THE CROXTON, MELBOURNE
I don’t usually remember how I first heard about musicians, especially when they’re part of the triple j Unearthed artist soup from my early 20s. Jessica Alyssa Cerro, better known as Montaigne, is an exception to this. Sometime in late 2014 Joni Hogan, of Perth’s Joni in the Moon, sent me a message with a link to Montaigne’s “I’m a Fantastic Wreck” music video: “holy shitballs that voice”. Yep, that voice. I’ve kept coming back to that video for years, fascinated by the tension and release; a restrained chamber-pop arrangement torn apart by tenacious, charged lyrics.
Cerro performs with the physicality of a balletic bouffon clown, every movement playful and bombastic.
Since that first music video, I’ve never sat down and listened to a whole album. The fantasy adventure inspired cover art of her debut, Glorious Heights, maybe turned me off. I was in my mid-20s looking for my raw sadness to be reflected back at me with little affectation. Glowing swords and dragons were definitely not my style and I simply, regrettably, didn’t make the time to listen.
I know Montaigne better now for her politics. I admired her resolve to bring environmental activism to the music industry, painting “STOP ADANI” across her cheeks for the 2018 ARIAs. I shared her joy for youth activism during her speech at the Sydney School Strike 4 Climate, watching the livestream from my Coburg bedroom earlier this year. She was eloquent and confident in the Australian music documentary “Her Sound, Her Story” released last year, an ambitious project that sets out to explore the state-of-play for women in the music industry.
Offspring’s ‘Hit That’ is playing in the front bar before doors, a perplexing choice for such a night. I feel my anticipation overshadowed by the many bright lights of pokies and the TAB in just the next room. As a Perth-born music goer, ALH venues hold a particularly soured place in my heart after the Brass Monkey mess of 2016. The last time I drank at The Croxton was when Jen Cloher played there, before I knew who owned it. I got a cruel shock the next morning when I saw the ALH trading name on my bank statement. While I’ve never had a bad experience at the venue and they even took part in the Sexual Harassment and Assault in Licensed Live Music Venues Pilot Program, I feel an unresolved uneasiness with the association to Brass Monkey in Perth.
Sampa The Great’s “Energy” pulses through the band room as I enter, and my apprehension over the suitability of the room dissipates. The audience is disproportionately full of beautiful queer Melbourne couples, all smiling and joking with amongst each other. There’s a couple kissing and dancing beside me, one wearing heels and the other flats so they match each other’s height to the centimetre. They’re going at it in the middle of the dancefloor that would grind my nerves if they were just some straight couple, but I’m simultaneously envious and in awe of their gall. We make the best of these imperfect spaces, we make them safer and our own while we’re there.
Darwin-based Stevie Jean opens the night as a sleek, queer femme fatale; winking out to us through tousled curls, gold cross over red Adidas dress. Her guitar crunches and hums underneath her voice, which is of a calibre that could only be followed by the likes of Montaigne. She finishes her set with “December Song”: “this is about the girl I had a crush on in high school,” she says. Gone are the days where young women in Australian music wrote their queerness into metaphor, no more triangles trying to fit into circles. At 18 years old, Jean is not leaving anything up for interpretation. Her bold fearlessness is cathartic and very welcome.
Miss Blanks takes to the stage as the main support in an eddy of deep, loud bass. When I first saw Miss Blanks at BIGSOUND in 2017, this offshoot of Australian hip-hop thrilled me. The genre was no longer a whitewash of men rhapsodising over a keg in the backyard of summer-long party. Her whip-smart lyrics claiming space and pleasure twist through elaborate, frenetic production, demanding to be listened to. Still a little shaken from being in a car crash on the way to the venue and battling with a restrictively short mic cord, she meets every issue with an irreverent humour. From the audience though, I feel self-conscious in the continued glow of red and yellow house lights kept on for the supports. I couldn’t lose myself to her music like I had in the past, when the dancefloor was darker, and I was less aware of every individual person around me. The set left me looking forward to her next headline show on a packed, sweaty dancefloor.
The audience is plunged into darkness, final house lights down, in anticipation for the headline set. The suspense within silent audience grows almost unbearable, before Montaigne enters. Cerro performs with the physicality of a balletic bouffon clown, every movement playful and bombastic. She wears a wide, white ruff around her neck, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek nod to the inspiration for her moniker, the french renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Her voice cuts through her antics, clear and powerful as ever, an anchor that lets her get away with it all. The audience up front is a mosh of a hundred different bedroom singalongs as she performs her newest album Complex in its entirety.
Mindful changes to the band’s instrumentation mark the peaks and undulations of the album, most notably when Cerro arms herself with an acoustic guitar for “Please You”. Playing solo for the first time in the set, the crowd quietens again by the final line of the first verse, “I step into the shower and try not to feel diminished”; a humble and vulnerable moment.
Cerro’s commentary between songs is thoughtful and highlights strides of artistic and personal growth over the last five years. She speaks about asking for help, building a trustworthy and supportive team around her and breaking up with boys that don’t embrace her inherent goofiness. Before playing “is this all I am good for?” she talks about going to see Nick Cave and feeling so deflated that she’d never be taken as deeply seriously as the spindly, grimdark character before her. “We take you deeply seriously”, yells someone from the rear of the audience, to laughter and approving whoops and applause. Cerro seems abashed and pleased by the heckle, but that’s beside the point. At only twenty-four years old, Montaigne is digging towards the beating heart of her artistry; a playful, generous and exciting journey to witness.
At the end of her set, Cerro announces that the performance had just been recorded for triple j’s Live at the Wireless, set to be broadcast sometime early next year. If you’ve slept on Montaigne like I have, I recommend you watch out for it.