It's been a pretty crazy few years for Sydney's Jessica Cerro - known to most as Montaigne. In 2012, she turned ears as a finalist in triple J's Unearthed High, and in 2016, she released her killer debut album Glorious Heights, and took home an ARIA for Best Breakthrough Artist. She's toured with the likes of Boy and Bear, played Splendour In The Grass and scored award nominations for her stellar performance with the Hilltop Hoods on '1955'. And this rise doesn't look like stopping any time soon.
We caught up with the artist to chat Lizzie McGuire, on stage improv and her upcoming WOMADelaide performance.
BNKR: You found your start through triple J's Unearthed High, and now have gone on to perform festivals all over the country and win an ARIA - what has been your biggest 'pinch me' moment so far?
Montaigne: I guess the ARIAs were a big one; that would be quite a dream-like moment. It was definitely one on the bucket list that I got to tick off, which is nice. Marina Diamandis of Marina and the Diamonds DMed me on Twitter a few months back saying that she finally listened to my music, loved it and wanted to send me a hug, which was cool, I was pretty stoked about that!
What was your first musical memory?
I think my earliest memory that I can remember was of me, my sister and my next door neighbour...we had this plastic microphone and microphone stand and guitar and The Lizzie McGuire Movie was playing and we would sing along to 'This Is What Dreams Are Made Of' and we would do a dance routine to it. I don’t even know if that’s my earliest but that’s the one that always immediately jumps to mind.
You released your debut album mid last year but it had quite a different vibe in comparison to your previous EP - how do you feel you have developed since?
I feel like I have become a little less serious since that EP - [I'm a] little less serious person now and less uptight. I really like playing on characters...I’m more into the theatre of music rather than just the pure musical emotion of it. I feel it’s more engaging in sort of expressing and representing the emotion with different demeanours and that comes with listening to a bunch of music and watching live performances; my music and definitely my album is an attempt to make really good live music.
Who are you listening to at the moment?
I am actually seeing Yann Tiersen tonight - he has some very small pop songs, but he is mostly a composer, so I've been listening to that because I'm seeing him tonight...but also a friend of mine also posted a new John Mayer song...so I had a little listen back to Battle Studies yesterday. And I listen to Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave a couple of days ago because I saw him live and that was pretty amazing. I have enjoyed listening to the score from 500 Days Of Summer, composed by Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen, which is really good. I have this playlist called ‘Into This Right Now’ on Spotify and it’s just basically all the songs that I have heard lately that I want to listen to again and I put them there and put it on shuffle and those songs kind of end up defining moments in my life and I just remove them once I get sick of them.
I also wanted to talk about your songwriting process - how do you actually get started on a song?
A lot of it starts from lyrics first - sometimes both lyrics and vocals at the same time. If there is something that’s been on my mind or if I've reading something or listening to a song and contemplating the mood of that song, the lyric will just appear out of my mouth, while I’m singing. I actually wrote a song yesterday morning, which just happened so instantly - I was sort of channeling Nick Cave 'cause I had gone to that gig and I wanted to write something very Nick Cave-y. The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘It's terrifying that sometimes heartbreak is the paragon of meaning.' It just kind of happens and I carry on with it - that’s how a lot of songs start out. Sometimes I will write full lyrics, they may not be the final ones but I will definitely take bits from whole blocks of text that I've written, and sometimes start on melody or sometimes on piano or guitar - it just depends on where I am, what I am doing...the message depends on the context.
What track means the most to you from Glorious Heights?
I mean they all mean quite a lot to me so it’s hard to discern, but I really feel like I perennially relate to 'Lonely'. I feel like that kinda just sums up my whole life really nicely, the thing about that is the verses are quite specific in their detail and they pertain to a particular relationship I had...I sort of darkened it further - it isn’t all 100% accurate, but just the overall sentiment of 'am I actually into this person, or is it just because I'm really attached to the notion of romance and love and I want to be in it and I'm just latching onto someone who like vaguely reciprocates what I want and being like "What's going on?' and I wish I could just runway from everything'. I just feel like it is never not permanent.
You did a huge national tour of the back of Glorious Heights last year - did you have a favourite moment on stage from that tour?
In my first Sydney show at the Oxford Art Factory - it was a Wednesday and people were mostly sober and it was quite quiet and I had the audience really attentive to me and it was nice, so I kind of just went with it. I sort of plan the points at which I will engage in one-sided audience banter, but I don’t plot exactly what I am suppose to say...but between the last songs I was talking for ages, ‘I just want to say thank you to my band and to my booking agent and to the venue and to you guys and thank you thank you thank you,’ and it was just thanking people for like two minutes, and I was like ‘...and I know that this may seem like a really long winded speech but I am practicing for the ARIAs’ - and that was total improv comedy I had no plan to say that, but it got a good laugh and I feel like that was the highlight of my career of banter.
I read that your stage name was inspired by a French philosopher - is that correct?
Yep, I wanted to have the name of the philosopher so that people knew that I actually use my brain and also just because I feel like arts and philosophy are intertwined. Like philosophy is everything - like maths it pertains to everything. Basically I chose 'Montaigne' because he this really adroit 16th century philosopher who was really ahead of his time and had this stream of consciousness, rambling writing style and he mouth vomited words out, no matter what it was about, but said some really intelligent and wise things, and had a good view of the world that I agree with and that resonates with me and I feel like he sort of sends a creative message similar to mine, and he is as honest and blunt as I am. I speak French as well so I thought it was a good match.
You're heading down to visit us in March for WOMADelaide - What can audiences look forward to from your performance there?
I generally don’t give insight into what it's going to be like because I'd rather people just come down without expectations and to see what it's like. But I'm going to say it will be really shit because when people will have low expectations then no matter what people see they'll be in wrapped. But in parentheses - I am actually really good, come and watch me.
Are you looking forward to catching anyone in particular during the festival?
I don’t know if I'll get time to but I know D.D Dumbo is performing and I would really like to see him live at some point in my life.
Are they going to be taking you out when you are in Adelaide (Hilltop Hoods)?
Probably actually - Matt [Suffa] had a baby and he is always sending me photos and memes of her and saying I need to teach her French and be a cool older sister, but I haven't actually met it yet - so I think I'll try and find time to hang out with them a little bit while I'm there.
What's on the cards for 2017?
A lot of writing, there will be a little bit of touring and maybe a headline at the end of the year - we'll see! Maybe begin starting to record album two.
Montaigne plays WOMADelaide Festival this March - secure your tix here.
Feature image via Montaigne.
Words: Lucy Ahern