Montaigne talks ‘making it!’ and the gravity of games

montaigne interview

Montaigne is one of Australia’s premier pop acts, but behind their creative persona exists an equally impressive individual who’s brimming with surprises.

Montaigne probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. They have released three full-length albums, represented Australia at Eurovision, and worked alongside music greats ranging from David Byrne to Hilltop Hoods. Montaigne is an artist characterised by their natural curiosity, empathy, and an uncommon willingness to venture into new territory.

And surprises; Montaigne, real name Jess Cero, is full of those wonderful, unexpected little treasures too. I caught up with Jess to discuss their most recent album, ‘making it!’, but we quickly found ourselves barrelling down the rabbit hole of video games, politics, nostalgia and, ultimately, horrific neckties (if you know, you know).

During our conversation, it became apparent just how intertwined Montaigne’s personal interests are with their music as Montaigne, as well as how much of their personality shines through in their creative output. Montaigne’s enthusiasm for art and the world that surrounds them are contagious, taking you by the hand and insisting that you come along for the ride.

Which, in hindsight, goes a long way in explaining their appeal as both a songwriter and performer. However, as we chatted away it also became apparent that, if given the chance, chances are Montaigne can say it better. So with that in mind, I’ll take my leave.

montaigne making it
Image: Montaigne / Provided by Sony

Happy Mag: Hey, Jess. How are things? 

Montaigne: I’m well. How are you doing? 

Happy Mag: Pretty good! How is it in Brisbane? I’ve gathered that’s where you are right now. 

Montaigne: Yeah, it’s great. Weather is really good. We’re working hard and drinking coffee, etc.

Happy Mag: Sounds like a great morning. So first of all, congratulations on the upcoming album. I’ve really enjoyed the release, particularly the single Gravity, which is full of dramatic energy. Can I start by asking what your creative goals were when making ‘making it’?

Montaigne: Creative goals…I’m not sure I necessarily plan anything that deliberately when I set about making things, but I was really excited by what is considered hyperpop, like Charli XCX, 100 gecs and B.o.B. So we kind of wanted to make something similar to that, playing with it as a reference point, without trying to copy it. Taking inspiration from the energy and the sounds, I guess that’s what we wanted to do. 

I also wanted to write a little less about myself. I wanted to write more character stories, but inevitably ended up writing about myself [laughs], so it’s a bit half/half. I think that’s really the only tangible goal I set out to achieve when making the album. 

Happy Mag: Yeah, I love the idea that characters that we write are often still a little piece of us.

Montaigne: They are.

Happy Mag: While we’re still on music, David Byrne appears on a number of the tracks and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that relationship. How you guys met, and what it was like working together?

Montaigne: I basically got David’s email from the manager of the producer I was working with (Dave Hammer). I just sent him an email and he replied and was keen to listen to my music, and to swap the songs and all of that. And then eventually he was like ‘I love all of these and I’d love to sing on Gravity and I’d love to whatever. You let me know what to do and I’ll do it.’ And it was as easy as that. 

He was very chill and open about it and, I don’t know, he feels like a very normal creative to me. Just someone who’s very curious and excited about exploring new things and new options. That’s kind of it. Our relationship is mostly email based at this point because he lives in New York, on the other side of the world, and I live in Sydney. But yeah, literally just emailed. 

Happy Mag: Fair enough. You just mentioned Byrne’s curiosity and he’s always struck me as a bit of a chameleon. He’s covered a lot of different genres and doesn’t really fit neatly into a box – which is something I associate with you as well. I was wondering if you had any opinions or thoughts on genre and the labels we assign to artists. Is there value to it, or does it get in the way of expression and appreciation?

Montaigne: I see both sides of the coin. I think the language around genre and music can be restricting, or can maybe simplify artists in a way that doesn’t do justice to their complexity. But I also understand that labels and genres help us human beings refer to things, and can sort of identify groups and maybe common traits. It’s easier to talk about that community, group or movement with this sort of language. So yeah, I do feel that it’s still useful sometimes. But that’s also just me and I don’t feel strongly either way, necessarily. 

There are certain times where I do make judgments though. For example, the genre ‘hyperpop’ was apparently coined by Spotify, like a playlist name, and that I take umbrage with because it didn’t come from the artist, it came from a corporation. But I’m happy to sometimes be called like a broad pop artist, or whatever, because culturally that’s where my music currently fits in, more or less.

But even then there’s nuance, because I don’t fit into what we would call commercial pop. Anyway, I think it’s a really complex topic, and there’s so much that can be said about it. But generally, it’s a bit of column A, a bit of column B. There’s pros and cons.

Happy Mag: You’ve spoken before about, and correct me if I’m wrong, the pressures from within the industry and how you aren’t necessarily out here nowadays trying to be the world’s number one pop star or anything like that. I feel there’s a sharpness about some of the new tracks, songs like Jc ultra. I was wondering where you’re at with the industry and how that relationship found its way into ‘making it’

Montaigne:  It feels less like a music industry specific thing and more like a broad world thing. I think the thing that musicians and artists experience in the music industry is quite similar, if not in the specifics, then in the broad strokes, to what people in any other industry experience. It’s capitalism and it affects everyone in the same way.

I think there’s this mindset of continual growth that everyone gets swept up in. It’s just the way that the economy works. It’s the way that market forces act upon us and it breeds exploitation, and I think that’s a huge issue. And one I don’t know how to solve, I only know how to comment on it. 

The thing is, with a song like Jc ultra, I think you can extrapolate a certain kind of politics from it. And it is a politics that I subscribe to. But also I just wrote that as a dumb little song without thinking critically about it. I wasn’t trying to necessarily make a big statement. I was just like, ‘what if Aliens ran a music label to do Brainwash on people’; even though the conceptual origin was political – it was MK-Ultra and the CIA when they were trying to win wars and shit.

But just to go back to the industry, there’s many things to be disgruntled about, and I could criticise it endlessly, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like a unique criticism to the music industry. 

Happy Mag: Yeah, totally. I guess maybe an unspoken part of that question is that you’ve been focusing on other things in your life as well. And I have on good authority that part of that is video games. So I was wondering if you could run me through your relationship with them; like when you started playing, maybe who got you into them, and what the first game was that really sparked your interest.

Montaigne: My first memory of video games is being at some summer camp when I was really little, and watching all the boys play Mario Kart, and just wanting to play Mario Kart, but not having the confidence or I guess the social licence to be like ‘my turn!’. So I was immediately fascinated with that. 

And also I actually don’t know what age this was, but I think we had a Sega Saturn for a short amount of time. I don’t remember where it went or why it went, but we had a Saturn and we used to play Nights Into Dreams or something like that. It had this little purple and gold guy, and we played that a bit and I remember being enchanted by the whole thing. I don’t know, I think I’ve just always gravitated towards it. 

When I was like 12, and YouTube was starting to become a thing, I got into the world of Kingdom Hearts music videos. I saw the opening cutscene and I was like, ‘what is this? This is incredible’. And I just started watching people’s fan made music videos for Kingdom Hearts and I begged and begged my parents to get Kingdom Hearts 2. I think we already had a PlayStation, with a few games like Jak & Daxter and Crash Bandicoot, those sort of platformers. 

So yeah, Kingdom Hearts was my first obsession and I ended up getting it after my parents were like, ‘you must do $100 worth of chores’, because the game at the time was $100. I feel like for that time, that’s expensive…$100 now sure, but now inflation is what it is and all the rest of it.

Anyways, so I did $100 worth of chores. It was my favourite thing and I started making Kingdom Hearts music videos myself, my YouTube channel still has them up there from when I was 13. It was like my passion and then I eventually started playing Final Fantasy X, and I loved that as well.

There were several games over my teens, maybe that I didn’t love quite as much as Kingdom Hearts, but that I still enjoyed. And then I left home when I was 18, and I was moving about a lot and I didn’t have a console, so there was a long stretch of time where I wasn’t really playing games. And then, I don’t remember what happened, but I started getting into it again. Sony was like ‘here have a PlayStation 4’, and I was like ‘great’!

So I seriously started getting into gaming in 2017 or 2018 and I was playing Persona 5. What else did I play? Persona 5 was definitely my most memorable one. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, that’s when I got fully into gaming because there wasn’t really anything else to do when we were all trapped at home.

I had a PlayStation 4, and then eventually a PlayStation 5, and a Nintendo Switch as well. That’s right, I played Breath of the Wild and Spirit Walker, and all that stuff on the Switch too. I just realised like, oh shit, I really love this. 

And not just the games, but the music as well. The whole thing is just fabulous and wonderful and imaginative and creative and interesting and fun. I just really love games, and they definitely have an influence on my music. Kingdom Hearts definitely has influenced my taste in music, same as the Final Fantasy soundtrack.

That stuff definitely informs my interests, and while I don’t know how much that’s come out in my past music, the new music I’m making now, post my new album, is very much trying to capture my nostalgia for Square (a Japanese game developer/publisher). 

Happy Mag: A lot of those JRPGs, and in fact, the Japanese game studios in general, have truly phenomenal composers working for them. 

Montaigne: Yeah, they’re great. 

Happy Mag: One of the themes in Gravity appears to be a sort of yearning for reality. You sing about wanting to “have your feet on solid ground”. The song also appears at the end of the album, which in some way speaks to the fantastical nature of the album. However, it also kind of speaks to the double edged nature of video games and escapism in general. Do you sometimes worry about how modern entertainment is affecting our relationship with reality, as well as our connection with each other and the planet? 

Montaigne: Interesting. I can’t say I’ve given this too much thought [laughs]. I think the sort of predatory systems that make certain forms of entertainment and gaming addictive are quite pernicious. But games themselves, or media itself, I think are a healthy expression of human creativity and the desire to connect with people through storytelling mechanisms.

But, yeah, I think I’m less suspicious of creative products themselves and more worried about the political and economic forces that motivate certain decisions made around the marketing, design and accessibility of these things.

My partner has ADHD and he gets hyper fixated on these video games. So he finds it really difficult to get into one because he knows he won’t stop playing it if he does; he’ll just not sleep, forget to go to the toilet, forget to eat right. I mean, he played Genshin Impact for a minute, and that whole game is literally just like hooking you into doing the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing.

He felt so terrible while he was playing that game. And the thing is, these kinds of games, as well as their marketing, are targeted at people like him who have these addictive tendencies. And that, I think, is a bit noxious.

For me, that stuff isn’t so much of an issue because I don’t get hooked-in by the marketing as much. But that’s where I’d be concerned, the cynical marketing kind of stuff. 

Happy Mag: That actually leads me to another little question. You do a reasonable amount of streaming, and it strikes me that, well, maybe that comes with its own pressures. Do you find that it’s a bridge between the escapism of video games and the social connection we need as humans?

Montaigne: Yes. I think that a lot of people that regularly watch Twitch streams are seeking community. I think that’s just innate to human beings. We want to be around other people and we want to belong somewhere. And that’s why I’m not necessarily worried about becoming divorced from other people or reality – we crave it all the time. 

I know sometimes antisocial behaviour can arise on these platforms and stuff like that, but I don’t feel like it’s an epidemic. I feel like that’s a minority of people who need therapy, and are instead trying to express their repressed feelings on these platforms.. So yeah, I think I’m fortunate to connect with my fans that way, but it feels more important that my fans get to connect with each other in that space, which, again, is about community.

Happy Mag: Yeah, definitely. Now I don’t mean to change the subject too much, but I was scrolling through your socials and I found something I just needed to confirm. What is the best game ever made, and why is it Disco Elysium?

Montaigne: [Laughs] I was literally going to say that! Well, it is Disco Elysium. I mean, I’m not very good at this. I like watching video game essays on YouTube by people who are far smarter than me and have spent much more time thinking about these things than I have. But it is just a masterpiece of care, thoughtfulness and compassion, and compassionate politics and understanding. 

I enjoy the sense of humour in the game too. My partner and I spent a couple of nights in the country last weekend with our friends, just like a friend’s buck’s weekend away. And obviously you can see the stars quite clearly when you’re out in the country. So we were sort of just looking up, and they were really clear, and you could sort of see the dust of the Milky Way, and it’s really spectacular. 

My partner turns to me and says, “you can understand why we make our little jokes”. And I was like, “what do you mean?”, and he was like “well, just all of that, you just have to laugh”…we really are just insignificant, but at the same time things mean so much to us.

We can make or break each other’s lives and you kind of just have to laugh through it sometimes. Sometimes because it’s just so absurd; the stakes of everything and the lack of stakes of everything, like cosmically. I think Disco Elysium really captures that quite beautifully.

Happy Mag: I played it last year when they released Disco Elysium: The Final Cut and I agree. It blew me away with how beautiful it was, but also the freedom it gives you. What playstyle, or personality, did you find yourself gravitating towards?

Montaigne: I definitely was like, oh shit, I have to make everything right, I have to atone. I did my first playthrough completely sober; I never took any drugs, never drank alcohol. I remember when I got the ‘Sorry Cop’ trophy [laughs] and I just felt so embarrassed. The game doesn’t punish you for saying sorry all the time, but it is a little bit like ‘you’re being boring’. And also, there’s no way that your story can ever make up for the things that your character has done. 

That’s a bit of a tangent, but yeah, I did play like super clean, kind to people, helpful, empathetic. I think I put a lot of my skill points into empathy, and then my Inland Empire was also quite high; so the horrific necktie chatted to me, which was great [laughs]! And so funny. Anyway, my first playthrough was absolutely magical and unexpected.

Happy Mag: I completely agree. I think we might be very close to running out of time, so I wanted to ask one final question. Considering that we’re Happy Mag, what makes you happy?

Montaigne: My partner makes me happy. Video games.  I have a new obsession with bouldering, so I am really enjoying climbing. I enjoy making and listening to music – those things all make me very happy. There’s a meme compilation on YouTube called Unusual Media Compilation [laughs], which me and my partner watch every week. Which makes me happy [laughs].

Moments spent with my partner, where we are just like on YouTube watching Zullie the Witch videos about Elden Ring or something, I love that. And kind of depending on the frequency of releases, but yeah, those daily rituals. 

Happy Mag: I love that. It was such a pleasure to have this chat, Jess.

Montaigne: Oh, likewise. Thank you so much! 

Interviewed by Alistair Cairns

Pictures supplied