Felix Garner Davis
‘Montaigne’ is the musical moniker of nineteen-year-old Jess Cerro, a singer, songwriter and avocado enthusiast hailing from Sydney. She came to attention as a finalist for Triple J’s Unearthed High competition in 2012 with indie pop number ‘Anyone But Me’, and continued to refine her songwriting while finishing her secondary studies over the next few years.
After releasing a couple of lead singles throughout 2014, she dropped Life of Montaigne in November of the same year. The EP was well-received, netting her Sydney-based FBi Radio’s Next Big Thing Award in January 2015. In September, she released the visual for ‘Clip My Wings’, a melange of soaring vocals and extravagant instrumentation. She commenced a national tour in support of the single in early October, and is set to breeze through Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia before wrapping it up at the end of November.
Making music has always been a part of Jess’ life, and she explored singing and song creation from a young age.
‘I suppose I’ve been making music in its most fundamental sense since I was five years old,’ she recalls.
‘My parents still have tapes of my sister and I making up songs in the car. I started writing on the guitar probably around the age of thirteen, and was writing lyrics a bit before that. I’ve kind of always done it.’
This long-term creative focus seems to have paid off, as the music she has released over the past two years has been heralded by some critics as ‘art pop’, a genre inhabited by artists such as David Bowie, Bjork and, more recently, FKA twigs. Jess mentions that she is humbled by the label and muses on its relevance to her music.
‘I feel very honoured, and I feel like it’s pretty accurate, because my music is pop music but it isn’t your traditional pop music, you know. I try to… well, I don’t even try, what comes out of my mouth is just fucking weird. I listen to so many different things; also, there are certain things I can do with my voice that I lean toward. It’s sort of like my crutch.’
Vocal experimentation is indeed a significant element of her creative process.
‘I do a lot of ooh-ing with random interval jumps in my free time, and that stuff’s a little bit different to what people make for radio, I think,’ she says.
‘There is a lot of artistic music, but art pop is a bit rarer because a lot of people can either only do pop or experimental stuff, and I think my music is described as art pop because it’s a bit more melody-driven.’
As far as influences are concerned, Jess recognises that her own listening tastes fall on both ends of the spectrum.
‘All my influences come from both sides of it, because I really like pop music and I really like more experimental music.’
However, she doesn’t solely source inspiration from music: she borrowed her stage name from a sixteenth-century French Renaissance philosopher, Michel de Montaigne.
‘I knew that I wanted it to be the name of a philosopher,’ she explains.
‘I read this book called The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton; in one chapter called ‘Consolations of Death’ he heavily references Montaigne. I thought Montaigne was a super cool dude! He wasn’t some pretentious philosopher dude who spoke in highfalutin language and was wanky about things; he was like, “No, I think that information and education shouldn’t be the exclusive realm of academics and philosophers. People need to know this stuff because that’s the world gets better when people are less ignorant.” He wrote in an almost colloquial way and spoke about things that were ordinarily taboo, like shitting and his eating habits.’
‘I really like that.’
While shitting and eating habits are two topics that are yet to surface prominently in her work, Jess feels as though her adaptation of the Montaigne moniker is a reflection of her true identity rather than an artificially-conjured alter ego.
‘I’d say Montaigne is an extension of myself,’ she says.
‘I just want to be real with people; I don’t want to be someone who creates a superior perception of herself so that people don’t feel like they can be on the same level as me. It probably works for Beyonce… whatever, people love that shit, but personally I want to be my alter ego. I don’t want to have to be like, “Oh no, I’m scared, so I’m going to hide behind some person.”’
Her other influences are equally eclectic, ranging from television shows to video games.
‘I think my influences are less particular people and more pop culture. Kingdom Hearts, which is a video game, is enormously influential for me. When I was sixteen I watched a lot of Glee, was super into Harry Potter, really liked the BBC’s Sherlock; basically, I was into a lot of fantastical things, things that involved some element of magic or supernaturality. I’ve always been fascinated by that and have always kind of wished for it.’
‘Obviously, my wishes have not been fulfilled,’ she laughs. ‘But that’s okay!’
The vault yawns deeper, revealing inspirations even further removed from music than bearded French intellectuals and oddball detectives.
‘I think nowadays I have more influences because I’m reading things that aren’t strictly fictional. Right now, I’m reading this book called Eat and Run by Scott Jurek, who’s one of the most famous ultra-marathoners in the world. He’s vegan as well; I’m vegan, and reading that is so inspiring to me.’
Despite this diverse range, Jess does fondly nominate a couple of musical heroines.
‘I love Bjork. I think she’s great. The thing is, I consider her almost within the realm of the magical… she’s almost not human because she doesn’t have any of the inhibitions that ordinary people do, which is really cool,’ she says.
‘Also, Grimes. I think she’s hella awesome. I don’t listen to her music much but I think just as a person she seems really cool and confident and knows what she’s all about, which is really awesome. I wanna be that. Yeah, I suppose that’s my peeps.’
The idea of self-confidence is especially relevant to ‘Clip My Wings’, whose video depicts Montaigne struggling against invisible captors in a sprawling desert landscape and, finally, spreading a pair of black wings at the crescendo.
‘Imagine you’re playing a video game… it’s like your life is The Sims and you have these attributes you can level up,’ she explains.
‘The song is about me levelling up in the attributes of assertiveness and self-confidence and determination to expose the wrongs that exist in the world and being less afraid of those things. You’re levelling down in fear and levelling up in courage, which is great.’
Instrumental to self-confidence is independence, a symbiosis Jess is keenly aware of.
‘In my last video, I didn’t have any creative input; the team came to me with the outline and I just thought it was perfect immediately, so I didn’t have anything to change or alter. This time, especially because the song’s a bit more personal, I wanted to have autonomy over my creative process and imaging, like Grimes or any other self-pioneering artist. The idea behind the video was that you can be in the middle of this conflict that is going on in your life, watching it happen but not being able to do anything about it, totally helpless; you’re like, “What the fuck… how can I do this? How can I solve this?”’
The video’s desert setting, which ties in with Jess’ fascination with fantasy and science fiction, was intended to exacerbate this conflict.
‘The idea was for it to be a place that doesn’t exist. It was supposed to be completely surreal, fantastical, unrelated to anything,’ she says.
‘It’s a totally desolate place in which you’re totally alone. It’s hot and uncomfortable and plays on that idea of conflict… it’s supposed to be more metaphorical than symbolic, if you get what I mean.’
Jess confidently states that the raw emotion she explores in ‘Clip My Wings’ surfaces in all of her live shows.
‘My gig isn’t a chill gig,’ she says.
‘The music isn’t chill. It’s full of heart-wrenching emotion, so I think that’s pretty much what people should expect; that’s my aim, and if I don’t live up to that then I will work harder on it in the next tour. You’ll definitely be clutching at your heart.’
With that, the young woman behind the transcendent vocal thunder of Montaigne evaporates, leaving naught but a beeping dial tone and a cheery goodbye hanging in the air. I can’t help but wager that there will be very good things to come from Jess Cerro in the future.