Jess Cerro is never short on ideas. Under the moniker of Montaigne, the Sydney-based singer has spent the last few years revelling in a world of unique, eccentric pop music that encompasses an idiosyncratic artistic vision.
When it came to creating album number two, Cerro was initially determined to go even further down that particular rabbit hole – and even though she didn’t quite get there, she’s still incredibly proud of what she’s created.
“After the fact, I don’t think that there’s anything that I would have changed about the way the album came together,” says Cerro. “I like it for what it is, and I know that everything that happened with it was meant to happen. While I was making the album, however, is a different matter entirely. I had all of these grandiose visions for it. It was an album made of lofty aspirations. I have this dream of making an album just with one other person someday – just made entirely on analogue synths, everything recorded analogue – and over the course of a year we make this huge record that ends up sounding like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Cerro catches herself caught up in the moment, laughing at how absurd it must sound when said out loud to someone else. “Obviously that’s not what this record ended up being, but in a way, I think that’s where it started,” she continues. “Around halfway through making the album, I think I was in a state of lamenting the fact that I couldn’t just go ahead and make that exact kind of album. When you’re done making a record, though, you can only see it as your baby. To you, it’s perfect.”
The second Montaigne album is entitled Complex and it arrived last Friday – just over three years after Glorious Heights, her debut LP which hit the top five on the ARIA albums chart. Those intervening years have primarily been spent keeping up with the demand of touring, both nationally and internationally. As such, there’s not a specific time period linked to or associated with the creative process of Complex – “The way this record was created was incremental and sporadic,” Cerro testifies.
“It was the sort of vibe where I’d suddenly have a few weeks free, and with that I’d find myself in the zone of writing music again. A lot of this album, too, was forged out of attending songwriting camps and these one-day sessions where I’d be working with different people to see what might come of it. The title track, which was the first song I wrote for the album, was created in one of those sessions. ‘For Your Love’ stemmed out of a songwriting hub, too. Once the album cycle for my first record died down, I was over in LA with Tony [Buchen, producer] – and I wanted to make the most of my time there, so we set up even more sessions and I got to work with some really great people.”
Cerro is a frequent collaborator – her voice has been featured on songs by the likes of Hilltop Hoods and Aunty Donna, while much of Glorious Heights was co-written with producer Buchen. Although a lot of what Cerro sings about is introspective and autobiographical, she doesn’t tend to shy away from it when she’s in the room creating with other people – and making Complex was no exception.
“I feel pretty comfortable being vulnerable with people,” she says. “I don’t really have anything to hide. I don’t feel ashamed of anything I’ve experienced, or anything that I’ve done wrong. I have a healthy sense of self, and I have a good way of managing things internally. I’m pretty fine opening up in songwriting sessions – it just requires the other person to do the same. Most of the time, people do – it’s very rare that I find someone that’s closed off like that.”
From the ‘80s-tinged electronic undercurrent of songs like ‘Love Might Be Found (Volcano)’ to the vocoder-heavy Björk pastiche ‘For Your Love’, Complex sees the music of Montaigne reaching out to points of extremities and crossing over into unfamiliar territory. It’s still Montaigne, but it’s not quite as we once knew her – and, in Cerro’s vision, that’s exactly what she wanted to get out of this album. “I went into this album pretty open-minded – and I always do when I’m making new music,” she says.
“Tony and I had a few reference points, and I feel like they were pretty key to how the album sounded. One of them was Half-Light, the solo album that Rostam [Batmanglij] put out a couple of years ago. Another was listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music. It was a very diverse and eclectic range of music that we were referencing – and, just by that nature, a lot of the record was just trying things to see where they landed. This is a record where it sounds like a lot of things are happening – and it’s because they really were.”
Complex is out now via Sony Music Australia. Catch Montaigne at The Croxton on Saturday November 23, tickets via her website.