 80s/90s hip hop to Savage Garden. She also admits being into many female pop sensations in her early teens from Kelly Clarkson to Delta Goodrem to The Veronicas. We managed to bond over owning the So Fresh Autumn 2004 (“…the one with Limp Bizkit”).
“Something I have always done and something I will always do,” she says emphatically which explains her choice to defer university and focus on music full time this year, though she is quick to say that she has two casual hospitality jobs. “My label pays for everything…for travel and costs involved in making an album…but it doesn’t leave much in your pocket,” (a common theme for indie musicians as I discussed with Marcus Azon (Jinja Safari). She too admits to sometimes being recognised). Tours are another thing that is covered by Wonderlick at this stage, which is handy as she gushes that, “I would like to be touring all the time….I’d probably get exhausted with excessive use of my voice…but, like, I don’t care.” Not only does she love spending time with her hilarious band but, as we all do, she likes to travel and “not having to think of responsibilities back at home.”
I am interested in the more serious and melancholy subject matter in her songs and I ask where that comes from and clumsily referring to her seemingly stable upbringing (never assume! This idiot!) to what she paraphrases Tolstoy with “all happy families are happy in the same way and all unhappy families are in different, all unhappy in a different way.” Families are “random human beings being forced into being together, even though they don’t necessarily share the same interest and morals…and things won’t always run smoothly”. But she attests that “we all love each other in very complicated ways but we don’t always necessarily get along and we do sometimes …what I am trying to say is that I do write about things that happen in my family as well as my relationships with other people and myself a lot.” She sites identity struggles in her teenage years, thinking that you know what you want changing, as well as other issues in her life. The main vein in her songwriting as well as other creative endeavours is her self reflective and self analytical voice, “[I am working at] being a better person, your best can always better. This is always gonna come out in my songs, like “I’m a Fantastic Wreck” or “I Am Not An End”.”
Speaking about “Clip My Wings”, I ask her whether there was any particular inspiration for this track, but there’s no direct song that she can think of, as she describes it as having the “weirdest time signature ever.” “Tony [Buchen who’s also worked with The Preatures and Andy Bull] wrote the guitar part…and the 5/4 time signature evolved…so we kept it together for the chorus and the bridge and stuff like that but I heard it differently,” so it changes throughout the track. Working in such a way with such a renowned writer may faze some people but Cerro carries it with maturity and modesty. She says songwriting is “something I have always done and something I will always do.”
Questioning what other music inspires Montaigne, she rattles off names and artists, everything from Florence and the Machine (“When I heard [them]…I thought, I want to write like that”) to Justin Bieber. She says she listens to everything but is “selective about commercial music.” I praise her open mindedness as many more alternative musicians can shun popular music, “I fucking hate that when they are like that about pop music! If a song is good, it’s good and if it makes you feel something then it’s doing its job! I grew up on pop music. I watched Glee a lot. I’m not ashamed to listen to pop music! It’s a great thing if it’s done well.” What draws Cerro to pop is that it can often be anthemic and she is attracted to the “epic and ethereal,” songs that “take me out of reality. Because when you think about it, life is purposeless and reality is mundane.” Her optimism comes in again as she attests that “music fills you with purpose. It feels you with something greater…pop music makes you feel euphoric.”
Montaigne is destined for great things, which is why she has be snatched up by the management that covers bands like Boy & Bear and Grinspoon (say what you will, they are straight up Aussie icons – Lismore represent!) Her mix of youthful passion and mature musical skill help her stand out, even if it does lead to rambling interviews which get terminated mid-topic. It was a pleasure to chat with a fellow music lover and one who likes such a broad range of artists and genres, so I’m going to leave you with the unofficial list of every artist, song and album that Jessica Cerro aka Montaigne said she liked in our interview.
UNOFFICIAL MIXTAPE BY MONTAIGNE*
*For dignity and avoiding the naysayers, I won’t mention her teenage loves, but off the record, Nikki Webster was definitely mentioned.
Gang of Youths – “all the best parts of Arcade Fire”
Empress Of – “I am losing my shit over her right now”
Bluejuice (RIP) – Retrospectable
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man
Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See you Tomorrow
Jose Gonzalez – ‘Hand On Your Heart’
Hailee Steinfeld – ‘Love Myself’
Hometown: Sydney, Australia.
Latest release: ‘Clip My Wings’, September 2015.
Sounds like: Sia, George, Florence and the Machine.
Say what? In the past, Cerro has said if she wasn’t a musician she’d be a forensic anthropologist, although in her interview with the Guardian she now says differently.
Stay classy – Rosa.