CMAT: Freedom to Derail

Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson (CMAT) is my new favourite pop star. Dusting her infectious humour on top of beautifully written tracks tackling some pretty hefty subjects, she embodies what it is to be in your 20s: fumbling through life’s difficulties, making mistakes whilst still desperate to have a good time. Despite obvious difficulties with lack of touring and an inability to physically be anywhere with potential fans, CMAT has still managed to turn heads, sell out all her headline shows and land a Declan McKenna tour support spot.

Spending her time before the CMAT project working primarily co-writing and in bands, she notes her turning point in music was around two years ago, when she received a dressing down from Charli XCX at a songwriting focus group. Ciara was living in Manchester at the time and recalls her mental health was “really, really bad”. Charli is well known for collaborating with her fans throughout the writing process, inviting them to listen to and feed back on tracks in progress. You can hear CMAT’s refreshing candour in her lyrics, and Charli saw something of this at her focus group after she cut through the noise of the other adoring fans, indicating she does, in fact, know her shit about songwriting. Charli called her aside at the end, telling her to move back to Dublin or to London and start taking the music thing seriously.

CMAT’s impressive understanding of popular culture, paired with a love of traditional songwriting, means she comfortably straddles new and old, in her diamante pink cowboy hat. Her most successful track to date ‘I Don’t Really Care For You’ sounds like it has been plucked from the 70s with its full sound and americana guitars – but is teeming with dark humour: “I just spent seven hours looking at old pics of me / Tryna pinpoint where the bitch began / Somewhere after the Passion of Christ / And before I had an Instagram.” Her track ‘I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby!’ – which my neighbours have had the joy of listening to me butcher most mornings since I discovered it – at surface level is a melodic singalong, but as the song progresses a darkness and a yearning is apparent, blanketed in harmonies and ambulatory rhythms. It is fascinating to me how she blends older influences with modern culture; she works to emulate her influences, songwriters such as Dory Previn and the McGarrigle Sisters, but the track title comes from bizarre Vine from several years ago.

Her latest track, ‘2 Wrecked 2 Care’ is an ode to the mania of insomnia, and perhaps CMAT’s most impressive vocal performance to date. She releases this alongside a blissfully bonkers music video which is fast becoming characteristic of CMAT, featuring singing slippers and Dolly Parton herself. There is an impressive understanding of the importance of a visual story to accompany music in order to showcase her identity as an artist, and we couldn’t be more obsessed. I had the pleasure to sit down with the icon herself to discuss the successes and joys in a year filled with misery for musicians.

Let’s start by talking about ‘I Don’t Really Care For You’, which is the first track I heard of yours, and I can see it’s had over a million streams and been played on RTE in Ireland and Radio 6 in the UK. Have you found it difficult to feel the success when you cant really be out meeting people and performing?

A very important aspect of the musical process has been taken away from us which is performance in its purest form, and singing your songs that you’ve written in front of people and seeing how they respond. That’s a very important part of the creative process. I released the song and people seem to like it, then I release the music video and everyone’s like “wow have you seen the music video?!” I’m also more likely listen to a song if I’ve seen a music video for it. But I love finding new music at gigs; hearing a song live and really enjoying it, then wanting to buy it. The only way I can really reach people at the moment is through music videos, and I guess a little bit of radio play. I’m just really excited for live music to come back.

Yeah me too! My flatmate and I recently bought tickets for your Omeara show next April. We listen to you all the time at home. Do you have an idea of what your live show may look like?

Well it’s funny because I have two tours, and I sold tickets for the Irish leg and The Troubadour in London last September and I still haven’t gotten to do those shows. My plan is to do the first set solo, with the guitar and singing. I think people often enjoy it because there’s a lot of freedom to have conversations with people in the middle of the gig. I really enjoy the kind of back and forth with the audience and the freedom to derail the whole thing, to do it with them.

I think I should have a band by Omeara so that will look completely different. Hopefully it will sound good too and there will be freedom to do what I want. I have some like visual ideas for the live stuff that is kind of currently under construction; I don’t want to give it away though but it’s bringing the content to life.  

Are you self-releasing your music at the moment?

Yeah, I’m self-releasing it; I’m not signed but I have a manager and a live agent. Beyond that, it’s pretty much all just me.

Your sound appears to have been plucked straight out of the 70s. Can you tell me a little bit about your influences?

My sound is inspired by the songwriting that I like the most. I’m such a stickler for really classic songwriting; I love like Todd Rundgren, I love Dory Previn, Judy cell. I love a lot of people from the 70s: Gilbert O’Sullivan, The Pointer Sisters. Also, there’s this artist called Lisa Lisa who I love. I love love old music, and not for the way songs are written. It informs the way I want my songs to sound.

In terms of sonics there’s a lot of new artists that I love too – I’m really obsessed with BTS. The lockdown after Christmas in Ireland was really grim it was really, really grim. I was all in like “well, time to get into BTS as I have nothing else to do”. I would have to go for long walks alone so that I could have the freedom to think about BTS. I’d be there like picturing myself like meeting them backstage, Nam June telling me he loves my music. There is so much BTS to get into you can just lose yourself in it, and it was really helpful for me during some of the worst times. I get really intense about my influences. I did that with The Beatles. I was also really, really into Bombay Bicycle Club when I was a teenager.

My god, me too.

My first manager was actually Jamie [MacColl] from the band. I was obsessed; I’ve probably seen them live like 20 times or something and I think they are the best band in the world and you can’t tell me different.

I think it’s very interesting what you’re saying there about your BTS obsession, and how the music helped you through difficult times. I feel like some of your tracks are already doing that for others. Certainly the reason I connected with you music as a 25 year old woman was the cathartic experience singing along to your kind of funny, yet kind of dark lyrics about rejection, anxiety and crying in KFC. How do you so skillfully tow the line between dark and light?

I think it’s my personality, and I also think it’s a very Irish thing – very present in the literature of Dublin writers. We have great culture of finding the humour in death and other miserable topics. John B Keane is a very good example of like an Irish writer who is constantly writing about like that saddest topics. I think there’s something in the Irish psyche that’s kind of like forbids you from stewing on because there’s other things that have to happen. It’s historical trauma, you know, intergenerational. Ireland as a nation as has a lot of very dark horrible things in it’s history. You just kinda just have to keep going, you can’t sit and think about anything for too long, and I feel like that been passed down from generation to generation.

It doesn’t matter if you want to die, we keep trucking, so make a joke out of it and just move on. It’s funny because you’re 25 as well so you’ll understand this : we are the millennial/gen Z cusp where I’m either a really old gen Z or a young millennial. This generation seems to have a really horrible sense of dark humour. I don’t know who isn’t willing to make jokes about their dead relatives or their terminal illness.  

People say ‘I Don’t Really Care For You’ is funny because of some of the lines, but that song is about the period of prolonged deep seated hatred that happens after a breakup.  That song was written when I felt like I was the meanest person in the world, I thought I was evil. The only way I could come to terms with it was to understand we’re all just terrible people who are doing bad things to each other all the time. That’s what that song is about and then everyone is like “woo, Marian Keys haha”. I like that that’s what that song is about. My friends’ humour is so self deprecating, and I will do it in front of my mum and she will be like “oh my god you’re so sad it’s so interesting”.

Yeah that is so true, my friends and I have such self-deprecating senses of humour.

Not to be pessimistic but I do think our generation is a bit dead inside. The older generations are probably going to pipe up like “No! You had a Nintendo, and I had to walk 7 miles for butter.” “OK, maybe you had to walk for butter but I remember being in school an assembly to explain to all of us five year olds why 9/11 had happened. I feel like there’s a lot to be said for the trauma of the huge information overload. I’m not saying that horrible things didn’t happen in the 70s, of course they did, I listen to enough crime podcasts to know that they absolutely did, but it wasn’t constant it wasn’t a constantly in your hand all the time, that’s the difference.

So the humour isn’t just about making audiences laugh?

I think its just how we process emotions. ‘Someone You Loved’ by Lewis Capaldi is a really good example of a song that just goes for the jugular, but I would never say that out loud. If anyone ever fucked me over and broke my heart, I could never admit to it in those terms. I’d be like “ew he’s a fucking arsehole, hello? Has he even see me? I don’t care, hot girl summer!”. That’s how girls process breakups now, instead of being like “god he really hurt me, I guess I have to take some time to process”.

And you have just released your latest track 2 Wrecked 2 Care. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration and the meaning of the song?

I probably wrote that song in August 2019. I was working for UPS and I had to start at half 7 in the morning, sitting in an office all day until like 4pm. They never told me how to do my job, they didn’t train me. I was writing songs at the same time; I was trying to go to the studio after work then write songs, and I didn’t sleep. I ended up constantly being late to work as a result of that. I basically just wanted to write a song about working terrible jobs that absolutely ruin your life because of sleeping patterns. When you don’t get sleep your entire personality changes and if your person that works like a regular night shift or like a regular morning shift, or your regularly not getting any sleep then your whole brain makeup and personality is going to change.

I got sacked from that job within a month of starting. I literally walked out of the office one day i got a call 5 minutes after I left to say “hey, don’t come back into the office tomorrow, just don’t. We don’t need you.” I probably recorded that song November 2019 actually because I went to New York to record a lot of music and that was one of the songs that I recorded there.

So what would you say has been a highlight for you so far, then?

I got to be on the TV show last year in Ireland called The Den which is a children’s puppet show, including my favourite sex symbol of all time, Dustin the Turkey. I was on that show and I got to flirt with Dustin the Turkey and I got to sing a cover of ‘Islands In The Stream’ by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. I knew everything about Dustin, they were trying to quiz me on distant trivia, and I was like “I’m ready, I know everything. I know everything song he’s ever made”. Making the music video for ‘I Don’t Really Care For You’ was a career highlight because I got to do choreography.

Yeah I saw some of the behind the scenes – you’re a good dancer! And a good roller skater too.

I am not a good roller skater. Maybe in the future when I get a bigger release and somebody gives me money to do stuff, I want a significant portion of my marketing budget to go into roller skating lessons. I’m really into my music videos and I really love doing them.  I literally told my manager that I refused to make a music video for ‘I Wanna be a Cowboy, Baby’ until I learned how to ride a horse.

Words: Rachel Mercer // Photos: Sarah Doyle

‘2 Wrecked 2 Care’ and all of CMAT’s previous singles are out now. You can stream and purchase her discography via Bandcamp.

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