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Unearthed by Triple J, singer-songwriter Montaigne has passionate fans, a promising future, and a glorious, if temperamental, voice. By A. H. Cayley.

Montaigne hits the high notes

Montaigne
Credit: CAMERON JUSTICE

They’re sound-checking the drums ahead of tonight’s soldout show at Newtown Social Club in Sydney, so loud you have to wonder what it’s doing to your hearing. The sound guy is trying to counteract a wall that to the trained ear apparently buggers up the acoustics, so the bass drum goes on and on. Yet even through this sonic assault of thumps and amplified check check, yeah yeah, uh-huhs, and despite the considerable distance from the back room at the end of a long, curtained corridor, you can hear her voice. Jessica Cerro, the 20-year-old pop musician known by the stage name Montaigne, is warming up.

Starting with a single siren sound – deep to high, down to deep again – she cuts through like an ambulance trapped in King Street traffic. She moves on to scales as the check check yeahs continue, again starting low, then rising higher and higher with each set of seven, until an unfathomably high note catches jarringly in her throat. She pauses, tries again, hits it, and moves on.

Cerro got her start at 16, as a finalist in Triple J’s 2012 Unearthed High competition. Initially, the plan was that she would aim for a university scholarship on the back of her ability as a gifted soccer player, and her mother suggested she sing something in the video reel to show she had many talents. She told her parents she had written her own song – a surprise to them – and they had it recorded in a friend’s bedroom studio. “The day we got it back, I was kicking the ball against a wall outside my parents’ room, and it went straight through their window and broke it. And then my dad comes out, crying, and he’s like, ‘The song’s so good!’ I was like, ‘Good… but I just broke the window?’ And he was like, ‘It’s fine! The song’s so good!’ ”

Under her parents’ guidance, her focus shifted to music. In 2012, Cerro signed a publishing deal with Alberts music rights management company. In 2014, at age 18 and before her first EP had been released, her single “I Am Not an End” was placed on high rotation on Triple J. It became the 36th most played song on the station for that year. Following the release of her EP, Life of Montaigne, later in the year, her single “I’m a Fantastic Wreck” again received high rotation on the national broadcaster and was the eighth most played track on Sydney’s FBi Radio. She then won Next Big Thing for 2014 at FBi’s annual SMAC Awards. “I hear a lot of music in the course of my day-to-day job,” says Stephen Goodhew, FBi’s music director and the man who decides what makes it to the playlist. “And every now and again there’s just a voice that stands out a long way. Montaigne was one of those voices. It is just so far beyond what everyone else is doing that it just jumps out at you and it’s just so gratifying to hear. She does this very anthemic type of pop, which not a lot of people in Australia do. It’s very big, it’s very grandiose and cinematic, and really it’s carried by the incredible range of her voice. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as good if it wasn’t her singing it.”

But at the end of last year, while recording her debut album, the voice on which she has built her career began to betray her. “We had to hit this song called ‘Glorious Heights’, the title track of the album,” she tells me. “The chorus is pretty full on, and basically by the end of that my voice was gone. It was obliterated. And after that it took ages to get better, and I started feeling pain whenever I spoke. I couldn’t speak without it hurting.”

Her management eventually sent her to a speech therapist, and she was diagnosed with a hyperfunctional voice disorder. It was explained to her that at some point she had changed the way she spoke and then got trapped in that pattern, vocalising from her throat instead of her head and chest. Ironically, she believes this change occurred while speaking over the crowd at an awards night where she was nominated for NSW Voice of the Year.

“I was freaking out. Especially with the album, because the album vocals are fucking insane, dude. Stupidly, I wrote all the songs in a high register. I actually don’t think my range comfortably sits up there – maybe it does now, but when I’m not in touring season and not using my voice as much it’s harder to get there. So for the album songs I was like, ‘Shit. I can’t sing properly. It hurts to sing. It’s hard for me to get up there. How am I supposed to fucking tour with this? I will one day be doing long runs of shows for maybe a year at a time, not short tours like I’m doing now.’

“I identified with having a strong, powerful voice that has a huge range, and [thought], ‘Now I can’t use it to its full capacity because it’s hurting. And I can’t go out and socialise, which I enjoy doing, because it’s too risky to talk all the time and I keep losing my voice.’ ”

Under the tutelage of her speech therapist, she learnt how to retrain her voice and how to warm up, which she now does every day. “In between the first two sessions I also had a singing lesson. I’d never had any before, so I didn’t know how to warm up. I do now. I needed to go and figure out how to warm up and sing properly.

“Part of it was that I was putting too much tension in the muscles in my neck and around that area. You need to relax that. And I always say, onstage is where I’m most comfortable – I’m made for the stage, I love being there. I don’t get nervous at all. I anticipate it eagerly, and things are always fine when I’m on there. I always sing my best and my strongest when I’m on stage, and so it’s kind of playing into that stress and tension thing – on stage I feel calm and relaxed; I’m doing my thing and I enjoy it. Then when I’m offstage, I’m kind of thinking about how I’m speaking. For some reason all inhibitions go away onstage and it isn’t a problem. She said basically, ‘We just need to get you to talk the way you sing onstage.’ And then we fixed it. But that was a really scary time for me … it genuinely terrified me.”

Listening to Cerro sing now in the dining room of her Surry Hills sharehouse, it seems the debacle was a blessing in disguise. “Absolutely. I never warmed up properly and now that I have, my range is even better and my head notes are much clearer. I kind of wish this had happened before I was recording the album vocals because now I could have done all of that better. So it’s pretty fun now. Although it’s funny because now that I’ve rediscovered this power in my voice and this comfort, these past three nights the reason my voice is fucked is because I just went so hard out in the shows.”

Cerro’s producer, Tony Buchen, who has worked with Tim Finn, The Preatures, Megan Washington and Ronan Keating, says she is the best artist he has ever worked with in terms of warming up. “She knows what she’s doing and she does the work. She goes in there for an hour. Before I’d arrived, she’d be here already on the piano warming up, every day. It sort of feeds into that thing about her that she’s up for the work. She just works so fucking hard. To the point where I often say to her, ‘Did you have any fun this week?’ ”

Onstage, she certainly does. The Newtown Social Club gig is remarkable: one of those moments where you can tell something extraordinary is taking place. Cerro’s audience doesn’t just woo or cheer – they scream. Every song, they scream. Every bit of banter, they scream. “My album should be coming out midyearish.” Screams. “This next song’s from my EP.” Screams. “If you haven’t heard it, you can buy it tonight.” Even that gets screams. They cry out in anticipation of every song, recognising each from the very first note. Cerro has not released an album yet.

Stranger, though, is that it’s hard to pinpoint the demographic. Very young women, rather young men. Older academic types, older rock dog types. Mums and uncles. Someone’s dad. Super buff jocks. Arts students. The types who say they love Triple J and the types who proudly sneer that they don’t. The painfully hip and the painfully not are both in this room in equal measure. A straight couple in their late 30s make out near the stage. A lesbian couple in their early 20s clasp their hands together in the air. A girl who almost certainly used a fake ID to get in spills her vodka cranberry on my shoes.

Above it all, under the blue stage lights, Cerro is an exquisite performer, effortlessly carrying these huge vocals into the room without a hint of prior concern. She moves like a tense marionette, supremely present, physicalising each word as her petite hands draw from them every ounce of meaning. She has her crowd hanging on every note. It’s like watching a boxer execute a perfect rope-a-dope. It’s thrilling.

“I think she’s just one of those artists,” says Buchen. “It comes down to the voice. The voice that she has is inescapable and I think some people who have heard it just want to be involved, they just want to know the story, and they pursue her. They’ll see the gigs; they’ll listen to every song. So I would assume her voice is just cutting through across boundaries.

“For me it’s not as much about technique as something else – something that’s not quantifiable. Is the voice coming from a place that is direct? Is there less bullshit along the way between the intention and what you’re hearing? And with some singers you just immediately get that, and it’s that thing where you just look around the room at each other and go, ‘Yep. It’s the real deal.’ And she has that in spades.

“But what separates her is not just the voice but the lyrics. She’s just on another level to anyone out there, to me. There’s a lot of throwaway out there, lyrically – people are chasing a sound, because a song with a sound can get you somewhere. But I think she’s interested in far more than that. She’s interested in saying shit; she’s interested in changing minds and influencing people. And clearly she is.”

Cerro invites Buchen onstage to play the guitar line he wrote for her hit single “Clip My Wings”. In a sad voice, she says he’s moving to Los Angeles soon. The audience sighs and coos with her. They’ve never met the guy but now they’ll miss him, too. “You guys love her, right?” he asks. They scream, of course.

She blasts out every note, they finish the song, and Buchen says a farewell. “The future of pop music,” he says, “right here.” The screams are deafening.

Cerro ends by saying she’ll be at the merch desk afterwards to say hello to everyone, take photos, sign autographs. I wonder how long she’ll be stuck there, and if after all the meet-and-greets her voice will be strong tomorrow.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 25, 2016 as "Big notes". Subscribe here.

A. H. Cayley
is a writer and broadcaster. She curates and hosts Confession Booth.