“The first band I ever formed was called Superglou. I was 13, and all we could do was play acoustic covers of Lily Allen songs,” says Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson, the Dublin artist better known as CMAT. “We never played a gig because my bandmate had asthma, but I’m grateful that it got the ball rolling for me becoming a global pop sensation.”
Breathing difficulties aside, the formative time spent studying the work of one of pop’s premier personalities played a foundational part in her musical education. Further schooling in the works of Dolly Parton, Charli XCX, Loretta Lynn and Cate Le Bon followed, alongside copious research into RuPaul’s Drag Race, music TV of the 70s and 80s, the life and works of Anna Nicole Smith, Dublin’s drag scene and celebrity socialites London/LA between 1999 and 2009, all resulting in CMAT: an alternative pop star for an alternate universe.
CMAT makes humorous songs about serious topics; her succinct, sharp words tell tales of fast food shop breakdowns and kitchen sink dramas; needling former lovers while mainlining Diet Coke; laying bare specific childhood disappointments over a stupidly catchy chorus, forcing you to do a double-take while an optimistic sax solo breezes in: ‘Did she really say that?’
“Lyrically, I kind of want it to be like if XTC was writing for The Nolans,” says CMAT, “and then I want it to sound like The Nolans are making a record with Glen Campbell, which would go on to be covered by Paris Hilton. The goal is to make songs that I wish already existed, and then to make those songs all about me and my emotional problems.”
From her 2020 releases – April’s ‘Another Day (kfc)’ to her signature song, ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy, Baby!’, released in late September – it’s clear CMAT’s unrelentingly selfish view of songwriting looks to have a surprisingly wide appeal. Supporters on the CMAT train include Dork, The Guardian, Popjustice, The Irish Times, Wonderland, Clash and The Sunday Times, alongside editorial playlist support from Spotify, including a number of NMF UK nods, and 2021 tips from NME, Dork and The Forty-Five.
She opened her 2021 account with her fourth offering, the “Abba-does-spaghetti-western” pop gem, ‘I Don’t Really Care For You’, which landed Spotify support on NMF UK, Fresh Folk and Folk Pop playlists; radio plays from Jack Saunders on BBCR1 and Steve Lamacq on 6 Music, and a debut play on Apple Music 1 from Matt Wilkinson’, confirming her as one to watch. It’s a process that’s taken her three years, beginning with a move to Manchester in 2017. “I moved there to dissolve my previous band and pursue co-writing songs for other artists,” says CMAT. This most definitely didn’t go according to plan. “The whole thing went tits up,” she explains. “I was working two jobs to support myself so I barely had any time left for music. One was as a fitting room assistant in TK Maxx, a nightmare job where you see and smell things that will haunt you for the rest of your life. Then from Thursday to Saturday I worked in a nightclub as a ‘sexy shots girl’ until 3am. The shots had dry ice in them to look fancy, which burned your skin off if you held it for too long.”
Necessity being the mother of invention, CMAT learned to adapt. “I got into the habit of writing songs on the walk home from the club. I’d be there, 3am and stone cold sober, witnessing a lot of 19 year old girls having the worst night of their life, doing full screaming matches with their boyfriends or girlfriends. It was amazing! That’s where the inspiration for ‘Another Day (kfc)’ came from.”
Limited time and resources helped her develop her writing style – showcasing lyrics, melody and not too much else. “I rarely had time to play the guitar or produce/record anything properly, so I started writing pretty much all my songs acapella on the voice memo app on my iPhone. I couldn’t rely on production to make everything sound better, so it forced me to explore melodies and lyrics. And it worked for me – I still write this way today.”
Her process was coming together, but her life was falling apart. “I was really miserable. I had no social life, was in a horrible relationship, had an extremely bad combination of lifestyle and diet that was destroying my health, and worst of all I stopped being able to write. I just didn’t know who I was anymore.”
Things changed when she ended up in a room with one of her pop idols, taking part in a session in London giving feedback on some Charli XCX music. “I still don’t know how I even got in the room – she’s hands down my favourite working songwriter today. I’ve looked up to her since I was 16 and working in River Island, where they played her song ‘Superlove’ once every 35 minutes. I should have hated that song, but instead I fell in love with her.”
After the session, she got a one-on-one grilling from Charli. “She interrogated me a bit. She kept asking me what I was doing with my life, why I wasn’t releasing any work, why I was in Manchester when my friends were in Dublin. She told me i needed to go somewhere I could work hard on music, and that she got the impression that it wasn’t Manchester. It was insane. She wouldn’t have a clue who I am now, but that five minutes literally changed my life.”
On the Megabus back to Manchester, CMAT decided she needed to blow up her life. She dumped her boyfriend, quit the club, and within a few months was back living with her mother in Dunboyne, Co. Meath. “A lot of people would consider that a failure, and I had a lot of self doubt about what I was doing, but my gut was just screaming at me to go home and write songs.”
And write she did. CMAT spent 2019 on YouTube, creating a ‘New Music Friday’ series where she attempted to write one new song a week for six months, posting a live demo every Friday, and playing the odd solo live show. “It was the first time in my life that I felt like I had the freedom to write about things that i thought were absurd and funny, like AliExpress, Diet Coke, Gwyneth Paltrow- complicated idols of the #girlboss economy. I couldn’t afford a real studio, so I rented out a yoga studio which I could only use on Wednesday nights. I used to nama-stay (sorry) so late making songs that I got sacked from a job in a courier company after one month for being a half hour late every Thursday morning.” Late 2019 was spent in New York with friend and occasional collaborator Oli Deakin, recording the batch of songs that now form CMAT’s first musical fruits.
Like most people, the last 12 months turned out slightly different to what she expected. But it didn’t stop the CMAT world expanding – she pulled together a team of like-minded Irish artists for a hugely successful festive online stream; she released a Christmas single with left-of-centre folkie, Junior Brother; she announced an Irish tour and debut London dates, both of which sold out in jig time and announced a vinyl 12”, ‘Diet Baby’, compiling her first four singles, which sold out on pre-order.
Ask CMAT what her goals and you get a typically honest answer: “I’m writing the next batch of songs right now, which is an exciting experience but one that is taking a lot longer than I imagined because I can’t stop drinking very expensive craft sodas (shoutout original recipe Football Special), and I also can’t stop online shopping. I recently considered buying a novelty Betty Boop-themed coffee table on eBay despite the fact I don’t currently have a permanent address. I suppose the CMAT album is going to be called ‘Oops!… I Bidded Again’ and will be dropping some time around 2030.”www.cmatbaby.com/