Montaigne On Creating, Capitalism and Consciousness

“I want to create art forever, and in the world of capitalism, that means I need to make money off of it,” Montaigne tells Syrup.

It’s a deceptively simple statement, from the Sydney-based artist and singer. It hides so many qualifiers, contexts and challenges that anyone staring down the barrel of their artistic compulsions has to grapple with. Namely, how to live with them.

From the outside, it looks like Montaigne is already set. The 25-year-old can tick an ARIA Award, multiple sold-out tours, and triple j chart success for, *checks notes*, most of her discography off the career bucket list. That’s not even touching on Eurovision.

But it’s always more complicated than external markers of success—and Montaigne is not one to shy from singing about it. In her 2019 album Complex, she dives deep into themes that feel all the more prescient now: feeling isolated, losing your sense of self and the messy journey of trying to step back into yourself.

It’s at once confessional and exultatory, with a theatrical-vulnerable sound that has shades of MARINA about it. Of course, Montaigne is aiming even higher, listing David Bowie and Prince as a couple of her musical North Stars. That said, when musing about the intersections between art, fame and influence she’s “almost certain both Prince and David Bowie as young men tweeting would have been ‘cancelled’.”

Slippery misinterpretation is something she has had brushes with on the Free Website, too. “It was just so strange how quickly it happened and how little leniency there was, but there were a handful of people who understood my experience and so spoke up on my behalf,” explains the singer. Human experience, from the mundane to the mythical, is a throughline that traces itself through Montaigne’s work. She’s someone who’s been tapped into the personal-political long before the upsurge in anti-racism conversations that’s characterised much of this year. In the same breath that she acknowledges her privileges (being cisgendered and someone who commands an audience for streaming Tony Hawk), we’d slide in to say Montaigne also occupies a couple of intersections: queer and in a heterosexual-passing relationship; Filipino and white passing.

Ahead of the release of her song ‘Warmest Wizard,’ which you can listen to on the Bonds Bloody Comfy Period Undies Unplugged Spotify collection, Syrup spoke with Montaigne about the messy and beautiful project of being a human being.

First off, hi, how are you, can you tell us where you’re based (if it’s changed due to the pandemic) and what you’re up to at the moment?

I’m well! I’m based in Sydney. I’m mostly doing lots of writing and creative work, streaming little Ableton sessions and playing video games on Twitch, gardening, hanging out with my boyfriend and my friends, and playing soccer.

How has this year felt for you? How has it been seeing something of an ‘activist consciousness’ awakening in a lot of people as a politically engaged person yourself?

I feel lucky because my material reality is really detached from a lot of the suffering we’ve been seeing in major press this year. I, an Australian 25-year-old cisgendered woman who is self-employed and has lots of social and cultural capital living in the inner west of Sydney have not directly experienced trauma via the pandemic or black lives matter civil rights movement or anything else that’s gone down. The hardest thing I have to go through is to watch these things happening, empathise with the pain, and not feel useful enough because there’s not substantial much I can do about them.

It’s nice to see people develop consciousness, it’s a sign that people’s empathy receptors do indeed work. Me and my boyfriend (who works in political activism) have both started to feel though that social media is not really the way to change the world, not on a structural level. It’s bittersweet because at least statements and resources and info shared on social media mean people are getting educated about the injustices of the world and how in fact changeable they are (and of course it’s useful for organising actions and movements) but also it’s one step of quite a great many ones that are more impactful offline. I feel guilty coming to this realisation and not having done many of those offline steps. Some! But not many. I fear I don’t have courage or know-how enough to organise grassroots actions but I hope to just take the plunge once I figure out where I’m best applied. One step for everyone is good though. All journeys are one step at a time. And the thing is I think there are probably a bunch of people who discover this information online and then apply themselves to mutual aid or volunteering for community support or activist groups and that’s sick. So positives and negatives! As there are with everything in life.

How do you think about your identity, personally? Have you faced any challenges as a result of your identity?

I had a queer friend who modelled an utter lack of shame about their queerness to me and I think that set me up more or less for success with regard to pride in my queer identity. I probably have some internalised homophobia having been raised Catholic and my parents having taken a bit of time to get used to the idea of queerness as acceptable but I’m fairly aware of it and don’t think that’s a struggle. There are other things that have happened in my life that really interfere with my sense of self and self-esteem sometimes, but again I’ve developed self-awareness and an emotional skill set that allows me to manage it okay.

I think my ethnicity has made me different from some white friends and peers re: cultural norms and habits and behaviours but not in a way that has ostracised me. I’m white-passing (as is my mum, all the rest of her family are brown Filipinos) and feel quite lucky that I’ve never experienced race-based discrimination.

Have you felt any pandemic productivity pressure, and do you think your creativity or music-making have been affected?

Nah. I am too aware of the workings of capitalism to feel guilty about that shit anymore. My creativity was definitely affected at the beginning—I didn’t feel like doing anything creative. The turning point was when I did a performance at the Art Gallery of NSW—playing with my pianist live for seven people was the adrenaline rush I needed for me to feel passionate about my craft again. I think the pandemic has been ironically quite good for me actually because it’s given me time and literal groundedness enough to think about what I want from my art career and life and it’s stirred up some great and useful realisations about the path I want to take and how I want to take it. I’ve also, of course, had so much time to listen to lots of music and absorb new art.

You’ve spoken before about wanting to become an icon in the footsteps of those you admire like, Prince and David Bowie. How do you think about the intersections of fame, art and influence?

Yes…interesting question. I want to create art forever, and in the world of capitalism, that means I need to make money off of it. I, fortunately, have an interest in pop music, which is accessible listening for a lot of people, and music that is listened to by many people ensues in the creator of the music becoming influential to those many and famous to anyone who might dither into its orbit. An interesting situation for someone who doesn’t want the trappings of fame. Even more interesting for the artist that doesn’t make “popular” work and so can’t do art full-time.

What I dislike about the intersection of fame, art and influence is that in order to commit yourself to your artistic practice you have to achieve a certain level of fame and influence. Which is usually the opposite of what the artist wants, and if the artist thinks they want that it usually ends up distorting their lives or themselves in a way. And it’s not the fame or influence themselves that do the distorting! As if either of those things or objects that the individual interacts with. It’s all the small decisions you have to make along the way, or are forced or coerced to make. It’s all the people you have to show up for, all the people you might let down. And the artist is a solitary creature. A sensitive one. Well, I am. I find it difficult to feel like I have to impress people anew every time I put out a piece of work. I just want to do the work and be curious and explore material and sound in the way I find interesting and exciting and meaningful. And of course I can! But with fame and influence comes the expectation that I “represent” a body other than myself or that I be a role model to others when—not necessarily me, but other artists—might not be the best for that. The idea of imperative exemplariness of the famous artist or just person is really unrealistic but you kind of have to be, because the public is watching. Strange stuff!

Do you ever ponder the erosion of the distance between artists and fans because of social media? (Like… how would we feel if we had a catalogue of Prince’s tweets.) If so, how do you navigate that?

I don’t often ponder it but now that you’ve mentioned it I’m almost certain both Prince and David Bowie as young men tweeting would have been “cancelled”. Twitter is a strange one because you’re never just posting to your audience. I’ve enjoyed Twitch streaming because the stream is very clearly owned by and “curated” by me, and so I draw audiences that enjoy what I am putting down. Anyone who doesn’t or who wants to troll or be rude is warned that that is not tolerable behaviour and if they don’t stop then you can very easily ban them from the chat. And because of these moderation tools I now have a Discord server where I very directly interact with my fans via instant message and it’s kind of awesome. I really like these people and of course they really like me. That component — the feeling that you’re connecting with someone like-minded and who really appreciates you as an artist is really great.

I dislike the ability for what you’re posting online to be taken out of context or not empathised with because you are a stranger to the people your content is appearing to. I recently had an odd experience with another artist and their fans in this regard. I don’t begrudge them of anything at all. It was just so strange how quickly it happened and how little leniency there was, but there were a handful of people who understood my experience and so spoke up on my behalf (I immediately fully retreated from Twitter when it happened). I don’t think those people would have gotten so fired up or been put on the offensive if they knew the themes I explored in my music and online writing but they didn’t, and perhaps they’re not the kind of people who sympathise with those themes, and that’s fine. Those sociocultural borderlines were just crossed for a bit and it resulted in something socially very interesting.

You’ve recently started streaming on Twitch as a partner, how has that been?

It’s been amazing! I love it so much. I love the liveness of it. I don’t like the performativity of social media, and of course on Twitch there’s still a level of performance but it’s impossible to edit. You have to improvise and I love improvisation. I love watching someone act with the potential to fail and then have to recover in their own unique way if they do fail, and I love having a safe space to try that in. And you know, when I say “fail” I don’t mean like, “use a slur” or “be an offensive dickhead”, I mean like stutter or make a musical mistake or create something that sounds like shyte in front of people. Humanising creative process and an artist’s finished product. I think my fans really appreciate that too. It also rules having rapport with them and hosting a space where they can develop a lexicon and a lore for the community organically. It’s so very wholesome and meaningful.

Do you have a favourite medium for connecting with people (either with fans or just with pals)? (Digital or tea ceremonies/postcards etc)

I love playing group video games (or board games or D&D)! Some of them are a real laugh and give great insight into people on a real deep level I think, if you can read between the lines of the decisions they make and the things they find funny or interesting, or how they react to outcomes from the game. I also love making food with people. And like I said, my Discord server is a wonderful place to share all kinds of things with fans.

How would you (a human) try to describe Eurovision to cordyceps (the mushroom)?

Not possible, mushrooms are not linguistically capable beings. Now, try to anthropomorphise cordyceps to Eurovision, and you’ve got a bangin’ track.

What are the three self-care habits/products/things/Tik Toks that are keeping you level right now?

I’ve gotten back into meditation via the app Headspace and that’s been really good! I’m generally quite good at emotion regulation but I have serious triggers that wild me out so meditation is good practice for trying to get back to centre in those moments.

I’ve got my period right now and I’m wearing the Bonds Bloody Comfy Period Undies and I gotta say, they’re pretty comfy. I started bleeding heavily last night and couldn’t be bothered with sanitary products because period cramps had really messed me up so I took a chance on wearing just the undies in bed and I woke up and there was no leaking or anything. My partner even spooned me without reporting wetness. Such a godsend when you are feeling physically wrung out.

Gardening is just the best. I love weeding and planting new seeds into trays and watering things routinely. Watching new flowers bloom and little seedlings peak their new heads from the soil. Lovely.

Do you think we can learn to be unapologetically, wholly and happily ourselves? How does one uh… do that?

Hm. Yes? I feel that I’m that, maybe not fully unapologetically but I definitely feel whole and happy generally. I still have big moments of struggle. I don’t think the moments of struggle go away. I think they’re kind of necessary. But it’s possible to develop the ability to manage everything better. I think that potential is in all of us but of course, if we turn to an intersectional view it is much harder for some than others. Short answer is: yes, it’s possible, but that possibility is inflected with markers of class and race and genetic history all sorts of things.

What are you looking forward to right now? What upcoming music/art/cutie Twitch streams should we keep an eye out for from yourself?

My Bonds Unplugged song ‘Warmest Wizard’ goes out with the campaign at 7 pm on September 11th on Bonds’ social platforms and I’m excited to be able to put out a new song! Especially this one which I think is really cute. It’s like a first taste of the kind of writing I’ve been doing these past few months, which is human experience as refracted through the prism of fantasy and nature. I haven’t heard any of the others’ songs yet, they’re going out on Spotify under the album title Unplugged so I’ll probably cop a listen when that goes live.

Monisha Rudhran (@monishamay) is a writer and chronic Pisces. Formerly at Syrup, she's now a Digital Content Producer at ELLE and marie claire Australia. She’s into trying to be a better person and sparkling water.