If the world hadn’t been hit by a literal pandemic, Jess Cero (AKA singer-songwriter Montaigne) would have been performing on one of the world’s biggest stages this year: Eurovision.
- Montaigne says she is not sure whether Eurovision 2021 will be able to go ahead
- But the singer-songwriter says she “won’t be in despair” if it doesn’t happen, because of the state of the world
- The 25-year-old self-described introvert says she has “cherished the opportunity to rest and not do anything” during the coronavirus pandemic
Except, coronavirus did happen.
And the month after she won Australia Decides, Australia’s selection contest for Eurovision, the song contest-proper was cancelled.
Montaigne wouldn’t describe herself as a “big” Eurovision fan, she tells Kurt Fearnley on ABC’s One Plus One, Sydney’s Lyric Theatre their backdrop.
The 25-year-old clarifies: “I’ve never been a [Eurovision] obsessive in the way that I see it in a lot of people. I really like the theatricality, the melodrama and the over-the-topness.
“And it’s also like the World Cup of music … I like the idea of everyone communing around this thing they love and sharing it, and supporting art that they love.”
World’s biggest Eurovision fan or not, a lot of work went into creating Montaigne’s winning 2020 song, Don’t Break Me, and the performance behind it.
All this to say, when Eurovision was cancelled, it hurt.
Here‘s how Montaigne got over Eurovision being scrapped
“I was quite devastated for the first sort of three hours,” she says.
“It would have been a super wonderful opportunity … but at the end of the day I also really love being at home and I love having a home life and I also cherished the opportunity to rest and not do anything for a while as well.
“I have three housemates who I get along with and my partner, who I’ve also been visiting, has four housemates … so I’ve had people around me.”
And at a time when many artists are struggling financially due to a lack of gigs, Montaigne says she’s doing well in terms of money — even without work.
But there’s more on the horizon.
A few weeks after it was announced Eurovision 2020 was cancelled, Montaigne was confirmed as Australia’s 2021 entrant.
If she doesn’t end up getting to take to the Eurovision stage in 2021, Montaigne says she “won’t be in despair”.
“I’m very fine with it at this point. I accept that the world has just changed trajectory forever … so, if it doesn’t happen next year then I feel quite grounded about it.”
The notion of being grounded is a recurring theme for the 25-year-old.
So how did a self-described introvert whose Instagram postings often consist of her gardening endeavours turn into a pop singer by another name?
How Jess Cerro became Montaigne
Born to a mother from the Philippines and a father from Argentina, Montaigne spent the first four years of her life in Malaysia, where her dad played soccer professionally.
The sport has had an incalculable influence on her life — hence the “Eurovision is kind of the World Cup of music” line.
But music was always there too, Montaigne says.
“My parents love music and I always heard it around the house and they were always very encouraging,” she explains.
She credits her heritage for the undercurrent of unbridled emotion often found in her songs.
“And also a certain loudness and a certain boldness maybe comes from [that], because Argentinians and South Americans are pretty ‘heart on sleeve’ people, and so are Filippino people for sure,” she contemplates.
The stage name, meanwhile, came from philosopher Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy — a book she read barely into adulthood.
Performing pop while staying true to her roots
Montaigne recognises how far she is from the stereotype of someone who performs pop music. As a “small-scale local celebrity”, she feels the pressure to conform to it, too.
Having been raised by parents who didn’t allow her to go out drinking and partying, Montaigne says she simply didn’t understand that world before entering it.
“And then when I did finally get to that world when I was an adult and I was living out of home, I didn’t enjoy it, but that’s because I’m an introvert.”
Instead of attempting to adhere to notions of what a pop artist “should be”, Montaigne says she hasn’t tried to change.
She hasn’t shied away from making very public political statements either — both loud and subtle.
The decision to scrawl calls to action on her bare skin at the ARIA awards in both 2016 (“people over profit”) and in 2018 (“stop Adani”).
The clown ruffle at her neck in Don’t Break Me, meanwhile, lays bare Montaigne’s desire to find and create meaning in even the smallest of details in her work.
“It can mean a fool … and then there’s also the art of clowning … and then the other layer is supposed to represent the everyday person and the way the elite saw workers and labourers,” Montaigne explains.
“I ended up just settling for feeling silly in a relationship that you thought was good and healthy and now it’s sort of falling apart and there’s a communication breakdown and you don’t feel like you’re being listened to.
“And being a clown who was a woman was a good way to take on that full imagery, but also to subvert the notion of what a woman should look like and be.”
Why Montaigne’s art and activism collide
Despite having been so publicly political, speaking out about the injustices she perceives in the world is something Montaigne grapples with.
“I’m always evaluating how best to be an activist as a public-facing person,” she says.
For a time, she was also dealing with a lot of anger.
“[I was] just being indignant about the state of the world … And I think it is good to be aware of those things, but it’s empty to put out that anger and awareness without following it up with action.
“I still don’t know what the best way [is].”
But Montaigne still believes there’s power in having conversations. And she’s committed to being publicly open about her queer identity.
“You can only be what you can see,” she says.
“If queer people don’t have representation and visibility in public spaces, they’re going to feel invalidated, because the dominant narrative throughout history is that straight, cis, white men rule, and are the norm, and white women by extension.”
Watch the full interview with Montaigne on One Plus One on ABC iview.