Montaigne, ‘Stray Gods’ and the Making of a Grammy-Nominated Game Soundtrack

Montaigne, ‘Stray Gods’ and the Making

This year’s Grammy Awards hit different.

When the golden gramophones were handed out Sunday in Los Angeles (Feb. 4), female artists swept the Big Four awards, with Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Victoria Monét and Miley Cyrus among the champs.

Australian artists had an embarrassment of riches, as Kylie Minogue and Tommy Emmanuel and others nabbing trophies.

Ratings were up. Armchair critics loved it. 

Montaigne was amongst it. The ARIA Award-winning art pop performer and Twitch streamer was nominated for their work on “Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical” with Austin Wintory, the American composer for film and video games, and musical trio Tripod, one of five titles shortlisted for best score soundtrack for video games and other interactive media.

Ultimately, Stephen Barton and Gordy Haab collected the goods for “Star Wars Jedi: Survivor.” The 28-year-old Sydney artist (real name Jessica Cerro) now proudly adds a Grammy nom to a healthy, and growing, collection of honours which includes the ARIA for breakthrough artist category (now the Michael Gudinski breakthrough artist) in 2016, and the distinction of representing Australia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2021, becoming the first artist to deliver their performance from Down Under — thanks to the pandemic.

Montaigne is a rare kind of artist, one who works well alone and with others, including David Byrne on “Always Be You,” in a room full of gawping fans, or in the comforts of a bedroom.

Variety Australia caught up with Montaigne for a walk through on their Grammy-nominated project, the process, and what’s next.

Variety Australia: How did the project come about?

Montaigne: Working on “Stray Gods” was probably the best possible first-time experience one could have working on a video game. Austin is a consummate professional and it was really easy to collaborate.

I did pretty much all the work in my bedroom on an SM58 which I held in my hand hunched over my laptop on the bed – a very low-prod set up but it was all Austin really needed on my end — as long as there was a discernible melody and lyrics.

We did pretty much everything over Zoom or emails with the help of voice memos and it was simple enough to shoot over an idea and get feedback within a few hours or, because of the time zone difference, within the next day’s business hours.

The trickiest bit — probably mostly for Austin — was file management. I’ve never had to hand someone stems or Midi files for their own use and there were a couple times I started recording over piano ideas that Austin had sent me without a set tempo in Ableton. And so if I bounced any of my own ideas in Midi, Austin and his team would have to painstakingly figure out where the notes all sat in time.

Oops. But now I know. And Austin was very patient, thank god.

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What was the magic sauce for this project?
Writing topline for other singers not knowing who they would be. I have a unique voice with specific technical abilities and a specific tone and I find that not all the melodies I write work for other people.

Most of the time I just went, “fuck it, Austin will know what to do with the singers in the room when it comes time to record.” But it’s an interesting consideration, the difference between everyone’s voice.

It’s not even an ability thing, sometimes it’s just how all your articulators are shaped and how that dictates the timbre or range of your voice.

When you’re in a songwriting session for a recording artist, you have a sense of that singer in the room, or if you write a song for pitch like, the song will probably be given to someone the song suits. But for this, you’ve pretty much got a set cast and I still haven’t met any of the people I wrote for in person.

Aside from music, you’ve a keen gamer. What was it like bringing those two worlds together?
The cast of the game is so cool and they’re really massive deals in a world I really care about.

It’s so cool being able to say I was on a project with a bunch of TTRPG and video game big dogs.

I made friends with a lot of the devs too, they’re all profoundly lovely people. And it’s been nice to be able to hang out with them at the various awards shows and game events that we’ve been lucky enough to have nominations or invitations to.

It really is a huge team effort, making a game.

Lots of people involved and everyone has an important place. Being a solo artist I haven’t much worked long-term on a project where there were, like, 15 people all working on the creative or production of a project and I’ve found that I really love it.

It’s far less lonely. The other time I’ve had this kind of opportunity was while working on “Holding Achilles” and being made part of the cast.

Truly one of the best times of my life to be part of a creative family like that.

Yeah, working on “Stray Gods” felt really meaningful in the same way. I imagine though if I were the director or producer on a project of that scale I’d probably be incredibly stressed and hate it.

I’m happy doing the music end of things. Oh that’s the other thing, the level of work Austin and Tripod had to do…absolute madness. I got the longest straw for sure.