“It’s something that I’ve always done, but before – while I didn’t deny that pain – I was slightly more ignorant to it,” says Montgomery, who has been spending lockdown with her partner and drummer, Michael Mormecha, in her studio just outside of Belfast. “I realised how powerful it is, to be able to transform sadness or anger into something healing.”
This is demonstrated in early releases such as 2019’s ‘Tree Song (Branch Out And Nourish My Veins)’. The song was written about her mother, who died when Montgomery was 16 years old. Her lyrics manage to feel universal while remaining intensely personal and composed alongside woozy, Seventies-inspired guitar licks and a chorus delivered like a mantra. “Performing it takes a lot of energy,” Montgomery admits.
Whilst on her explosive single ‘Dangerous’, with its swooning, shivery strings and plucks of acoustic guitar, she channels Patti Smith and Anna Calvi with her ghostly howls, weathered by years of busking the streets around Northern Ireland.
The songs on her debut EP, Intangible, represent an artist who won’t shy away from her feelings, but also one who doesn’t attempt to oversimplify experiences that are deeply complex, or profound. “These songs still have a lot of pain,” Montgomery says, “but they’re lighter. I actually feel like I’ve let go of a lot of things in the past year, and that’s had a big influence on my writing.”
‘Intangible’, which is the title track and was the first single to be released from the EP, is a shimmering work of Nineties-influenced alternative rock with with its squalls of guitar feedback lifted by bright, fluttering synths. Mixed by Australian producer Kyran Daniels (Greta Ray), the song is sun-drenched and uplifting, despite the central themes of mental health. “My mum struggled with depression for years and I lost her to suicide,” Montgomery explains, noting the track’s opening reference to butterflies. “She was mesmerised by their growth and beauty, and while she couldn’t do that herself, I find it amazing that she could still admire that trait in others.”
As you’d expect in such a personal song, every word has meaning, from the butterflies to Montgomery’s devastating delivery of, “You wanted to stay here/ But you just couldn’t keep those invaders away.” Yet coursing through the song’s veins is the life-affirming reminder that our loved ones stay with us in the singing of birds and rivers that will continue to flow, “Whether you’re above or buried below.”
“Even if someone isn’t there, you can still feel their presence,” Montgomery says. “One day, I was watching the sun go down and I could feel the presence of my mum in the sunset. There were all these moments that led to writing this song, which is about realising the person you love will always be with you.”
She says of the themes of mental health in her music, “I want to tell people that it’s OK to feel a certain way. You might feel happy one day, then the next day you might feel like shit, and that’s alright. We need more songwriters doing that, addressing mental health. It is getting better, but I think depression is still quite a taboo subject, especially in music.”
Like so many great artists who came before her, Montgomery finds inspiration in less obvious places adding, “Before I even listened to rock or mainstream music, I was very much into classical Indian music, meditation chants… I’m a big fan of [Indian sitar player and composer] Anoushka Shankar.”
It was Montgomery’s mother who was her biggest champion when it came to her music career, since early childhood growing up in County Antrim. “She used to drag me around all these singing competitions when I was about eight,” she recalls, laughing. She would perform covers by Miley Cyrus, herself an underrated edgy singer, and an artist who clearly continues to impact her today. Yet among Montgomery’s biggest contemporary influences are Alanis Morissette and Sharon Van Etten, the latter whom she discovered while both artists were performing at Glastonbury Festival last year.
Montgomery delivers a powerhouse rendition of ‘Jupiter’, from Van Etten’s critically acclaimed 2019 album Remind Me Tomorrow; over celestial synth beats that orbit around stark piano notes and dramatic drum rhythms, she utters banshee wails redolent of Siouxsie Sioux.
It’s not just the music itself, either – Montgomery has a creative ethos that shines through in everything she does, from her Boudica-style war paint to the Bjork-inspired video for ‘Intangible’. “I write quite visually,” she says. “Obviously, it’d be great to have big budgets to create things with, but in a way, lockdown and other limitations have really pushed me creatively.” The ‘Intangible’ video, then, was filmed in a junkyard behind Montgomery’s recording studio and encompasses the song’s themes of life and death while exploring the duality of the individual. “There’s my internal person,” she explains, “and the external representation of myself – the one I show other people.”
She cites Sia’s stunning delivery on early cut ‘Breathe Me’ as one of the greatest influences for her song ‘Anywhere’, which was co-written with Mormecha. Yet there are also traces of Fleetwood Mac in the characterful, propulsive bassline, and of Sheryl Crow’s soaring rock twang, which is full of emotion and grit.
‘Old Photographs’ (also co-written with Mormecha) shows her mastering the piano ballad with great subtlety and nuance. “[Michael] took the ideas I had in my head and made them real,” she says of her songwriting partnership. As the beat kicks in, so to does the song’s core theme, “Nostalgia, the perfect mix of good and bad / The pain and the beauty of looking back at what you had” she adds.
Listeners may express surprise at the maturity and assuredness of Montgomery’s sound, but she hopes her experiences won’t be written off on account of her youth. “When anybody experiences anything, whether they’re five or ninety-five, the emotions are always the same,” she says. Usually, she avoids mentioning her age altogether citing that “People tend to put a label on you, then, and it can really affect the way they respond to the music.”
One thing is certain, Montgomery is not going to compromise her art for anyone – perhaps why you can so easily picture her single ‘Intangible’ making an impact on both Radio 1 and Radio 6 Music. This is a unique artist who is setting out with purpose, and a clear vision for how she wishes to present her music, something that will surely appeal to everyone.
“I want my music to provide a real insight into my character, my history, my influences – whether they be musical or just experiences,” she says. “For people to know what’s behind it… that’s really important to me.”
Montgomery can rest easy knowing her four-track EP is as clear a statement as any artist could hope for. Few debut projects are as assured or accomplished as this.