[INTERVIEW] Montaigne

Jess Cerro, the powerhouse behind Montaigne has come a long way since the release of her debut album, Glorious Heights, back in 2016 and is finally returning to the spotlight with the upcoming release of her deeply personal sophomore album, COMPLEX, on August 30th. Having gone through immense personal growth and change, with this upcoming album Montaigne will tackle tough themes such as loneliness, isolation, confused sense of self, self-image issues and self-realisation over the 13 tracks. Accompanying the release of COMPLEX, Montaigne will also be embarking on a 13-date tour across the country in November, hitting up Adelaide, Perth, Fremantle, Maroochydore, Brisbane, Byron Bay, Bendigo, Torquay, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney & Wollongong. We had a chat with Montaigne about all things album and tour related.


You have a new album, COMPLEX, coming out very soon and we’ve already heard two tracks from the album, For Your Love and READY. How was the process of making this album different or similar to the process of making Glorious Heights?
I think it was different in the sense that there were more collaborators and more time was taken and it was made in different places. Glorious Heights was made with Tony Buchen and just Tony Buchen, and we did it all in Sydney and in this one, I mixed 4 or 5 tracks with Tony who now lives in LA, so we did a lot of it in LA. He mixed all his tracks, but he also mixed the one that Dave Sitek did. And then there’s like Thomas Rawle, Eric J Dobowsky, Jarrad Rogers, Mozella, Wynne Bennet and Kyle Shearer. There’s sort of all these new collaborators on this one which I think is one of the strong points of this record, that I’ve got so many voices on it.


What were your main influences in creating this album, be it musically, politically, socially or otherwise?
There was a lot of different kinds of music that got funneled into this. The initial references were No Shape by Perfume Genius, Half-Light by Rostam, the Swiss Army Man Soundtrack, Vespertine by Bjork and The Idler Wheel… by Fiona Apple. We also listened to a lot of Middle Eastern and African music too. There’s just a lot of musical influences on this one, The Beatles, Prince, all the classics like Queen and also like Twenty One Pilots stacked in there.

It’s definitely an emotional album, I don’t know that there’s a lot in there politically, that being said I think there is a lot in there that can be interpreted as political effusions. Change, the top track, was not written to be political it was more personal, but now my feeling about it is that it is political. Once the album is released people will take the songs and interpret them in their own ways, they [the songs] are just a projector screen onto which to project.


You’ve recently released READY which is a huge, anthemic track and is already getting a lot of love from the likes of triple j. It has been called ‘a soundtrack for activism’ so I’m just wondering in your own words what the inspiration for the track was and the role you think music can play in terms of being a method of activism?
Initially when we wrote it, because we wrote it in a day and I was originally writing it for Eliot (a Melbourne-based singer), it was about feeling like you didn’t have the opportunities to self-realise a creative talent and yearning for them [the opportunities] and feeling like your bursting at the seams to show yourself to the world and to prove your worth. But I think taking that idea of desperation and urgency and potential, it now for me feels like it’s about wanting to change what’s happening in the world and feeling desperate and urgent about that and needing things to get better and wanting to be the one to realise that, but also knowing that you’re blocked from doing those things because of systematic issues that are deep rooted and difficult to fight up against. That’s why that song is to me so pertinent to that idea because of that “I feel like we the people have power but also there are so many barriers that come from people with actual economic and political power” feeling. To me the song isn’t just like “Yeah we can do it!” It’s realistic! It’s like, “Yeah were gonna fucking try to do it because these shitheads are ruining everything, but who knows what’s gonna happen” and I like that about it.


What is your personal favourite song on the album?
My favourite is is this all I am good for? but it swings. I quite like Losing My Mind and Love Might Be Found (Volcano). I like all of them really, but I think is this all I am good for? feels the most cathartic to me. After all the songs got mixed and mastered, it was the one I listened to the most. It’s also the one that feels and sounds the best when you’re walking at night-time by yourself and its really quiet, it feels like you’re being released into the atmosphere, and that’s satisfying.


You begin the album with CHANGE and end with READY, both being the only songs on the album to be stylised in all capitals – what was the reason for this?
I think those songs deserve to be capitalised. In CHANGE, there is that shouted “Change!” throughout the song, it’s the kind of song that is all capitals. I think READY is the same. Independent of each other, those songs were the only ones that really needed the capitalisation, but I think also once I decided that would be the way [they were stylised], I did like the way that capitalisation bookended the whole body of work. It also tied those songs to each other because I think CHANGE fits in this place of “I need change to happen but I don’t know how to rouse myself to do that yet, well actually I do, I understand it, but at the present moment I’m just fucking frustrated that the people around me don’t”. And then the last song [READY] is kind of like “You know what? I don’t even give a fuck about the other people anymore, I’m just gonna do it’ like I’m just gonna move past that, you know after a lot of personal work and exploration but arriving at that destination of “It’s down to me now, I can’t wait for other people to get their shit together, I have to be the one to”.


You’ve announced a tour in support of the album across Australia in November, taking place in both capital and regional cities, a choice which more and more artists seem to be making (including regional cities in tours) – what do you think is the driving force behind this change? Is there any difference between a metropolitan and regional audience?
I haven’t played many regional shows, but the main difference would just be size. I’m in a place now where in Sydney I play Metro and then in regional areas I play a 200-300 cap show. Really it depends, every venue is kind of individual and every artist draws a different kind of crowd. Like, my main demographic is sensitive, gentle, lovely, usually queer people. So no matter where I am, that’s the kind of people that’s are coming to my show. I think for me, it’s just that I actually have the audience, I have a level of popularity that allows me to now do shows in those areas because of demand. 5 years ago, when I was playing a 200-cap venue in Sydney, I most certainly didn’t have anyone in Forster or Walgett or whatever demanding Montaigne, no one knew who the fuck I was so how am I gonna play a show there? I’m not gonna sell any tickets and I’ll be behind like $2000. So, I think for me it’s definitely just that there are now people in those cities and towns that are going to come to my shows, and I can afford to go there.


Do you prefer playing the bigger or smaller venues?
I don’t necessarily have a preference; I think both are good for different reasons. I like being able to look every single person in the room in the eye and small is good for that, big is not particularly good for that. But bigger venues generally mean a bigger stage and I like space to play, so that’s why that’s good for me. The small rooms allow me to mostly stay still and focus on the singing and connecting, whereas the big rooms, I can still sing and connect but it’s a bit harder and I have to control myself a bit more and try to present this physical performance as well as a vocal one.


You also already toured earlier in April – what can people who saw you at those shows expect to be different this time around?Obviously more songs. I’ve been playing the same songs for 3 years now so I’m excited to finally play fucking something else. And I’m just such a different person to who made those songs 3 years ago so I’m excited to finally present a new facet of me. Also new arrangements, we’ll have to figure out how to actually do it, because some of the songs are very intricate and I definitely do not have the musician budget for having a harp player on stage and transporting that around Australia. Hopefully I’ll also do something new with costuming.


Speaking of costuming, in your April tour, you worked with Simone Farrugia and Lucy Broomhall to create six different outfits as homage to your musical heroes – is there anything in the pipeline to do something similar as part of the upcoming tour?
I’m NOT doing that again! [laughs] It was wonderful, every outfit was awesome but logistically, just the pain, just the fucking pain! I think I’m just going to keep it to a single outfit that I just wear at every show and that will be my life.


Listening to the album, it can be difficult to imagine just how some of those songs are going to translate to live performances – which song are you most excited to see come to life on stage and what kind of things (like instruments or arrangements) will go into making that happen?
I think The Dying Song; I think that’s going to go off. It’s just fun, I think it’s gonna be sick. It’s kind of got that similar feel to 1955 that I did with Hilltop Hoods, where it’s quite jaunty and fun and the chorus is catchy and easy to sing, and I think that’s going to be really fun to play live.


Obviously touring and the entire album cycle can be exhausting – how do you make sure you stay grounded in such a hectic period of time?
Try to sleep as much as possible although sometimes that’s absolutely not an option. I try to maintain my mediation practice but that’s also not always possible. Sometimes when I fall out of the habit of it I just don’t want to do it anymore, and touring makes that hard. I have these things in my home life that are routine for me, so I just try and maintain that routine as much as possible when I’m on the road because it gives me a little bit of stability and normalcy. I like to practice languages on Duolingo, I do my mediation, I try to do exercise. I’ve started bringing my soccer ball with me on tour so I can just turn up at the venue and play in the floor space and that’s really nice. But it’s mostly sleep, everything else is manageable, it’s the sleeping bit that’s fucked. You know, you get off stage and you’re buzzing, so I don’t sleep until 2-3am because my body is in a state of adrenalinisation, so that’s bad because sometimes you have to wake up for flights at 6am and you’ve had 3 hours sleep, and your voice needs the sleep. Like my voice, NEEDS the sleep, so it can be really tough. It’s really just trying to find every single moment you can to get some shut eye.


Interview – Jess Oehm

Check out our review of Montaigne’s “Complex” here