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Montaigne: 'I Wanted To Make Something That Was Quite In-your-face'

9 September 2022 | 8:02 am | Cyclone Wehner

"I feel like in my music in the past, there's so much going on and it kind of hides my voice a bit…"

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The Sydney art-popster Montaigne (aka Jessica Cerro) attracted global attention amid the COVID-19 pandemic, representing Australia in the Eurovision Song Contest. Now the singer-songwriter is back with a third album, making it! – its lyrics about love, life, and cosmic angst. Instead of returning to any comfort zone, Cerro is staging a Björk-level reinvention. Indeed, Montaigne has gone hyperpop.

Today Cerro, who uses she/they pronouns, is chatting to The Music via Zoom from the tidy Sydney pad they share with journalist partner Patrick Morrow. Sporting a Japanese Wallpaper hoodie and studio headphones, Cerro crouches over the screen, joking how the clutter is "all out of frames".

This year should be meaningful for Cerro, 27, as it marks the 10th anniversary of their becoming a triple j Unearthed High finalist with the indie bop Anyone But Me. "True!," Cerro realises, laughing. "Oh my goodness. Yeah, I haven't even thought about that. But, yeah, damn, wow." Formerly a soccer prodigy, Cerro would subsequently sign to the boutique Wonderlick Recording Company, blowing up with 2016's hit debut Glorious Heights and winning an ARIA for Breakthrough Artist.

The experimental making it! will surprise even Montaigne's longtime fans – the lead single the glitchily upbeat now (in space). Yet Cerro has always been sonically restless, venturing into hip hop early with that multi-platinum Hilltop Hoods collab 1955. "I enjoy broad and diverse things," they stress. "I don't stick to one thing forever. I just find that a bit boring."

Cerro's life has been eventful since their 2019 sophomore, Complex. The indie enigma was selected as Australia's entrant for the 2020 Eurovision with the song Don't Break Me, but the spectacular in the Netherlands was cancelled as COVID-19 surged. Last year Cerro again participated with the new Technicolor but, due to ongoing travel restrictions, performed remotely – "a severe disadvantage". Alas, they didn't qualify for the final. 

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Cerro rues not being "a trained performer". "I thought I could bring this sort of, like, rawness to Eurovision – rawness and chaos. But I think just the format makes it difficult because all of it is so tightly controlled and choreographed. Every camera angle is accounted for, every turn of the head – like all the lighting, the rest of it… So I struggle with that a little bit.

"I mean, I've always been a live performer, I do perform live a lot, and I think I'm quite good at it. But it's a completely different kind. It's not about glamour and perfection – it's very much about demonstrating frailty and vulnerability and just messiness… I just don't think the process was necessarily for me."

A decade in and Cerro isn't only confident but also recognises their boundaries – and that maturity informs making it!. In late 2021, the musician tweeted that they no longer want to be "a huge pop star". "So much has changed since I was 18 or 17," Cerro ponders. "I like to think I'm far less naive now. I'm a bit more knowledgeable, both about myself and the world around me and the way people are and what to expect from them and how to respond in kind.

"I think, when I was 18, I really thought I had to go to every gig and be at every event and turn my face and make sure people knew I existed. Now I just don't think I have to do that as much anymore – and I don't, because I don't really enjoy it. I don't really enjoy nightlife very much – which sounds like such a boring thing to say. But I do just get really overwhelmed in crowded public spaces and bars – the lights and the loudness and shouting over people and all of that. Also alcohol has never sat very well with me and my body, so I don't even have that to sort of lean on.

"But, otherwise, I feel more certain of my interests and I accept them for what they are, rather than trying to be someone else. I'm now with a partner who makes me feel accepted in that way as well for being who I am – and that helps a lot in terms of security in myself."

The self-described "homebody" recorded making it! over an extended period (shelving superseded material). Ironically, domesticity underlies what evolved into a sci-fi concept LP. "I suppose the most important, or salient, thing is just now I've been with [Morrow] for three years – having started making the album six months to a year into our relationship, and then during the pandemic as well, and just navigating that and my thoughts and feelings about it, and about myself in it, and all the weird little things I got obsessed with along the way."

Cerro has called making it! "neurotic computer music". In fact, they were largely inspired by their beloved video games. "I really wanted to have that influence the sounds that were chosen on the record." But, working closely with producer Dave Hammer (Lime Cordiale), Cerro similarly latched onto the exploding hyperpop genre, citing SOPHIE, Charlie XCX and Caroline Polachek. "Both of us were really excited by those sounds and found them really addictive and really good to listen to."

Lately, Cerro has been absorbed in Porter Robinson's Nurture. "I think it's super-beautiful," they enthuse. "It's just amazing production and beautiful songwriting. It's got such a lovely demeanour and disposition behind it. I'm a huge fan of Porter Robinson."

However, Cerro's reliance on software was practical, too – they were unable to accommodate live players in the studio because of COVID.

Nevertheless, Cerro holds that making it! is its own individualised hybrid, not reproductive. "We were very, like, 'We wanna do our thing. We don't wanna just emulate and copy. We wanna make something original.'"

Even Auto-Tuned, Cerro centres their distinct voice. "I didn't wanna hide behind too many layers of music," they note. "I feel like in my music in the past, there's so much going on and it kind of hides my voice a bit… I wanted to make something that was quite in-your-face and that forced me to just say what I was thinking and write really clear melodies – and I think we achieved that."

The album's guests are outré, Cerro connecting with them online. The singer duets on the romantic make me feel so… with another 2021 Eurovision act, Iceland's Daði Freyr, whose band Gagnamagnið placed fourth. "We just both loved each other's music, got along well – he's got a great sense of humour."

Still, the wildest name is Talking Heads frontman David Byrne – the legendary polymath contributing to the already-buzz single always be you and current gravity. In later years, Byrne has impressively pursued cross-generational exchanges, teaming with St Vincent. Cerro cold-emailed him, deeming the septuagenarian "really nice" as the pair collaborated long distance. "It was just like a very easy going back and forth. He was very open to things. He was very into what I was spinning at him. He was just totally chill and up for it." (Following Robinson, Cerro has embraced remixing, issuing an alternate take of always be you.) 

Cerro continues to expand creatively. The Complex-era single Ready was recently synced for Emma Thompson's wry film Good Luck To You, Leo Grande. And, this year, the usually camera-shy Cerro themselves acted in Time To Buy, an SBS On Demand musical comedy about the property market. Cerro is presently appearing in the queer play Holding Achilles as part of the Brisbane Festival, penning the music with Glorious Heights' producer Tony Buchen and Grizzy Bear drummer Chris Bear. Plus Cerro is liaising with US composer Austin Wintory for an upcoming video game project, fulfilling a personal goal.

In the meantime, Cerro has reunited with the Hoods (and Tom Thum) for A Whole Day's Night, declaring it "a spiritual successor to 1955". "Matt [Lambert, aka Suffa] from the Hilltops is one of my best friends. He just texted me and was like, 'Do you wanna do another song with us?' I was like, 'Yes – like, obviously.' So that's kind of it – it's not very exciting. You know, me and Matt message every day, just sending each other stupid stuff." 

At the end of September, Cerro will embark on a national tour to support making it! – and the star is looking forward to flexing their voice performing the album's eccentric opening number, in the green room. "It feels good to sing – and it's not one you can really sing in your house 'cause it's very screamy," Cerro laughs. "I think, when you have the space to just pour it out freely, it's very satisfying."