Unless we're talking novels, Montaigne isn't one to do things by the book.
French renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne made his mark funnelling anecdotes through an intellectual lens. Just like her moniker of choice, Jessica Cerro spins the 16th century mantra into her music, melding vivid storytelling with quirky soundscapes to the same insightful effect.
First turning heads as a triple j Unearthed High finalist in 2012, Cerro unleashed her highly acclaimed debut EP 'Life of Montaigne’ back in 2014, securing her role as a key player in the local music scene. Teaming up with production top gun Tony Buchen (The Preatures, Andy Bull) for her forthcoming 'Glorious Heights’ LP, the singer-songwriter is crafting a brand of refreshing realism in her pristine art pop.
We caught up with Montaigne to chew over her inaugural album, throwing salad in songs, keeping her cool, writing for stadiums, books, and Kingdom Hearts (!!!)
Best Before: Hi Jess!
Montaigne: Hey Mina, how are you going?
Great, thanks. What are you up to today?
Lots of this – phoners and interviews!
I can imagine! You’ve had a pretty massive year, between touring amd “Because I Love You” and “1955” blowing up. Have you had any time to pause and take it all in?
Yeah – plenty! I don’t get super overwhelmed by things. I don’t get constantly excited by things, either. It’s not out of ungratefulness, it’s more symptomatic of a healthy mindset – that I don’t let my ego get to me, and I don’t get super fussed about things. I just carry on with life.
Just quickly, let’s turn back the clock. When you were about 16 and triple j Unearthed happened, was there a distinct moment where you made the decision between soccer and music?
It wasn’t a distinct moment – it was a very long process, sort of over a few months, even a year. It took me a while to decide to pursue a music career in a very concentrated way and actually working on it 24/7, because when I left high school, I’d always wanted to be a singer but I never thought it was possible. So I busied myself with all these other potential careers and life ambitions as a distraction. I entrenched myself so deeply in those things that I was like, "God, how do I suddenly make the transition?" But, at some point, I was like, "No this is it - this is absolutely it", and then I just switched on.
Since then, you’ve worked with Tony Buchen (The Preatures, Andy Bull) on both your EP and the new album – he’s a pretty safe pair of hands. Have you felt any pressure working closely with such a big name?
No pressure. I trust my talent and I trust Tony; he's family. I babysit his kids and I hang out with him and his wife sometimes. It’s a very comfortable relationship. I don’t see big names. When people are like, “Oh, Hilltop Hoods want you on the single," I'm like, “Okay, cool. Good. When do I start?” I just want to do work. I don’t give a fuck.
I understand there’s a reason for status and reputation, and that there's a difference to people who are much smarter and older and wiser than you, or more talented. But at the same time, if they want to work with me, then clearly there’s something in me that they see. Therefore, I should own that.
Working with Tony is just like... he likes me, and I like him. He thinks I'm extraordinarily talented and I think he is too. So when we worked on the album, it was just easy – a couple of friends just making some music. I felt no pressure about my audience as well, because my audience is pretty cool. And, to be honest, I make my music for me. I make it for me, and if I like it, then I'm happy. And if people like that, then that's also great, because it means I can continue to do this. I also do love it when people love my music. There is a connection in that, but at the same time, I firstly write for me.
When I actually came across your stuff for the first time, it reminded me a lot of Marina and the Diamonds. And then I heard that she contacted you to say she loved your music!
Yeah – she loved it! It freaked me out.
How did you keep your cool?!
Well – I didn’t! She tweeted me when I was at a restaurant with my grandma and granddad, and when I saw it, I was like, "WHAT THE FUCK – that’s not real!" And then I was like, "Oh – it is real. Cool. How do I reply to this without seeming too fake?" I was just like, “Hey – thank you so much. I actually love your music, as well. This is a big deal for me. Thank you.” It was great. That is good affirmation. My idols and my influencers – I don’t idolise her, but I love her, she’s great – my influencers are showing in my music, and that’s a good thing.
So the first song off the new album, “Because I Love You”, is about being teased by your ex-boyfriend about being vegan.
There’s a cheeky line about “eating salad” and you also talk about not drinking in a few of your songs. How have you found your place in an industry that romanticises that culture?
I guess I don’t have a place in that aspect of the industry, but I do have a place in the working side of the industry. Not everyone is constantly on pingers and getting drunk… a lot of people are, but not everyone. My friends are those that either are, but not so often that you can't have a conversation, or they aren’t, and we’re normal people and we hang out at my house and I make them dinner and it’s all nice. I still enjoy going out to gigs and festivals and stuff like that, I just don’t do big things, I have people over and that works for me, and I still get all the work done. So I think I'm winning.
Sounds like it! You also use your social media platforms to communicate views on social justice issues. You tweeted an Angelina Jolie quote: "there are young women as talented, if not more talented, than me somewhere, but they are hopeless”. What responsibility do you think female artists and musicians have with their platforms to have these voices heard and include that in their craft?
I suppose there’s no viable responsibility. No one is telling me to say that stuff – there’s no definitive handbook for the industry that says, "By the way, you are responsible for this, this and this." So I don’t want to say too much about what people should be doing, because this is just what I do. But at the same time, it would be nice if people promoted messages of love and compassion and co-operation and unity. That would really just help the world out a lot. I try not to get too political about what I say. I make social comments, and sometimes a not-so-radical political statement, but the thing about artists is that we have a large voice, but at the same time we have a business, and because of the way the world works, we don’t want to turn off too many people with what we say. Social media is such a tricky thing. I think that is important, though – that people try to be positive. I try not to be too negative with my messages, and if I do, I try to end it on a positive note. I want us to be about hope, and optimism, and good will and all that. At the same time, I understand others totally forgo that and just decide to promote their music.
You’ve said before that you find it hard to write happy songs, but on this album I can definitely hear more empowerment and optimism, especially on “Till It Kills Me“ and “What You Mean To Me”. Do you feel like that was an organic shift within you or a conscious change that you tried to make when writing the album?
Yeah – I think there’s a difference between optimism and happiness, though. I don’t think any of those songs are really happy – they all have mixed emotions. It’s not necessarily that I write sad and unhappy songs – it’s just that I don’t write happy songs. I just write songs that within themselves have a multiplicity of emotions and feelings, and some of them are positive, and some of them aren’t. I think that’s just what a normal human being is like. My songs are about me and myself and my many selves. That’s what comes out of the songs.
I had a good laugh at a meme you shared that says "refer to all your mistakes as artistic choices". Did you have any of these ‘artistic choices’ making the album, or did you feel a lot more confident this time around?
Ha! Yeah! I’d say I’m a lot more confident now. A lot of good songs and riffs are made from accidents. Not necessarily mistakes – just accidents. I don’t think you really can make a mistake in music. I don’t see how you could.
You’re also a big bookworm – what were you reading while writing the album?
I was reading ‘How Music Works' by David Byrne.
I’ve been meaning to read that!
It’s really good. Highly recommend. I feel like I was probably reading something else. I don’t remember. I just mostly remember ‘How Music Works’ because it’s directly applicable to music making. That was really great!
Adding to your nerd cred, I heard you say the video for “Clip My Wings” was inspired by Kingdom Hearts. I revisited the game and was like, " holy shit – I see it!"
Looks like it would've been a lot of fun! How did you find translating your work into a visual medium?
I had a part in coming up with the idea, but in terms of the actual visual realisation of it, it was all the music director Guy Franklin’s role. I just approved – yes or no. There wasn’t too many nerves on my part, really; it was Guy’s part really. I suppose any nervousness came from the thinking, "Is he gonna pull it off?!" But I trust Guy. He’s a very talented man.
You’ve got a lot of big shows coming up, and you’ve said you love the spotlight and would love to play stadiums. That stadium sound definitely comes through on ‘Glorious Heights’. When you’re writing, do you envision playing to a single person, or are you imagining that huge stage and floodlights?
I kind of imagine both. I can see the music being played to both, and I’d be happy to play both. I’m just happy performing. Any opportunity – give it to me, cool – I'll do it.
'Glorious Heights' is out August 5th via Sony Music Australia.
In the meantime, here’s a clip of her casually singing “Because I Love You” in French. Because she can.