“The Last Three Years Taught Me That I Deserve Love”: Montaigne On Her Journey To ‘Complex’
In lesser hands, the baroque synth-pop and themes of 'Complex' could be "too much", but Montaigne's music has always thrived at its most dramatic.
Right at the start of our conversation, Montaigne drops the title of her sophomore album Complex twice, though it’s without a wink or nod.
Huge themes swirl through Complex: across its thirteen tracks, the album bounces between toxic and abusive relationships, summer romances, body issues, and the climate crisis.
That last one has long been a passion point for Montaigne, aka Jess Cerro. Last year, she arrived to the ARIAs red carpet with ‘Stop Adani’ written on her cheeks, and in July she released an urgent call to action in the form of the music video for ‘Ready’. Which is why we start on an admittedly big topic: how does Cerro feel about other artists toeing the line, or staying silent, on social and environmental issues?
“I think it’s complex, the answer is complex,” she says. “In an ideal world, every single one of my peers — every artist with any cultural clout, making music that people listen to — would be taking a stand… but I also understand, because I’ve been in that place, that a lot of people are artists because they’re dealing with some real shit in their lives.”
Talking to Cerro — noting the way she politely challenges pre-suppositions in questions, or clarifies statements — it’s evident she’s someone who views the world in shades, never satisfied with reaching for a stock-standard easy answer. She wants the whole picture, even at its messiest.
“I Think I’ve Lost The Shame”
In lesser hands, the baroque synth-pop and themes of Complex could be ‘too much’, but Montaigne’s music has always thrived at its most dramatic — it’s also when she’s at her most honest.
You can hear it in her debut EP standout ‘I’m A Fantastic Wreck’, released in 2014 when she was just 18; it was made when she was still at high school, after placing as a finalist in triple j Unearthed High in 2012. It remains one of her best, a song about falling apart to the backing of plucked strings and percussive bric-a-brac before crashing through into a pained orchestral ballad at its end. Only then does Cerro reveal it’s all a desperate plea, singing: ‘Would you love me?‘.
It’s been three years since Montaigne’s Glorious Heights, a bombastic debut album that lays Cerro out to bare between cinematic synths, huge snares and strings. Quirk works for Montaigne — who else can sing a line like “I ate a salad today, I ate one yesterday too” and pack it with pathos? There are a few songs about that same person on Complex, such as the title track, though eventually Cerro decided she needed to move on.
“At some point I was like, ‘This is just getting tedious now. It’s not interesting anymore. It’s just unnecessary labour,” she says. “And, you know, also other things happened in my life and I sort of moved on. I was like, “Okay, it’s time to let this go”… I wanted to move on, I didn’t want to stay mired in that experience.”
Complex pushes not past, but through traumas (‘Stockholm Syndrome’), shitty exes (‘For Your Love’) and dark states (‘is this all I am good for?’). Opener ‘CHANGE’ stands as a mantra, and listening back, she can hear herself working through things.
“I was struggling with the feeling of not belonging anywhere,” she says. “I have this perennial fear that I will never find the right partner for me. I don’t feel any urgency about it, but I think that’s probably maybe something I haven’t necessarily gotten past with Complex. But that’s not exactly what I was feeling, because Complex was more about the emotionally unavailable or toxic relationships that I had a tendency toward.”
“I’m not perfect, but I’m definitely much better at being kind to myself and having less shameful, self-critical thoughts. I think I’ve lost the shame component of things, which [happened while working on] Complex.”
In lesser hands, the baroque synth-pop and themes of Complex could be ‘too much’, but Montaigne’s music has always thrived at its most dramatic, as it’s also when she’s at her most honest.
Cerro credits a few things: therapy and meditation, for one, but friends too, who challenged her own view of herself.
“A lot of the people that I ended up becoming close to throughout the last three years taught me that I deserve love,” she says, “and that I shouldn’t be ashamed of who I am and what I am — even if that falls outside of many, many, many, many circles of belonging.”
Those circles of identity naturally affect Complex, as Cerro readies herself in a world less accepting of a queer Latinx body. But in ‘Losing My Mind’, she details a period where it felt like her body itself was betraying her.
“I’m a really high functioning, motivated person, and suddenly I had none of that,” she says. “I tried with all my willpower to just push through, but it was impossible. I’d lie down in bed and wouldn’t be able to get up unless someone got me up…. I was going crazy: all I did was play video games and watch all the Monster Factory videos on YouTube, then write music in LA. That was my whole life, and I hated that.”
Cerro believes it was burnout, a term not medically realised at the time, and says it’s all too common with musicians. With no doctors able to diagnose her, she was forced to rest, wait and create boundaries, and learn that her worth wasn’t tied to productivity. But still, she feels a need to produce, especially now.
“I now feel like I’m in the right head space to be able to speak out on these things,” she says, “but it took a huge effort.”
When our 20 minutes are up, it’s clear we’ve only scratched the surface.
Montaigne’s Complex is out now via Sony Music Australia, with a national tour landing across Australia this November.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.