The laid bare, stark emotion of country music doesn’t seem like the ideal bedfellow for references to Robbie Williams, Anna Nicole Smith, Gaelic football and Marian Keyes, but welcome to the world of CMAT.
Describing herself in her Twitter bio as a “global celebrity teen pop sensation”, Dublin-born Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson first gained attention from Irish music stations with ‘Another Day (kfc)’, a relatable tune about crying in a chicken shop over a failed relationship. That humour is a continuing theme on the 26-year-old’s debut album, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead, which Thompson describes as “if XTC was writing for The Nolans” and “the Nolans were making that record with Glen Campbell, which would go on to be covered by Paris Hilton.”
But in between the jokes and pop-culture references, Thompson offers searing insights into loneliness and prioritising the sesh over stability, a country twang that’s as comfortable on a disco pop song as it is on a searing ballad, and some of the most engaging songwriting out there right now. Having hit No. 1 on the Irish album charts and taken the CMAT experience everywhere from Leeds to Nashville, it’s starting to look like that self-assigned Twitter bio is the real deal.
For the uninitiated, how would you describe CMAT in one sentence?
Really fun, but with a lot of heart.
How long was the process of putting the album together; was it years in the making or an entirely new concept?
In some ways, the album was in the making for a very long time, but I think that will be the case for every single album I make. There’s always going to be things knocking around for years that took a while to come to fruition. But in terms of the album concept and the arrangement and writing, it was a really quick turnaround. I went away for a month in January 2021 and I wrote two or three songs that were brand new; one of them was ‘No More Virgos’, which I wrote from scratch. Then it was recorded in April, mastered and delivered by August. It was a really quick album to make, but I think that’s because I’ve written so much for so long and there’s been so many things bubbling away on the back burner. I’m a good enough songwriter at this point to know when something is ready and something isn’t ready, and what goes together and what doesn’t. I had enough songs for six albums if I wanted to, but I didn’t do that because it would have been terrible.
There’s a clear country influence on the record. When did that love affair begin?
I’ve been trying to pinpoint this for a while now. When I was a kid, growing up in Dublin, Johnny Cash was a god. And then the Walk the Line film came out — which, I will go on record saying, [is] one of the worst biopics in the world but one of the best films. I fucking love that film. I was in love with the soundtrack and loved Johnny Cash and June Carter. Then I heard all of Dolly Parton at, like, 11. She was described to me when I was quite young and I was like, ‘Yeah. I’m on board.’ It’s just been a slow burn, it’s the genre I always seem to come back to.
“I just do what I like. Whatever I’m into at that moment is the music I’m gonna make”— CMAT
There’s plenty of songs on the album that could have listeners thinking you’re a country artist, but then there’s full-blown pop songs, too. Do you think of yourself as an artist in a certain genre?
I think the way I’ve been working sounds simple, but not a lot of artists remember to do it — I just do what I like. Whatever the thing I’m into at that moment in time is the music I’m gonna make, or the kind of thing I try to emulate. I have such a wide variety of influences I take from, and I think the connecting factor is me and the songwriting. That’s why I can go from a song like ‘Geography Teacher’ to ‘No More Virgos’ on the same record — they belong together because I’m writing them and I’m singing them. No one song is ever going to be a direct rip of any one genre. Like, ‘No More Virgos’ has a lot of Charley Pride things on it, even though it’s a disco song. I’ll literally be like, ‘I want to make a song that sounds like the verse of this one song by Pentangle, with a chorus like a Kelly Clarkson song,’ and I’ll just do that. There’s no point pigeonholing myself because people can see through it — fans are very perceptive. If I think something is the coolest thing on the planet, I should just do that and I don’t need to worry about always doing cowboy shit. Like, I’ve got really into Bob Fosse lately.
So we’re going to see a CMAT Chicago album?
I keep telling people the second album will be Bob Fosse meets Gillian Welch. I think I can do it! This is what I mean — if I’m enjoying myself, I think other people will enjoy it.
There’s a lot of pop culture references and humour in your songs, followed by the saddest thing you’ve ever heard. Do you find it difficult merging the two?
It comes very easy to me to say something really dark and then be like, “Bleh!” Me and all my friends will just be in conversation saying the saddest things ever, then making funny faces at each other. Like, “Wow, I really think that I’m not getting what I want from life…” [pulls face].
There’s also a lot of Irish references in there. Does your Irishness have much of an influence on your songwriting?
It’s not a conscious thing. But because I spent all of my time in Ireland up until a couple of years ago, all my references are going to be Irish and I’m not going to apologise for that. I won’t generalise my references to appeal to an American audience or whatever — if they like it, they’ll just learn what it is. Fiona Apple is always singing about things I don’t know, and then I’ll fall down a Wikipedia hole reading about it. But as much as my Irishness influences me, I won’t apologise for making references that aren’t Irish. A lot of people gave out to me over the Waitrose lyric. I’m sorry, I lived in Manchester for two years!
Do you have a favourite song on the album?
It changes all of the time, but I’m particularly proud of ‘Peter Bogdanovich’, because it’s just so weird and still successfully catchy. And I’m really proud of ‘Lonely’, because at every single live show, I’ll sing the chorus and the entire crowd sings backup.
“All my references are going to be Irish and I’m not going to apologise for that. I won’t generalise my references to appeal to an American audience or whatever – if they like it, they’ll just learn what it is”— CMAT
Have you still been writing on tour or have you allowed yourself to soak up the first album?
Oh, no, I don’t do that. Sure, I was writing the second album while I was writing the first album. I get really snappy when I can’t write songs. If there’s too much touring or press or whatever and I haven’t got time to write, I become really irritable and agitated. You can do press and promotion for days, you can have the best press team in the world, the most money, you can be the skinniest, most attractive 13-year-old or whatever it is the music industry wants, and it doesn’t matter a flying fuck if you don’t have songs that mean something and will connect with people. And the only way you can have those songs is spending time by yourself and figuring out what it is that’s affecting you and writing from an honest place.
So do you see yourself as a songwriter first and a pop star second?
I’m a songwriter and being a pop star serves the songs well. In an ideal world, if I could write the songs I’ve written and give them to somebody to perform and do the touring, I would — but I also know that nobody can perform or sell or platform the songs in a way that is as good as I can. I’m always just trying to serve the songs in the best way possible. I’m a little bitch for my songs.
You put a lot of effort into the visuals, from your videos to your record artwork. How important is that side of things?
I think the visuals are as important as the songs. The two have to marry each other. You can have an amazing song, and then it doesn’t have a music video, or the video is just [singing] “I’m sitting against a studio backdrop, and I’ve got a ring light on, and I’m being sexy”… Listen, don’t get me wrong, it’s very important to be sexy at all times, I do it constantly. But I think if you can get visuals that are inspired by the music and there’s stuff that looks like how the music sounds, you just can’t beat it. A great example of that is — not to blow smoke up their holes — Fontaines D.C.’s album rollout. The visuals are just insane, and they’re on their third album and they’ve just hit their stride. It actually stresses me out how much I already love this record. I’ll be very happy to lose the Choice Music Prize to them next year. I’d be kind of raging if I won over them.
Taken from the June/July 2022 of Rolling Stone UK. Buy it here.
CMAT plays the Tous stage at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival on June 10.