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Meeting Montaigne

Victoria Zerbst met a rising star.

A face stood out from the Triple J Hit List.

“Montaigne is the stage name of 2012 Unearthed High finalist Jessica Cerro.”

Even with the cosmos spread across her head and her lavish pop vocals, she seemed familiar. Labelled one of the ‘10 best Unearthed discoveries this year’, she is also a first year University of Sydney student.

Jessica Cerro is living a double life – one half student, and one half budding pop star. The foundation for Cerro’s double life came early. “I started writing music when I was ten years old but it was really amateur super basic stuff,” she says.

Cerro continued to write music throughout high school, but her real aspirations lay elsewhere – hoping that playing soccer at an elite level would take her to an Ivy League University. It was only when her parents suggested adding one of the songs she’d written to one of her player highlights reels that she even considered recording her music.

Hoping to make her submission stand out from the crowd, she worked on her song with an amateur producer and, instead of a soccer video, produced a stand-out song. On the back of this success, her mother became her manager, secured her a publicist, and soon found a producer. Her double life as Montaigne had begun.

Cerro is professional and thoughtful when speaking about her music career. She spent two years working and securing an environment in which she could create the sound she wanted. With all the paperwork taken care of, she now focuses on writing and performing.

In a music industry based on self-promotion, social media, and endless live performances, this pure musical focus is refreshing. And, even without any live gigs under her belt, Cerro is building a wide following. Radio stations as far flung as the USA and Argentina are already starting to play her music. As a USyd French major, she hopes to eventually re-write her EP in French to appeal to an even broader audience.

According to Cerro, everything she reads, hears, and sees influences her creative process. Her stage name is borrowed from the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne. The National and Lisa Mitchell inspire her introspective, vulnerable song lyrics, and the production of her EP channels aspects of Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, and Bjork.

The result is a sound with strong pop melodies, layers of diverse textures, and innovative uses of instrumentation. Cerro’s powerful raw vocals soar over a detailed and embellished harmony.

Her songs, she says, are the result of stream of consciousness creation meeting intensive and meticulous production. “I’ve always just come up with melodies and written lyrics to go with them,” Cerro explains. The songs receive an injection of informed textual flair in the studio, giving them their “ethereal, surreal, and worldly feel”.

Cerro still works at a newsagency on Broadway to help fund her career. But financial strain doesn’t constrain her creativity.

“Money would be the hardest thing otherwise it would all be smooth sailing. Being an artist you have to know there is not much in it.”

Cerro is about to engage in a series of firsts – she’s currently awaiting the release of her debut EP called Life of Montaigne, the release of her first video clip, and her first step into live performance. For an average USyd student, this sounds intimidating, but when we say goodbye and Cerro walks confidently away in a long black skirt and combat boots, she looks ready for whatever her future holds.