Having garnered a cult following through her unique sound and inventive videos, CMAT is ready to take centre stage.
“I think I’m always going to be drilling home the point of the small things are the big things and the big things should be smaller.”
Before getting into the nitty gritty of who CMAT is and what impending popstardom might be like, the mundane takes precedence as her roommate looks for the launderette token. “Good luck,” she says, wishing her well whilst bracing herself for her own spin cycle over the coming months. Now living in Brighton, Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson’s (CMAT) debut album If my Wife New I’d be Dead is but weeks away from release and she’s buckled up and ready for the rodeo. “I’m really excited for the album to come out because it’s really fucking good. I think people miscalculate me and miscategorise me a lot. I think they think that I’m this campy, fun, pop bitch that does a little bit of country production here and there and I love all that. I think because of how ridiculous I am sometimes, I don’t think people know how much of a good songwriter I am.”
CMAT has brought the saying ‘three chords and the truth’ to life with her music. Another Day (kfc) began it all and since 2020, Thompson has been building the unique character of CMAT.
“The nucleus of what I do is getting across this character, a version of myself where I’m trying to package all the worst and most pathetic parts of myself into a lyrical narrative because I think that’s the most powerful thing I can do.”
CMAT’s world is as colourful as Thompson’s personality and country-inspired music acts as the soundtrack. Dublin bars turn into saloons; Waitrose into a wild west grocery; a GAA club hosts lonely hearts and lost loves grace ‘WANTED’ signs. Despite the Marian Keyes of it all, the truth creeps in with minor chords and Thompson’s emotive vocals. “I do think that the reason I’m doing music is for self-expression alone. I’m not working to inject vulnerability into anything. Vulnerability is the only reason these songs exist in the first place and I have to pay tribute to that. I have to acknowledge it. I have to leave it in there. The hyper feminine presentation is something that I’ve really thought about and I put a lot of effort into, something that I really have to work for. The vulnerability is just second nature.”
“I think it’s really important to be as pathetic as I actually am because I think there’s times where I’m a really pathetic person and there’s times where I’ve been a really bad person. Everyone does this, by the way. Everyone is pathetic. Everyone is a bad person. I think the whole point is that you have to acknowledge that you do shitty things and you have to move on and be better. When you’re a fucking crazy bitch, you have to move on.”
Equally honest and humorous both on and off stage, Thompson knows that even her existence as a hyper feminine, vulnerable and serious artist comes with its dangers. “I love anything that is unashamedly feminine and girly and is ‘for the girls, by the girls’ because I know from experience that it still seems to piss people off. I did a gig this year and the crowd was all men. They booed me and they told me to get my tits out. They threw pints towards the stage and were shouting for the band I was supporting to come on stage. It’s fucking mad, mental.”
Staying away from Virgos, looking back through her own toxic Instagram and dreaming of a cowboy life are just some of the plot points of CMAT’s life. What Thompson achieves is highlighting the mundane with her pinpoint eye for accuracy and a storytelling streak that had you gripped.
“Every time I crack open a can, every time I have a cold can in my hand and I raise my mouth to meet it, my mouth waters. It’s brilliant every time. This is my problem. The only thing I have is fucking Diet Coke. The pageantry of cracking open a can that’s cold when you need some fucking false sense of comfort is one of the most magical things in my life.” Cola addictions aside, it’s the small things in life that matter the most. “I think I’m always going to be drilling home the point of the small things are the big things and the big things should be smaller. The things that we think of as big ol’ this, big parts of life, they should be smaller.”
Growing up in Littlepace in Clonee but moving up the road to Dunboyne, music was always the dream for Thompson. “I was like 10-years-old begging my mam who had no money to bring me to Los Angeles so I could audition for the Disney channel. I was like ‘If you bring me to LA, we will be rich. They will love me. You don’t understand Sinead. You need to sell the house and bring me there.” With Miley Cyrus as the blueprint and a million part time jobs, Thompson kept ignoring the echoes of “No! What is wrong with you? This is Supervalu Finglas. You can’t be a fucking popstar. Cop on! Fucking stack the shelves you stupid bitch.” She knuckled down and pored savings into a home studio, the start of her own DIY Route 66.
Unique in her genre, the visual world of CMAT once again injects drama, colour and emotion into the mundane. “I think the more laser focused you become with songwriting and imagery, the more beautiful it is. It’s almost as if the less universal you make something, the more universal it becomes. It’s a weird thing I’ve found. If I’m singing about the honky tonk of the GAA, that’s a very specific piece of imagery. It’s specific to me, I don’t know anyone else that would associate GAA club culture with an old honky tonk bar of the 1940s but people love that lyric. I think the more yourself you are, the more specific you get to your own creations. It’s about world-building your universe and trying to do something that’s a little more distinct.”
Alongside the imagery in her lyrics, Thompson has gathered a team around her who expand on the engrossing visuals of CMAT. Sarah Doyle has been part of the CMAT journey since the beginning, being Thompson’s photographer. “She believed in it since before I released KFC. Image is very important and so is presentation and she’s been able to lock in exactly what that is from the start. Never in my life have I enjoyed having my picture taken as when she’s doing it. She’s the photographer but she’s also an unbelievably good person. A lot of her process is her behind the camera for one minute and then for six minutes, she’s like ‘and that’s such an interesting point about your family relationship…’ She’s talking it out and then she’ll say ‘oh yeah, anyway’. She gets you so relaxed so that if she asks you to point in the corner with wide eyes as if you’re Anne-Margret and then you’re like…” At this point CMAT flashes her best Anne-Margret look.
When chatting with Doyle, it was clear that the collaboration that happens on shoots taps into the whole presentation of CMAT. Together, they marry fun with sincerity. “There’s such depth to what she offers. She really inspires you and is incredibly adventurous. We try lots of things and that’s when you’re really making something. There’s always a good dialogue going on throughout and before. It’s a trust, a playfulness and an understanding that it is entertainment. You can take that creativity and play with how you look and still be a serious person. She’s a very serious artist and as well she’s offering a break from things. It’s commendable to make the world a bit more colourful. She has a sense of who she is and she’s very open with that.”
Linking up with Eilís Doherty to direct music videos, Thompson found another match made in heaven. “It’s insane how skilled she is for how young she is whilst still having a creative mind. She is technically brilliant and skilled. I think we have the exact same taste level in everything. She loves vintage trash, the cheapest, stupidest, corniest bullshit if it happened between the years 1970 and 1985 which is almost exactly the same as me taste wise. I love anything that’s camp, corny and too much. She’s a real maximalist.”
Doherty has directed Lonely, No More Virgos and I Don’t Really Care for You, taking inspiration from country and western music, Irish catholicism and ‘80s soaps. Talking to Doherty, she described the kinship for cheesy inspirations and the pure energy that Thompson brings on set. “I think of a really silly idea and usually you would scrap it for any other project but for the world of CMAT it might just work. I love using plenty of references and examining how they’ve created their style as it definitely helps to achieve a sense of authenticity when creating era specific visuals. It’s a bit intimidating because I’m like how do I make the visuals live up to the songs. Every song she comes out with I’m like, ‘how have you done it again??’ She’s also a lot of fun to shoot because she brings so much energy to the visuals in terms of performance as she’s so unapologetically herself and doesn’t hold back.”
The initial conversation between Thompson and her artwork artist, Rachel O’Regan went as follows:
Rachel: “Do you like freak folk music?”
CMAT: “I love freak folk music. It’s my favourite genre.”
Rachel: “Do you like Blaze Foley?”
CMAT: “I just watched the Blaze Foley movie last week. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.”
Thus a beautiful friendship was born. Looking at Regan’s Instagram, Thompson knew that her detailed style would fit well with her reference heavy lyrics. “I love things that go down to the itty bitty detail. I love Where’s Wally? Her style is like Where’s Wally? but beautiful. She’s so amazing. I base the artwork off the Bunty annuals. Magazines for pre-teen girls but they’re full of comic strips for girls. There’s a very specific style that I just love. I want it to look like a girls magazine from 1978 but I want it to be really referential to the song itself. It’s been a distinct choice from me, as well.”
Speaking about her experience, ‘great minds think alike’ seems fitting. “I’ve had a lot of fun working with Ciara and creating these visual counterparts to her music. Her lyrics tell stories of past traumas, make obscure references to things, make you laugh, and get stuck in your head for days. Translating this kind of music into images often requires a lot of detail and some symbolism throughout. There are hidden treasures in each image,” says O’Regan.
Stylist and costume maker Ríon Hannora was only a few doors down from Thompson when she began talking to her about collaborating. “I was living in West Cork and she was living in the house across the road from me. We didn’t figure that out until four months later, it was so bizarre,” remembers Hannora. “As soon as we met, we knew it was ideal. We both egg each other on. Everything I throw at her, she says ‘perfect, ideal, let’s go.’ We go out for a pint and do some brainstorming to see what look we’re going to come up with next. We have five outfits within the space of 20 minutes because we’re both on the same buzz.”
“All of us are a match made in heaven, we’re all on the same buzz. I made three outfits including the one in the communion outfit. She shows me some of Rachel’s artwork as well. So, the denim piece that was on the cover of Hot Press, Rachel drew it on the album cover and then I looked at it and made it, already wanting to make one. It’s effortless. It’s all a coincidence that we’re all wanting to do the same thing.”
“For the No More Virgos, I had CMAT glued onto her chest. Poor Ciara was taking glue off of her for the next week. I was taking all the drag queen’s eyelash glue and rubbing it on her chest so her necklace would stick. It’s so much fun. She’s the ideal person to be styling”
The obsession with ‘80s corniness continues in the Lonely and No More Virgos music videos, both styled by Hannora. “She loves a bit of trash. On one side of the corset, there will be a lovely soft tapestry of this soft fairy. On the side, it’s white and she’s spray painted my name in black. Everything she’s made is body friendly because it’s adjustable by nature…She is a genius. She’s a technically brilliant designer,” Thompson beams.
“You need to try and find people whose taste level you actually trust. People whose interests align with your own and are so referential, so impressive and so informed. This is what connects all of them.”
Words: Sophia McDonald
Photos: Sarah Doyle
Shirley Bassey documentaries
“She’s insane. She’s the most performative person I have ever seen in my life, if you watch her do an interview she’s like ‘huh ha! Huh ha!’ and that’s just an interview on Parkinson.
You know what I really like about Shirley Bassey is she admits to being a cunt.
Her staff were all saying she was the most difficult person to work for and also the easiest because everyone loves her.”
“They’re a folk jazz band from the ‘70s in England and they have the most arrangements of child ballads.
I’m fucking obsessed.
I bought an Appalachian Dulcimer the other day just so I could do Pentangle songs.
I physically can’t listen to anything that isn’t made by Pentangle.”
Miss Piggy CMAT edits
“There’s one CMAT fan account (@2wrecked2care) and it’s fucking hilarious because it’s deeply unhinged and I love it.
I talk about Miss Piggy all the time and how much I love the Muppets.
They’ve just started to post pictures of Miss Piggy edited to look like me.
Some fan, somewhere, editing pictures to make Miss Piggy look like me!
I should be angry about this but I fucking love it.”
Words: Sophia McDonald
Photos Sarah Doyle