Montaigne talks about disappointments, new projects

Before changing her name to Montaigne and being twice selected as the Australian entrant in the Eurovision Song Contest, musician Jessica Cerro’s goal was to play soccer for the Matildas.

Like her Argentine-born father Gustavo, who played professionally in Australia and Malaysia, where she was born, she was a midfielder and grew up in north-west Sydney. Her plan after school was to pursue an athletic scholarship to go to an American Ivy League college.

Singer Montaigne at Redoko Restaurant in Sydney's Barangaroo.

Singer Montaigne at Redoko Restaurant in Sydney’s Barangaroo.Credit:Nicky Kurz

“I thought I would play football and study science and because they wanted to see how you play to judge if you were good, we decided to put together a football highlights film and my mum suggested ‘why don’t we let you sing? the top to show you have multiple talents,” she said.

Her parents paid $800 — money they couldn’t really afford — for a neighbor who was a “bedroom producer” to record her singing one of the songs she’d written while playing guitar in her own bedroom played.

“My parents didn’t know I wrote my own songs. When they heard the recorded song, they went insane because they thought, ‘Our daughter is a pop musician’.”

Instead of sending the reel to the United States, her Filipino mother Maitina, an accountant, sent the song everyone but me to Triple J’s Unearthed and in 2012, Cerro was a high school finalist while still in 11th grade. She was signed to Albert Music and released her first EP when she finished school at Loreto Normanhurst the following year.

Learning extended French at school, she met the 16th-century philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne and took his name as her stage name.

“I wanted something more amazing than Jess Cerro – which means hill in Spanish. So I chose Montaigne because firstly he wasn’t taken and secondly I liked his way of thinking. He was a bit disrespectful and wrote very conscious stuff and was a bit goofy and childish.

“I was very insecure about feeling smart and had an urge to appear smart to others.”

Watermelon at Redoko restaurant in Barangaroo.

Watermelon at Redoko restaurant in Barangaroo.Credit:Nicky Kurz

Now 27, no one would dispute that Montaigne is smart. She began studying linguistics by studying French, German and philosophy at Sydney University, but put it off after seeing the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

“You know, sometimes you look at a movie and you’re like, ‘You’re telling me what to do with my life,’ like carpe diem and all that. I realized I don’t really want to go to college, I do to focus on my music career, which is basically what happened.”

She swapped college for college for a tour with indie band San Cisco and released her debut solo album Glorious heights Released in 2016, it won the ARIA award for breakthrough artists.

Collaboration is her thing, she explains as we meet for lunch at Barangaroo House’s Rekodo Japanese restaurant. Last year she asked her hero, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, to work with her, and he did. She has also worked with comedian Tom Cardy, hip hoppers Hilltop Hoods, Tom Thum and Briggs. Later this month she will perform with Vanessa Amorossi at the Australian Open Finals Festival in Melbourne.

Your latest collaboration hold Achilles is an adaptation of Homer’s Iliad with Sydney-based physical theater company Legs On The Wall and Brisbane-based Dead Puppets Society. She plays Achilles’ mother Thetis, a sea nymph.


When we meet, she’s colorfully dressed in what could be described as Frida Kahlo chic, as the show is part of the Sydney Festival, which also features an exhibition of the Mexican artist at Barangaroo Point’s Cutaway. We order a variety of dishes to share, including mixed pickles, watermelon with coconut yogurt, zucchini flowers, agedashi, and miso dengaku. Cerro is vegan, doesn’t drink or do drugs, keeps fit by bouldering at an Inner West gym and earns his living as a Twitch streamer, a live video game streaming platform.

As we wait for our food, she explains how she convinced Oscar-winning composer, songwriter and singer Byrne to work with her on the song she performed for SBS’s 2022 Eurovision – Australia decides.

“I just emailed him,” she says, spearing a pickle with her chopsticks. He came back within a day and told her he was rehearsing utopia on Broadway but promised he’d get in touch.

“It felt euphoric when he answered. I’ve talked at length about David Byrne with every person I’ve ever worked with. My first encounter with him was when he was working with him [American singer] St. Vincent. And I liked his aesthetic, his demeanor and his choreography and resonated with him more than any other pop star.”

Pickles and radish at Redoko Restaurant.

Pickles and radish at Redoko Restaurant.Credit:Nicky Kurz

He agreed to sing with her on two of the songs on her third album, I’ll do it!, which came out last September:heaviness and Always be yourself, her unsuccessful attempt at Eurovision last year. She was selected as Australia’s contestant for Eurovision 2020 with the song don’t break me, but the spectacle was canceled due to COVID-19. In 2021 she was re-elected Australian Representative with her song Technicolor.

However, due to ongoing travel restrictions, she was the only artist to have attended Eurovision without being present in the host city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Montaigne represented Australia in the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest.

Montaigne represented Australia in the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest.Credit:Jess Gleeson/SBS

Instead, Montaigne performed the song at the SCG as part of Sydney’s Mardi Gras celebrations.

She’s philosophical about her Eurovision disappointments.

“I had my little screams, I processed and digested them, felt my feelings and then just moved on. You can’t do anything about it anyway.”

She had fallen into a black hole before.

Singer Jess Cerro, better known as Montaigne.

Singer Jess Cerro, better known as Montaigne.Credit: Nicky Kurz

“In 2017 I was really obsessed with ultra running. I just don’t think I’ve eaten enough. I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I was probably close to it. And I just did so much exercise that I ended up hurting my ankle on a big run. And one day I woke up exhausted. I had a major energy slump. I couldn’t do anything and just sat on the couch and played video games the whole time. I could barely open my eyes in the morning and could barely think about doing chores or answering emails or anything without going through a complete emotional breakdown.”

She now has a tattoo on her left arm that says, “Oh yes you can,” to remind herself, “there’s a version of you that’s capable of all the things that you’ve accomplished, it.” will give again”.

She now realizes it was burnout, although she and her doctors didn’t know it at the time. “It cured my body image issues. I’d rather be able to do things than be skinny.”

Today she is focused on her victories. like her song Ready which plays over the end credits of the 2022 film Good luck to you Leo Grande with Emma Thompson and Because I love you which appeared in the Netflix series heartbreaker and the chance to work with Byrne.

“He’s not as enigmatic or exclusive as other legendary artists. That’s really refreshing to me, he’s so thoughtful about his art and the way he approaches everything, which is very conscious…which I appreciate because I feel like I’m not capable of it . I’m much more disorganized, chaotic and tend to just follow my imagination.”

The eldest of two girls growing up in the Hills District, the Cerro family moved around a bit – in Cherrybrook, Castle Hill and Kellyville – while Gustavo worked various manual jobs and coached football. “I didn’t play music at school because you needed tutoring and my parents couldn’t afford it.”

Cerro as a young soccer star.

Cerro as a young soccer star.

So she taught herself to play the guitar to accompany her voice, which has an almost ethereal quality. Refining her haunting voice, gardening in her new Rozelle home and playing video games (which she’s been doing a lot during lockdown) are her favorite ways to spend her time.

“After the pandemic I had to diversify my career because touring was out of the question, I started twitch streaming.”

“I already had all the gear because Sony got it for me in 2016 when I got the idea to stream, but I’ve never lived in a house that had enough internet, light or space to do it be able. ”

She wants to compose music and write songs for video games this year and grow her TikTok presence.

Matilda in the making Jess Cerro (No. 8). Her sister Tijana wears number 4.

Matilda in the making Jess Cerro (No. 8). Her sister Tijana wears number 4.

“I was allergic to spon-con [sponsored content] but that’s where things are headed. That’s capitalism for you – turning every hobby you have into a vehicle for making money.”

Since walking the ARIA red carpet in 2018 in a feathered dress with “STOP ADANI” written across her cheeks, she has been known for her activism on a range of issues, from queer and nonbinary rights to climate change.

“My strengths have always been in emotions and feelings. And being able to process them and be honest with them. Vulnerability is my thing and I think I’m very good at it.”

Montaigne arrives at the 32nd Annual ARIA Awards 2018.

Montaigne arrives at the 32nd Annual ARIA Awards 2018. Credit:Ryan Pierse/Getty

your role in hold Achillesa strange retelling of the tale of the Trojan war hero, is her theatrical debut and requires some aerial work which she feels strengthened its core.

“I had never done anything like this and I was a bit scared at first and didn’t know if I really wanted to do it. But in the end I thought fuck it, I like to try new things. I’m sure I can do it. I just have to overcome the fear that I can’t.”

hold Achilles takes place at Carriageworks from 19th to 22nd January as part of the Sydney Festival 2023.

Bill to lunch with Montaigne.

Bill to lunch with Montaigne.

A cultural guide to going out and making love in the city. Sign up for our Culture Fix newsletter here. Montaigne talks about disappointments, new projects

Jaclyn Diaz

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