Thank you, Montaigne, aka Jessica Cerro, for doing half the work for any writer wanting a shorthand take on her new record, Complex, an album of vibrant art pop that positions her as far more Janelle Monae than Jessica Mauboy.
As her press release tallies, these songs deal with “an ex-boyfriend with a literal Messiah complex, gaslighting, body image, critical loneliness, long distance love, intense self-loathing, being a people pleaser, gaming, sex robots, gender pay imbalance, burn out, environmental issues and a serious health battle.”
Or, if you prefer the crib notes, here’s four songs, in order, scattered through that album: Change, Complex, Pleasure, Ready.
“I did not in any way, shape or form plan any of the songs or the overall tenor of the album,” Cerro laughs. “Everything that happened I woke up on the day and that’s where I was at, then I put it all together.”
Good fortune then, if you believe in luck, which this singer and songwriter who also happens to be quality football player and athlete, may. Though I doubt it.
“My perspective on the album is that it’s about anxiety, but not necessarily anxiety about change,” she says. “It’s anxiety about my own ineluctable static character traits and the nature of most of my relationships with other people, and the dynamics at play there. It’s less about what changes between me and people and more about what stays the same and I can’t get away from, though I wanted to change.”
The realisation that as much as you may want change, some things seemingly are fixed in you can be a sobering realisation. And even if it is possible, you can’t ask for or hope for change, you have to make it. And this is true for personal as much as societal change.
As anyone sentient in the past few years of increasingly depressing international elections could attest, another new Montaigne song Stockholm Syndrome, can be applied to one-on-one relationships or to a community which claims to want action on major issues such as the environment and personal freedoms but remains in the thrall of governments bent on denial and destruction.
What the hell are we going to do about that?
“Therapy?,” Cerro offers. “That’s what helped me I guess, on a personal level. I can’t solve the societal level, as much as I try. It’s the fact that a lot of our behaviours, individually as well as on a macro level … is internalised from your childhood, from your parents, from the relationships and environment that you grew up in.
“On the broader scale, we have elected the leaders who are far right conservatives bent on destroying the poor and vulnerable. Dismantling that is the key, but it’s fucking hard because we don’t have the power anymore and all we can do is go out on the streets. It’s a big beast to try and take down.”
On that personal level, which she could control, Cerro invested in meditation, therapy, reading books on how we are emotionally and intellectually wired, and recognising that “it’s not really possible to transcend your long-standing foibles and neuroses, but [you can] manage it and be able to make more careful, considered choices” every time.
“Which is, since making all of these songs, I’ve gotten much better at and for that reason my life is much more pleasant and less fraught with conflict,” she says. “That being said, tis last week has been a fucker, that is way more than a 50 minute session could cover.”
If she were on the couch we might discuss how we accept fear – of loss or isolation for example - and we accept damage – like deep hurt and elements of abuse - as the way relationships work out. At least until we go to therapy and find out this actually is what we have told ourselves is who we are and what we deserve.
Okay, we can’t change that, can’t “fix” ourselves, but we can change how we react to those triggers, whether in relationships or much wider engagements, and recognise the things that go wrong. Such as re-electing (or hooking up with) father figures who have successfully scared us into believing we need them.
So, yes, play this album through three or four times and see me in the morning with notes on how to take Montaigne’s example.
“Exactly,” Cerro laughs. “During these past three years in which the album was written and made, I definitely came head-to-head with a lot of revelations about myself and patterns I was putting out in my relationships and in my self-perception and my habits. I ended up being able to very clearly translate that into poetry and songs.”
Music, for Cerro, has always been the one place where she didn’t repress her feelings, even if the process was largely subconscious. This album of rich sounding and dramatic shifts, sometimes with almost florid performances but always with compelling reasons for us to dive into her melodies, forced the issue.
“Music has always been the place where I have confronted that head on. It’s almost like a partition between ‘Jess with feelings’, who does music, and ‘Jess who gets on with life’ and ignores everything terrible that’s happening,” explains Cerro. “With this album I finally brought consciousness of that partition to the fore. I sat with the songs and thought this is a fucking problem here, this needs to be addressed now.
“The thing is I can still channel my pain into songs: I don’t think that’s ever going to stop happening. But now I also deal with it in a realistic, pragmatic and practical fashion in my real life, which is much healthier. Making this album enabled me to climb the stairs, so to speak. And being at the comfort level I was when I recorded Complex made my songwriting come naturally and my performance come more easily, because it was easier to use my body in that way.”
The confidence she developed in the making this album is reflected also in the confidence to merge art and pop more thoroughly, to be bolder than on her debut, Glorious Hype.
“I feel that my writing has definitely improved a mile because I’ve been practising and I’ve been reading and trying to be an artist,” says Cerro. “With this album I had all the time in the world because I haven’t been struggling with money and could invest all my energy and time into being an artist.
“Now that I fully embody the role of artist, it’s imbued me with confidence to own up to that and to work hard at being that. And that shows through in the songs.”
Complex is out on Friday, August 30. Montaigne will tour Australia through November.