Musician and visual artist Montero catches up with Anthony Carew to discuss the philosophical ideas behind his latest album, 'Performer', his history of wandering the world and the unexpected success of his melancholy cartoons.
When Melbourne expat Bjenny Montero was recording his second LP as Montero — in Mark Ronson’s London studios, with Jay Watson of Gum/Pond/Tame Impala — there was a keyboard in the studio called a ‘Performer’. Performer became the name of the album, Montero’s follow-up to his 2013 debut, The Loving Gaze.
“It sounded perfect,” Montero offers, of the title. “It sounded cool in a dumb way. But then it had so many resonances, so much meaning... Life is, at this point, just non-stop performing. I’m performing, everyone’s performing, we’re all performing. From the moment you get up, you’re performing on social media, you’re performing at your job, you’re performing going to get some lunch from the shop. On stage, I’m performing at playing the pop singer. I’m performing that, but I am that.”
A lot has happened in the five years between Montero albums. Chiefly, the artist — born and raised in Melbourne’s Inner North — ended up living in Athens, in the city’s famed ‘anarchist’ neighbourhood, Exarcheia. How did he find himself on the other side of the world, in a country where he doesn’t speak the language? “I ask myself that every day,” Montero says, with a laugh. “It was kind of an accident.”
This ‘accident’ was the result of Montero packing up all his stuff, and hitting the road. He’d been the opposite of a wanderer, having never been on a plane ’til he was 30. But Montero was getting restless in his hometown, especially as a, um, performer. “I had no desire to play live, at all, anymore,” he admits. “It’s boring being in rehearsal rooms. I played everywhere I wanted to play in Australia. It didn’t feel new or challenging to me anymore.”
"Life is, at this point, just non-stop performing."
And, so, shelving plans for his life-and-death-of-Adriana-Xenides concept album, and disbanding his all-star Melburnian backing-band, Montero wandered, with his sideline in comic art becoming a legit way of earning a crust. “I had arrived at the point where I found I could make money from drawing, for the first time ever. So, I thought: ‘Why waste that money on rent? Why not just go travel?’” he recounts. And, so, without any specific goal in mind, Montero set out travelling around Europe. He was on his way to the Greek Islands when he first landed in Athens. It took “about half-an-hour” for him to decide to stay.
Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter
Obviously inspired by this travelling, Performer matches its study of, um, performing, with a motif of airline travel. Whilst it seems like a riff on the old-fashioned glamour of the jet age, Montero came to the theme more sincerely. “I wasn’t thinking about the past, it seemed pretty current to me,” he says. “Spending years in airports and on planes, travelling, I was feeling lost and like I was looking for something. I was so excited to be seeing the world, carefree and with no responsibilities, seeing where I could live, what I could do, who I could be.”
What he’s done is become an increasingly-high-profile illustrator, his cartoons — which marry cute anthropomorphic-animal images to a feeling of melancholy and loneliness — proliferating online. But they don’t just end up retweeted: countless people have, now, gotten tattoos of Montero cartoons (especially his famous ‘It’s Ok To Feel Lonely’ and ‘It’s So Nice To Lie Down’ panels). “It’s intense, the response,” Montero admits. “It’s something that I never could’ve imagined, I’m still processing a lot of it. I’ve been drawing my whole life. But, now, I’ll do a doodle, and someone’s got it tattooed on themselves an hour later… I get all these messages from people telling me all about their struggles in life, their darkest times, things that are happening.”
This connection seems a natural result, given that Montero, in his wandering years, felt more of an impetus to reach out through art. “I’ve spent so much time alone over the past three or four years: by myself in hotels, airports, walking along trails, in strange cities,” he says. “I had to create my own group of characters that were like my friends and family, and pour all the emotion that I had into that. It’s, first and foremost, been therapy for me. But, I’ve also felt a big need to communicate.”