Australia’s ‘Eurovision’ 2021 representative Montaigne: “Performance is a way to escape”

Ahead of the first semifinal of the long-delayed extravaganza, the maximalist musician talks vocal training and ‘Technicolour’, her entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest

Tomorrow, Montaigne reaches a long-delayed milestone in her protracted Eurovision journey: the 25-year-old singer will represent Australia in the first semi-final of the annual song contest, which airs on SBS from May 19-23.

While Montaigne won’t be travelling to host city Rotterdam for this year’s extravaganza – which was rescheduled from 2020 – the Sydney singer is still in high spirits. And so she should be: the contender has a powerful story to share.

Detailing queer teen superheroes, her entry ‘Technicolour’ exudes the playfulness Eurovision has become known for over its 65-year history. Her heart-on-her-sleeve performance, pre-recorded for Eurovision, looks to sit strong alongside the contest’s more emotionally searing entrants, such as Manizha’s moving anthem ‘Russian Woman’.

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‘Technicolour’, which was co-written with Sydney-based producer Dave Hammer, showcases Montaigne’s seemingly ever-expanding vocal range, drawing inspiration from Rina Sawayama’s new album ‘Sawayama’ and “the Cha-Cha Slide, basically”, Montaigne tells NME over the phone between infectious laughter.

Montaigne spoke to NME about what motivated her to represent a queer vigilante group in ‘Technicolour’, the artists who inspired her vocal training while in lockdown, and what she sees as the role of Eurovision – which draws a yearly viewership of roughly 180million people – in a global pandemic.

Montaigne Australia Eurovision Song Contest 2021 interview
Courtesy of SBS

I read that you’d been pushing your voice while in lockdown last year in preparation for Eurovision. What did that push look like for you?

“I think it was just singing more. I don’t think I’ve ever been the kind of person who’s practised regularly or practised much at all. I was just never trained and didn’t have the memory, the instinct or the regimen for it.

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“I paid close attention to singers I admired, to the different techniques they use and the ways that they sound, and tried to emulate them, seeing if I could sort of acquire those techniques. Someone I tried to [emulate] was Sílvia Pérez Cruz; she’s a beautiful Catalonian singer and songwriter who does very technical flamenco-style singing. And Aldous Harding as well – I love her songs; she has a very peculiar way of using her voice from song to song.”

You’ve said ‘Technicolour’ is about a “queer teen vigilante group” made up of superheroes. Do you remember growing up with references to queer friendship in pop culture?

“I mean, not in pop culture. I used to read queer fan-fiction. I grew up with Kim Possible, Winx Club, Totally Spies! and Mary-Kate And Ashley In Action!. And I feel like as a young girl – and I mean ‘girl’ in the way that society dictates ‘girl’ – you get a lot of those mediums growing up. I think I resented it for a while because it’s like: oh, is that the only thing that girls are supposed to be interested in? But now I’m like: look, there are obviously flaws and limitations to the way we are taught to be girls and women growing up, but, at the same time, I do really love that medium. I’m very nostalgic for it. Even like Charlie’s Angels. I mean, we get it as well in pop music with Destiny’s Child and The Spice Girls, and there’s a new cool girl group that I really like called Boys World and there’s BLACKPINK.

“I really loved that idea of a bunch of friends making things together and like, fighting bad guys together. I use the word ‘queer’ because I wanted it to be inclusive of people that weren’t just cis-hetero women, and all those [girl] groups are just cis-hetero women, as far as we can all tell. I think it’s far more interesting to me to have diverse representation in the group.”

“Timeless stories like Shakespeare or Chekhov are important, but they often preclude the inclusion of specific ethnic and cultural issues”

Why do you think that’s important to you?

“This is somewhat tangential, but I went to a play called Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner a few nights ago, which was really great and the cast is literally just two people: one is a lesbian black woman and one’s a straight black woman, and they’re both cisgender. But the whole show is about colourism and queerness and racism, and it was so good. My friend and I came out of the play together, and she was like, ‘Man, like, I don’t understand what the case against having people of colour in theatre and cinema and stuff is.’

“It is just more interesting to have more diverse stories on the stage because you just get the same Shakespeare or the same Chekhov over and over again, or whatever. They’re just like, so boring [laughs]. I know they’re timeless stories and they’re important, but they often preclude the inclusion of specific ethnic and cultural issues, and I just don’t think omitting those things from our cultural lexicon is interesting or healthy for a society. So that’s what my thinking behind including the word ‘queer’ to the group was [driven by].”

“I’m not particularly fond of the nationalism of Eurovision, even though I understand it’s integral to the whole thing”

What do you see as the role of entertainers in a global event like Eurovision at a time where there’s all this economic and bodily fragility being felt throughout the pandemic?

“Performance offers story, and often a human story, even if it is, like, far-fetched or fantastical or nonsensical. And I think that really fills in people’s sense of self, and ‘self’ in the context of a broader humanity. Performance is a way to escape, obviously: you can focus on someone else’s expression for a minute and be entertained and distracted by it. But I think on a deeper level all theatre, performance, drag, anything is a way to inspire delight and a feeling of belonging because ultimately the people performing are the same as you: they’re people. And I think it’s really important and powerful for those stories and those emotions to be told and expressed during a pandemic, in whatever way.

“I mean, it’s the same thing as everyone binging Netflix or whatever during the pandemic: you just needed entertainment, you might have needed to be occupied and needed stories. And performances are more bite-sized, depending on the thing; like each individual unit of performance, each country is a bite-sized thing, but part of a broader show that tells a story of unity and a celebration of the different ways that… I don’t want to say that a national identity can be expressed, because I’m not particularly fond of the nationalism of Eurovision, even though I understand it’s integral to the whole thing. [laughs] But [each performance] is the expression of a person and all of their diversity coming from a certain country and bringing that to the stage. I think it’s important to do and to see.”

Eurovision will be broadcasted on SBS and SBS On Demand from May 19-23. The first semifinal airs May 19 at 5am AEST and will be reaired May 21 at 8.30pm AEST

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