I’m waiting for a call from Jessica Alyssa Cerro, better known as Montaigne. Since the release of her debut album in 2016, the 26-year-old Sydneysider has been busy. In just half a decade, she’s managed to wrangle a certified platinum hit, an ARIAs Breakthrough Artist of the Year title, and represented Australia on the Eurovision stage.
Her eclectic and layered tracks are distinctly Montaigne, with the fusion of electric beats and her theatrical vocal performance underpinned by pure pop sensibilities.
“The genre that gets slapped on it is art-pop… it feels like a euphemism for like pop music that isn't commercially viable,” she laughs. “But, to be a little less cynical about it, when I make music [I] draw from quite an eclectic range of influences.”
In her late teenage days, she would’ve pointed towards Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Coldplay, Arcade Fire, and Feist — those “big feeling indie rock, indie-folk bands,” as she calls them, as her main influences. Now, electronic pop music and glitch-core musicians like Alice Gas and Astra King are feeding more into her creative process.
I’m a young queer WOC who used to think she wanted to be a popstar but now just wants to make music for a medium she’s passionate about and a community she’s underrepresented in.
Jessica Alyssa Cerro
This smorgasbord approach to her work makes complete sense when you take a look at the other hobbies that have shaped her identity today.
Music was never the obvious pathway for Cerro, who played semi-professional soccer and was eyeing an Ivy League college football scholarship in the US. In fact, while she was putting her video portfolio together, her mum suggested that she record a song as the backing track. And as the story goes, that was a major catalyst for her accidental pathway into music; she was a finalist in Triple J’s 2012 Unearthed competition.
Another major interest of Cerro’s was — and is — gaming. Her love of gaming started at a summer camp way back when. “All the boys were playing Mario Kart and I was too shy to [ask to] play but I just sat on the couch and I just watched it. I loved it,” she says.
“I was 12 the first time I was spellbound by a game and felt an emotional connection to it, which was Kingdom Hearts 2,” she tells Refinery29 Australia, adding that a YouTube video of the gameplay sparked her interest.
After negotiating with her parents (Cerro had to do $100 worth of chores — a “totally arbitrary” payment method, she adds), Kingdom Hearts 2 was hers. “I wasn't allowed to play it a lot — like the restriction was only in school holidays, and only an hour a day. Which made me wake up at 5am to tiptoe downstairs and like, quietly turn the TV on,” she laughs.
I don't need the high heights that come with like being a popstar, I don't want a lot of them.
JESSICA ALYSSA CERRO
It wasn’t just the gameplay, characters and story beats that wrapped her into this world, but the music too. Almost two decades after she discovered video games, she’s now getting behind-the-scenes, creating for the medium she loves. The pandemic gave her an opportunity to work on her producing skills, and also made her realise how important gaming was in her life. And of course — because nothing is linear or predictable with Cerro — she landed her first gaming music gig by tweeting at a game studio, asking if they had music writing positions going.
“The reason why I want to do is just because I don't know that I want to be a pop star anymore. I mostly just want to be a music artist,” she says. “And that involves doing a lot of different kinds of music in different scenes and genres and mediums and stuff — and video games is something that I feel a specific affinity for, so [it] feels natural.”
She recently shared this with the world via TikTok, writing, “I’m a young queer WOC who used to think she wanted to be a popstar but now just wants to make music for a medium she’s passionate about and a community she’s underrepresented in”.
It’s an industry, like basically every other, that’s still grappling with inequalities and underrepresentation. But Montaigne is hopeful. “Especially with the internet, and the way that cultural identities and digital identities can spread and form and grow together, it's possible to have more of a voice if you are a marginalised identity within any community, and especially in the gaming community.”
This new venture came to fruition through questioning what is expected from musicians. I’m intrigued by Cerro veering away from popstar status, a coveted label in the music industry. I ask her what it was like consciously cutting off what was potentially a dream job.
“I don’t think it was a dream that I necessarily had, it was just like the trajectory I was expected to take. It’s capitalism. The whole idea is growth, constant growth, and I sort of bought into that for a long time. And now I'm at a stage in my life that I really enjoy,” she says. “I don't need the high heights that come with like being a popstar, I don't want a lot of them.”
It mirrors the growing conversations we’ve had that question hustle culture and toxic girlboss ambition. Cerro agrees, adding, “We just can't operate that way all the time. It's literally not natural and it bad for us — like explicitly bad for us.”
But there’s a big difference between making pop music and being a popstar, and the former is something Cerro isn’t giving up anytime soon.
“I still enjoy making pop music, and I have a lot of plans to be making a lot of it. My plan for pop music is going to be less…,” she fumbles, trying to find the right word. “A little less aspirational. What I mean by that is just that I'm not necessarily releasing it in order to further my standing, you know what I mean? I just want to release it so people have something to enjoy, and because I want people to hear these things I've made.”
Montaigne’s latest single is Now (In Space) and she’ll be touring around Australia in early 2022. You can find her on Twitch streaming semi-regularly or follow her on Twitter to stay updated.