Video games and life mantras: We get philosophical with Montaigne
Jessica Cerro is a lot of things. She’s a soccer playing, vegan eating, video game loving singer-songwriter out of Sydney — but you probably know her better as Montaigne, after the great renaissance era philosopher of the same name. The art pop sensation is taking Australian music to glorious heights with innovative uses of instrumentation, exquisitely embellished harmonies and whimsical emotionality complimenting her raw, epic, otherworldly and truly mesmerising vocals. Montaigne’s rising stardom is highlighted by her ARIA win for Breakthrough Artist of the Year, following the release of her debut album, Glorious Heights. With an ardent fan base, incredible talent and at only 21 years of age, reaching such heights is only the beginning for Jessica Cerro.
We caught up with her to chat about making positive change, video games, life, death, and spirituality. Have a read, then do yourself a favour and purchase tickets for her performance at Capitol on the 29th of July. It’ll be amazing, trust me.
Despite your success as a musician, you recently told triple j that your weekly salary from your music career is a meagre $200! How difficult is it balancing your music aspirations with study and general living costs?
It’s a challenge to say the least. There are definitely things in my life that I can’t do or are a bit more inconvenient because I just don’t have the money. But yeah, I’m a pretty simple person with simple pleasures. I don’t drink coffee, I don’t really drink that much alcohol, I don’t have to buy that stuff. I just pay for food, necessities and rent, and you know, going to shows that I want to go to if I can afford them — that’s the extent of it. It’s inconvenient at times but I’m just not desirous of a great deal and I’m content.
You continue to use opportunities such as award nights and festivals as a platform to spread awareness on social issues and convey messages on important ideas. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to use your growing influence to make a real difference in the world?
Yeah I do — you know, if you can make an impact for positive change, then why wouldn’t you?
Veganism has exceptional health, environmental and ethical benefits, but I find people tend to focus too much on the ethical side of things — which is of course important, but potentially deters some people that may be more inclined to staying healthy and minimising their carbon footprint, but don’t share the same empathy towards animals. What do you think needs to be done to convert more people to veganism or vegetarianism?
I think the key to anyone’s heart is their stomach, if you can convince people that eating vegan isn’t boring, reductive or just limiting, then I think that will really help it along. I try to focus on the 'eating more', because people don’t want to be told that they’re ethically or morally inapt. People don’t want to hear that; they become resistant, so you kind of have to first talk them around to it from a culinary point of view I think, and then once they get stuck into it and realise it’s not a bad time (and not just not a bad time but a great diet) but also a way of eating and a way of life. That’s when the magic starts to happen.
That’s why I have that new Instagram account on food, to just show people how well I eat. I’m very athletic, and I do a lot of sports and I’m very physical on stage, and I’m not dead! I’m getting enough nutrients and I’m getting enough protein and iron and all that shit. My micronutrients are okay, and I don’t think about that stuff ever. I just eat, you know. I think people’s palates are the key. It can even be as superficial as it’s easier to lose weight. A lot of people go into it being like I want to lose it, and then they realise this is actually a really clean, nice way of eating.
Another eco-friendly initiative of yours has been incorporating recycled fabric into your costumes, can you tell us more about that?
So I’ve been doing Groovin’ The Moo wearing this sort of shawllmade out of Groovin’ The Moo arm tags, which was made by Jeff McCann who’s a Sydney artist, and works exclusively with recycled materials for his designs. He’s very talented and he’s sort of like, been a specialist with cardboard for a long, long, long time.
Is that what you wore at Southbound?
Yeah, so I wore that at Southbound and also a different dress at Lost Paradise. Yeah, it’s cool! It just goes to show how you can upcycle and reuse what are essentially defunct materials; I think that’s really important. Because the number of Groovin’ tags and the amount of cardboard that goes in the bin you’re just like wow, that is a lot of, just waste, I guess. It makes people think about these things a little bit more. But like, I don’t wear those things being like: I am the para-god of ethical behaviour and living! I definitely make mistakes, you know, I’m only starting to really realise the impact of everything, sustainably and ecologically — and ethically on humans as well. All of us are just learning, and I just like to make us aware.
Exactly, raise awareness and then hopefully from there people can educate themselves more! You’re also an avid gamer, growing up with an obsession with Disney’s Kingdom Hearts and more recently investing a lot of time in Final Fantasy! Can we expect any future songs about gaming?
There’s a song that will be on the album, album two that is, and I’ve written about what happens when video game protagonists die in the middle of their quest and like, can’t come back. You know when you play a video game, you can try again or reload or whatever, and then you’re given another chance and then eventually you get to finish the game. That’s not how it is in real life, of course — if you die, you die! It’s just like a pretty phlegmatic perspective on what happens when a video game character, from the perspective of the video game character, just fails their mission and dies!
You seem particularly drawn to alternate universe video games and movies. Are there any other concepts or worlds that you’re particularly intrigued by?
What drew me into Kingdom Hearts was the concept of multiple worlds and being able to get out of your own and travel.
Have you watched Rick and Morty?
No, I haven’t!
Oh you have to watch Rick and Morty! The whole show is basically just about the idea that there are infinite universes within infinite dimensions. I won’t give any more away but it’s hilarious.
I think as a kid I’ve always been really preoccupied with how mundane life is, you know, we all get bored and we all feel that yearning for something more, and we do things like take drugs and drink alcohol in order to escape from that. But I’ve always really been invested in the idea that there’s literally like, a magic to life, to a world where there are quests, a fantastical adventure and creatures that you meet and things that you can do physically like fly, and jump like, unrealistically high. I like that notion in Kingdom Hearts and also fantasy worlds like Lord of the Rings. Any sort of fantastical land I’m pretty smitten with to be honest, like waking up in Rivendell, going out and talking to the elves, walking along these improbably beautiful landscapes, seeing stuff and not feeling indifferent about these things. Just always being infused with a sense of wonder and awe. And that’s sort of what I’m always trying to achieve or look for in my life.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m like slightly anhedonic because I find things that people usually find very exciting, arousing… not so. There are very few and specific things that make me really feel something, like sometimes I’ll go out to the blue mountains and I’ll have a look out and I’m just like yeah it’s nice (laughs) and nothing more. Video games though really gave me a sense of meaning. That’s the reason the world is there, in a way that I didn’t experience in my standard life.
I guess they’re still so familiar, yet have an added fantastical element to make things that bit more exciting! Now, your music was the soundtrack to my summer and honestly mesmerising to listen to when tripping on LSD with its 'ethereal, surreal, and worldly feel'. At one point I quite literally fell off my camping chair after listening to Come Back to Me. It was that goddamn beautiful! Have you experimented with psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms before?
No, I haven’t — I’ll probably never touch drugs to be honest. I was raised in a family that was pretty conservative about that and they’ve successfully inculcated in me a negativity towards drugs, so much so that I don’t think I’ll ever swim out. But I’m not the kind of person to be like, don’t fucking do that, and I’m judging you if you do. It’s kind of like, listen, I don’t endorse it but also I’m not gonna fucking tell you what to do and I’m not gonna not associate with you just because you do it. Because most people in the fucking music industry take drugs, and most people in the world do — like I would have no friends if I were the kind of person who was like, I’m not talking to anyone! You’re doing drugs! The thing is the thought is kind of appealing to me, just in order to have that experience of transcendence or augmented reality. But I’m very obsessed with being healthy and with achieving shit, and I feel like drugs would probably be cumbersome to me in that respect.
One topic that I’ve been super interested in recently are near death experiences. Your namesake, the great late Renaissance French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, even experienced one himself. What are your personal beliefs on life, death and spirituality?
Big question dude! I believe that life is inherently meaningless, that because it’s a blank slate we’re able to put upon the slate whatever we like. It’s different for everyone but I feel like it’s universally agreed upon that love is definitely one of those things that provides meaning and fulfilment to human beings. But at the end of the day, I do think everything is meaningless. I think that’s also why I’m so attracted to video games, because the heroes have like one ultimate purpose. It sort of takes them on this grand journey. For us it’s like: fuck, what’s our own ultimate purpose? I guess for some people, saving the world ends up being really advocating for some ethical cause, or being a lawyer and changing the legislation, or being a musician and really impacting people’s lives in a meaningful way. I need to use my life in order to serve others the best way possible. That’s my purpose, to serve others — and to, you know, also enjoy myself throughout the process.
My quest is to strike a balance between self-preservation, care and enjoyment. Serving others, and helping the world through all of its tumult. And when it comes to death, I really enjoy living my life. I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of it all ending at this point. You know what I mean? Like, death itself is an oblivion you don’t know. I mean that’s my belief, I don’t believe in an afterlife or anything like that. I kind of have a doublethink belief in it… have you ever played Final Fantasy?
I haven’t played it myself, only because I know that once I start, I’ll get too wrapped up in it!
Yeah, they’re very long games. In Final Fantasy VII there’s sort of like the life force that runs or flows through everything, kind of like Awa in James Cameron’s Avatar, where everything is sort of connected. All living things have this life force that flows through them that funds them and, my belief (that I also don’t really believe) is that it's imposing something on the blank slate. So we’re all connected through consciousness in a way — like when we die our consciousness leaves our bodies and you know, it floats up into the ether and then fills another vessel afterwards. Like, all consciousness is recycled, or not recycled; it’s just one big thing that just flows through everything. That’s sort of my vibe on any kind of aftermath I guess.
But yeah, like Montaigne, I’m afraid of the end. I think he reconciled himself to it ultimately. I like living my life and that’s why I engage in healthy habits and behaviours and attitudes because I want to do as much as I possibly can and not have a hard time doing it, or suffering. I don’t like suffering; no one likes suffering — but I feel like a lot of people, in order to indulge their vices, or the things they like, will go through a lot just to carry on with these endeavours.
I’m very much an optimiser, so I try to make everything as balanced and whole as possible. And yeah, that works to my advantage — because look where I am now with my career, and I’m a happy, content person. Though I have problems — don’t get me wrong, like I have big, bloody problems with some parts of my life that will potentially never be fixed — I have the resilience and I guess, intestinal fortitude and tenacity in order to push on and remain equanimous through it all. And not just equanimous, but happy and joyful, and someone who can be there for other people, to make them happy and to give them company and stuff like that.
But I would describe myself as a realistic optimist. I see the bright side of everything but (basically) I also don’t romanticise things. When something’s an issue I want to solve it. I’m just trying to think about all the things that my ex-boyfriend did/was and he was a very romantic person but to a deleterious extent, as in he was the kind of guy who was like 'Oh women don’t shit'. And I was just like 'Hey dude that’s like, actually not cool' and I feel it’s quite oppressive to put notions out like that because that makes me feel bad about like a natural physiological condition which I engage in on the daily. That kind of thinking is just so shit to me. I am fully aware of the raw, gritty details of life, and accept them and see a beauty in them. I feel like that’s the thing; I am an optimist because I like the oblique things as well, or can see the light at the end of the tunnel of ugly things (giggles) you know? Yeah I don’t know, I’m just ranting now. (laughs)
Yeah I’ve definitely come to similar conclusions. We’ve been talking about gaming and stuff a lot, and I’ve sort of come to think that, I guess, everything’s an illusion, and nothing technically has meaning but your own subjective reality, and you can make that fun. You know, it’s like your own life is a big game.
Exactly, it is! Your life is The Sims! Of course, there are differences, but the point is, yeah, you’ve just got to play the game, and see what happens. That’s the ability of it, you get to bloody raise your AP and HP points and MP points, and you get to like level up and shit. I think that’s the most important part of life, to level up constantly, so that you’re not just, in stasis, remaining stagnant forever in the same spot thinking the same things about the same people no matter what. Especially when things in the world are changing, and the things that we regard as right and wrong are constantly morphing. I think that’s a philosophy of mine, that you’ve gotta change with the times and you gotta change in constructive, positive ways — ways that will benefit the community and society you live in, or ways that will help the harmony and peace and unity, as opposed to attitudes which you know, chop that down like a poor, dying tree.