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That Jess Cerro, aka Montaigne has a powerful voice, we’ve known for a while. That the 20 year old singer songwriter can pen an epic tune which resonates superbly with Australian audiences, we also discovered with the release of her 2014 EP The Life of Montaigne. This week Montaigne confirms that she’s in for the long haul, with the release of her magical debut album Glorious Heights (out August 5th). Featuring her trademark vocal gymnastics, Montaigne delivers a grand production tapping into her wide range of musical influences, from 80s pop to modern day alternative pop/rock flavours. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to Montaigne the week of her appearance at Splendour in the Grass and just a couple of weeks out from the album’s release to discuss her past, present and future.

Who did you grow up listening to? Who were the singers that inspired you?
From the beginning it was just pop music like Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, Nelly Furtado, Nicky Webster and Delta Goodrem. When I hit about 11 or 12, I started listening to a lot of pop-punk like Paramore and Cute Is What We Aim For and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Then at some point, I went back to pop and then I started to listen to more alternative music and I was into Feist, Regina Spektor, Fleet Foxes and progressed through all of the waves of alternative music and then went to  Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, The National and St. Vincent. Spotify became a thing when I was 16 or 17 and I was constantly discovering stuff but I have always leaned toward alternative pop but I am in to all kinds of music really.

Montaigne Generic use BW low resWas there an album that you never tired of hearing?
I didn’t really start listening to albums until I was around 16 but I think the first one was Takk by Sigur Ros. After that Continuum by John Mayer, that was a great album. Basically every Arcade Fire album and I really love Alpine’s first album, they were really my first foray into Australian music. My dad was into music but he kind of chucked everything he liked onto a play list and we’d play that around the house, so I was listening to a variety of music.

What’s generally the starting point for a Montaigne song?
The lyrics I suppose. I’ll just start writing. In my subconscious I know it is going to end up being a song but I’ll write in a rhyming pattern or a stream of consciousness thing.

What are your main songwriting tools?
My voice … sometimes guitar but mostly these days just my voice. I have very limited skills on the guitar and my voice … I have quite unlimited skills, so it allows me to do more.

If you compare the production of your 2014 EP Life of Montaigne to this album, its quite a development.  The EP was quite sparse in comparison. What are the factors which got you from the EP sound to the album sound?
I think it is a couple of things. One would be just different influences or older influences that were overlooked previously as well as new influences. With the album, in terms of fullness of sound and anthemic vibes, that’s what I wanted on the EP but never achieved it. I was never able to vocalise what I had in my head. This time around, now that I have had a little more experience, I am a little more confident both with my words and ideas. I had a very clear vision of what I wanted the songs to be like on the album and it was just easier to translate to Tony Buchen (producer) and for us to work together to achieve that.

There are some wonderful synthesiser sounds on the album. Were the synths you used real or computer based?
Yeah they’re real. Tony used the Roland Juno so much. He loves the sounds from that.

Why did you decide that Glorious Heights would be title track?
It’s because the song itself is about someone who is trying to reach glorious heights but is not having a great time with life. Someone who is really demotivated and depressed and unsure of themselves and the future and even of the present but it’s called Glorious Heights. A lot of what I do is about that irony between form and content The album cover, the dragons represent problems or issues or adversity, negative events that try to bring you down. It’s like I’m playing this game … I’m playing once and that’s done, dusted off and then there’s another one coming right behind me. I have my moment of victory but there’s going to be more coming. It’s kind of a representation of life in that it is cyclical and the bad things never end but neither do the good things and I think that is the silver lining. We often fixate on the bad moments because it’s hard not to dwell on them, they really impact you but there are lots and lots of good things that happen in life. So it’s this kind of semi-hopeful message but mostly just descriptive about what life is and how it works.

And the ‘Kingdom Hearts’ inspired cover art fits all of that into the theme … winning little battles and being prepared for the next one.
Yeah I am very into the fantasy hero narrative.

There are 13 tracks on the album and it’s quite long at 53 minutes including The Debt, a hidden track. Did you have many tracks to choose from? Are there others which didn’t make the cut?
There were so many others that didn’t make the cut. Tony and I ended up co-writing 8 and choosing 5 originals of mine. I have more than 150 originals in my back pocket and there are also a few others Tony and I wrote together that didn’t make it.

Montaigne BECAUSE I LOVE YOU tour poster low resWith a  lot of the songs on the album, such as Because I Love You, the single, you don’t leave yourself much breathing space. Will you need to think about the order in which you sings the songs in your show ?
I hadn’t really thought about that. I have written the set list for Splendour and I wonder what the order is … I think it will be OK I have left myself moments of pause, yes there will be room to breathe but I will have to look after myself meticulously and regiment my sleeping and eating and drinking patterns while on tour and minimise talking. Normally I go out and talk to fans after a show. I will still do it but will have to keep it to a minimum.

I was reading a long Facebook message that you wrote prior to the Federal election, about being informed before making decisions rather than going by gut instinct. It all made a lot of sense. Do you also apply that philosophy to your music career choices? Because it would seem that you are  making the right choices.
Totally. There is a lot that my managers know better than me and in some cases I let them guide the decisions and I can say yes or no. In terms of logistical or practical career choices my managers look after that. I am the creative. I am a highly creative person and that’s where my instincts best come into play. When I am writing a song or trying to come up with a melody… that’s where I put my foot down and know what’s good for me. I came up with the album cover, the album name, that’s all the creative stuff but in terms of booking gigs and PR, that’s all  management and booking agents and PR companies. I think the message there is know your limits and let other good people do the stuff that you can’t do.

You have recorded and toured with Hilltop Hoods. Triple J have been playing their track 1955 from one of the gigs and it seems like one of those performances which has been immortalised as one of their classic tracks you’ll hear forever on the radio. How special was the tour with those guys?
It was so great. I love them so much, they are like family. They are the loveliest people ever. People always ask about the crowds at the gigs but I always end up talking about them because they are such beautiful people and I am so glad they are in my life. Of course the performances were great too and audiences who probably normally wouldn’t be into me and my music.

What happens after the album and national tour?
I have no idea! They’ll probably like me to do something overseas but I’d be happy to start on another album to be honest, I have heaps of material.

Glorious Heights is out Friday August 5th.

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