- 16 Feb 22
This time last year, Hot Press selected deliciously OTT country-pop singer CMAT as one of our 'Hot for 2021' picks. Little did we know how hot! Now, she graces our cover for the first time, after a sizzling, stratospheric rise – with even greater things to come over the next 12 months. We promise!
CMAT is a star. That much has been evident since the young Meath singer first emerged onto the local scene. But there was still a question to be answered. In a way, it was like looking through a telescope and seeing something out there in the night skies for the first time. What is it? How big will we discover it to be? How bright is it likely to seem when we get in close? Or is it just some kind of aberration that will disappear and leave behind only a memory and a mystery? Whatever happened to CMAT? But she has not faded. On the contrary, she has grown ever more real, sure-footed, fascinating and musically in charge.
A year ago, she was classified as Hot for 2021 by Hot Press. And – the limitations imposed by the dreaded pandemic notwithstanding – she proved to be just that. A brilliant appearance in her pyjamas in the Hot Press Y&E Series, a couple of superb singles and a powerful return to the live arena confirmed what we had predicted this time last year. I was there when she strode onto the stage at Whelan’s in Dublin in November to be greeted by an audience dressed to the nines for the occasion in CMAT-related garb. She sang and they sang every word back to her. She owned the stage and the audience loved every second of it, culminating in a climactic version of ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy’ that had the crowd on the balcony dancing so hard you feared it might collapse.
It didn’t. But it was a close-run thing.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN...
At the other end of a Zoom line, CMAT is in good form. So good, in fact, that she has finally come out. She has revealed exclusively – to me, folks! – that she identifies not just ‘with’ the Mammies of Ireland but (shhh! don’t tell anyone) ‘as a Mam’. Now, I am naturally worried about putting this out there into the public domain. Might Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson – for it is she! – be accused of a form of cultural appropriation? I certainly wouldn’t want to get such an adorable creature into trouble...
“It’s true though,” she laughs. “I love a lot of ‘Mam’ culture.”
Like what? I ask apprehensively. The answer is like a Mammy-Tsunami.
“I love The Nolans,” she says proudly. “I love Loose Women. I am a huge purchaser of Jo Malone candles and fragrances. I do think Robbie Williams is a heart-throb, he’s like a god to me. I have a friend who regularly tells me I dress like a mam. I’m just a Mam!”
My heart is palpitating. Can this indeed be true? In fairness, everything I can see on the Zoom call exudes a kind of Mammie energy. CMAT is in her bedroom – the only quiet spot in her house, she tells me. Wearing a yellow cardigan trimmed with purple faux fur, propped up against a mass of pillows with her trademark big hair, the whole effect is very Dolly Parton, and thus totally in keeping with her colourful country/pop/vintage aesthetic.
But will she be as big as Dolly? Having racked up millions of streams, widespread radio support and a rapidly swelling fanbase during 2021 the answer is: she just might. Her three singles last year – ‘I Don’t Really Care For You’, ‘2 Wrecked 2 Care’ and ‘No More Virgos’ – confirmed her status as one of Ireland’s most exciting new stars. Now, she is getting ready to take on the world – her way. And yet, she still finds the extent of her success a bit unreal.
“It’s a weird position to be in,” she muses, “because I still haven’t really seen that many people. Like the Whelan’s show for example – that was crazy! I just assume nobody’s listening. Except for the 40 teenagers that message me every day. I love them with all my heart. They are dearly beloved to me, I wouldn’t be anywhere if not for my 40 teenagers.
“But it’s weird doing shows and having people turn up and want to meet me! It’s a bit overwhelming, to go somewhere on one night of the year, and have all these people be really intensely into me. And then the next day to go to a Morrison’s and get turned down for three bottles of wine, because I don’t have any ID with me.”
She gives another self-deprecatory hoot. One suspects that her days of wandering anonymously into Morrison’s may not last much longer. She has just released ‘Lonely’, her new single written specifically to get the notice of heart-throb and god Robbie Williams. It’s the final teaser before her debut album, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead, set for release in February. That’s when the real grind will start.
“I never thought of myself as a real artist because I’m so singles based,” she reflects. “I really believe in the power of a single. I’m a believer that if a musician has one brilliant song, they are worthy of being stanned. Some of my favourite songs of all time are by artists whose other music I’ve never really liked. But it doesn’t matter, because you only ever need one great song to get your message across. So, I never saw or understood the importance of an album.
“What’s interesting now is how excited people are for the album. Maybe the way I take music in is different to everyone else, but I think me having an album symbolises the idea of people buying into me. Fans of mine are excited to finally be able to say, ‘Look. she’s a real musician!’ I’m excited to be worth people’s time, effort and energy. People have given me a lot of support over the past two years, since ‘Another Day (kfc)’ came out in April 2020. So, it’s been two years of people waiting to justify liking me (laughs).”
It’s hard to imagine anyone needing to justify their love of CMAT. The razor-sharp wittiness and almost painful relatability of her lyrics are a big part of her appeal. She puts that down to having lived as much of a life as one possibly can by 25, before becoming a full-time musician.
“I still don’t fully understand why people are interested in me,” she says. “But I’m learning every day. One thing I’ve noticed since ramping up the amount of work I’m doing – and going back and forth a bit more to England for sessions, and writing for other people – is that of all the people doing pop music, I am the one who had a normal life for the longest.
“A lot of people enter the industry when they’re 18-years-old, or sometimes from the jump. Maybe they break at the same age I started to, at 25, but they’ve had rich parents. That’s a real problem in the industry. It’s not really fair that in order to be successful from a normal background, you have to start off at the age of 10. You either have to be extremely young or extremely wealthy.”
CMAT then reflects further on her beginnings as an artist.
“I still have a normal life,” she continues. “I had to work multiple jobs. I was still doing music – I was never not writing songs, I was never not doing gigs. But I had to fund them myself. When you live a normal life, like most of us do, you do really embarrassing things, shameful and desperate things all of the time.”
That sounds interesting. But I don’t need to encourage her, She is in the groove now.
“It’s funny now that I’m with musicians all the time,” she adds, “I’ve noticed that I’m still the most embarrassing person. I still do the most shameful things and desperate things. I’m like, ‘This isn’t fair’. Because everyone has been grown for production from day one. And I’m just like ‘Blah blah blah’.”
She pulls a face.
“I think I have something that people relate to: that visceral sense of shame in everything I do. It’s important to just be like, ‘Okay, I’ve done the single most mortifying thing anyone has ever done in their life’, and you just have to move on. Because if you dwell on it too much, you become a problem. And I was a problem for a while. I don’t want to be a problem anymore.”
I’m not sure if there is a connection here, but CMAT is delighted when I ask what’s the secret of her voluminous hair. You can see that her inner diva is chomping at the bit!
“The answer is moose and volume powder,” she tells me confidentially. “It’s a good question. Getting a good haircut is very important – getting loads of layers also helps. People think I’m joking, but I genuinely feel like I spend more time on my hair than I do my music. Do you know what it is about hair? If you have it – and, you know, not everyone has it – there’s something comforting in that hair is always gonna be there for you.
“I’ve had a lot of weight issues,” she says hinting at darker moments, “and body image, and fucking hating my face and my body. When I do my hair I’m like, ‘I’m the most beautiful woman in the world’. You can’t tell me different.”
A NUDIE SUIT GRAM PARSONS WORE
Throughout the interview, I pop a few questions to CMAT that were submitted by fans through the Hot Press Instagram. ‘No More Virgos’ clearly interested lots of CMAT-watchers, so we establish that her favourite star sign is in fact her own (and mine), Pisces. One person asks if she can join Ciara’s band as a back-up singer? We decide that a btter idea would be for CMAT to organise some kind of Instagram choir. Another fan, meanwhile, wants to know which of her songs is her favourite. She doesn’t hesitate.
“‘Peter Bogdanovich’,” she says. “I just love it because it’s so stupid. I remember writing it and being like, ‘This is so fucking stupid, I’m never gonna record this’. I’m actually really happy that I did, because it’s one of the more musically interesting moments on the album.”
She then turns serious – the most serious she’s been throughout our call.
“But if I’m being honest,” the perennial tease admits, “it’s probably ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy, Baby’. The reason for that is not so much the public reaction, though I do really appreciate and love the fact so many people have told me it’s their favourite. Someone even has a tattoo of the lyrics! But the reason I love it, is because I wrote it after I was in a really terrible relationship that lasted about five years, with a much older man who was not very nice to me.
“It took me a really long time to break up with him. Towards the last year-and-a-half of our relationship, I wasn’t really able to write songs. I think it was because I was so miserable and frustrated. I broke up with him eventually, and he moved out of the apartment we shared, and two days after he moved out I wrote that song.”
She stops for what feels like a poignant moment.
“That was the first song I had written in two years,” she adds. “It still means so much to me, because almost every time I hear it, I can’t believe I got out of that situation. So, that song will always be my favourite.”
She may often have her tongue in her cheek, but there is an openness and candour that seems to come naturally to CMAT. This is surely an important part of her appeal. She wasn’t ‘grown for production’, as she puts it. Her whole aesthetic – her style, her sound, her videos, even the artwork – is crafted not for mass appeal, but rather for her own enjoyment of it.
“I always know what I want,” she states emphatically. “The process for my videos is really reference-heavy: what the theme should be, where I’m going, what my references are. Specifically, all the – dare I say – iconic CMAT videos have been directed by Eilis Doherty of Tiny Ark. She’s just a genius. I’ll come to her with a song and talk about some things I like, and some things I’ve been watching, and she will do the same. We’ll go back and forth with our references, and then she’ll create a treatment and I’ll sign off on it.
“It’s pretty collaborative. My opinion is that if the artist, or the popstar, isn’t contributing to the idea or controlling the idea then it’s shit. I’ve seen so many bands and artists who clearly have music videos made for them. They will just turn up on the day without being involved, without their personal ‘brand’ being considered, and the video is never good. It has to come from the artists.”
It’s an approach CMAT takes from nose to tail.
“Same with my artwork,” she says. “I work with the same artist all the time, Rachel Reagan. I’ll send her what I think the song is about, the lyrics, the song, and some pieces of imagery. I’ll usually describe how I want the artwork to be. Like for ‘Cowboy’, I said I really want to be wearing a nudie suit that Gram Parsons wore in press shots for The Flying Burrito Brothers. Because I love it.”
That, I hasten to add, was just for starters.
“‘I want a Patsy Cline doll in my room’,” she says, recounting her conversation with Rachel word for word, “‘and I want it to be wearing the outfit she wore in the 1950 Grand Ole Opry episode, a few days before her first car crash’. I’ll send all of this to her. Then she will take about 60 percent of my ideas and merge them with her ideas. I trust her to do that because she has good taste. You need to work with people you believe in, especially visually.”
A GLOBALLY RENOWNED SUPERSTAR
Me? I’m holding out hope for a colouring book of her artwork! It seems that’s only a maybe, though, in what is already looking like a jam-packed 2022 for CMAT. First off, she will finally play a string of UK dates that were rescheduled from 2020 late last year. Then, she’ll set off on an album tour taking in Ireland, the UK and the US, including a night in what still remains the holy grail of country music: Nashville.
“I’ve been dreaming of going to Tennessee since I was 10,” CMAT enthuses.
While her tour schedule means that she’ll only be there for a day, she assures me that she’s due back in the US very soon “for reasons I’m definitely not allowed to talk about.” On that mysterious visit, she also plans to take a long holiday in Nashville, though she is under no illusion as to how the ‘traditional’ country scene in the city might view her.
“Much as I love Nashville,” she says, before engaging in a form of hilarious catastrophising, “I have a sneaking suspicion they might not love me, because the country music establishment is very cantankerous. It’s deeply narrow minded. They are great sticklers for authenticity, which is not something I believe in. I think it’s stupid. So, I don’t think I am going to be received very well over there, but I don’t care! I’m still gonna have so much fun.
“Hopefully that trip happens,” she adds, “because if it gets postponed, I think I might have to walk into the ocean, cinderblocks on my fucking ankles. If I have another year of this” – she’s talking about the frustrations of the pandemic – “I might become a nun!”
She would, of course, make a very good nun – in a remake of Nuns On The Run, that is...
“To be consistently touring for the next year is the dream,” says CMAT. “There’s no bad side to it, except for all the bad sides! The worst possible things can happen to me and I’m just like, ‘This is amazing’. I was onstage last year and got booed, People were hurling pints towards my head. People were screaming at me to get my tits out when I was on stage. I came off and I was still like, ‘That was soooo fun’.”
She won’t say where this happened or who she was supporting.
“It wasn’t Declan McKenna,” she says, “because his fans would never do that.”
The important thing is that it hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for touring.
“I just love doing gigs,” she confesses. “The days are strangely structured and you’re in a different place all the time. I drink maybe 10 litres of Diet Coke a day, and my body falls apart from all the Gregg’s or the chicken filet rolls, or whatever it is I eat on the fly. Because even though I am an internationally, globally renowned superstar, I haven’t started eating like one. It’s still just mainly bread.”
“When you’re on tour your body just disintegrates, day by day, and you’re smelly as well. Generally speaking, not to be rude, I do seem to get a UTI every time I’m on tour – my stage costumes and public toilets just don’t align with my chakras. All that aside, it’s the best time ever.”
“This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was born,” concludes CMAT. “I don’t think I planned on being anything other than a musician.”
And that’s exactly what CMAT is – and a very good one too. As 2022 unfolds, watch her go! She’s gonna be huge.
• Check out cmatbaby.com for a list of CMAT’s upcoming shows for 2022. If My Wife New I’d Be Dead is out March 4.
Photographs by Sarah Doyle.
Hair and make up Ivy O’Sullivan
Clothes by Rion Hannora
Thanks to Duchess on Duke Street, Dublin