To the untrained eye, CMAT might seem like an overnight success story. In the year that gave us the words ‘coronavirus’ and ‘unprecedented’, people also became obsessed with her signature brand of country, crying and KFC.
However, for Ciara Mary Alice Thompson (CMAT), it’s a journey that predates 2020. Growing up with an affinity for country music and a deep appreciation for pop – she worships at the altars of Dolly Parton, BTS and The Nolan Sisters respectively.
Another Day (KFC)
I Wanna Be A Cowboy, Baby!
“I would say I’m a pop songwriter, but a country music singer,” she tells GoldenPlec. “I think that’s an important distinction. I care quite a lot about country music. It’s very close to my heart and I love the ethos of it, the history of it … so I write pop music with country music in mind.”
Her songwriting chops led to her forming the much-hyped pop outfit Bad Sea back in 2015. Her star power was as palpable then as it is now, but their back catalogue is a world away from her shiny solo anthems like Another Day and Rodney.
What followed, it transpires, was a journey back to herself.
“In 2017 I had a very bad mental break, I moved over to Manchester because I wanted to be a co-writer and writing for other people. I was in a really bad relationship, bad for everyone involved … I don’t necessarily place the blame here or there. It was toxic as f*ck and nobody should have been involved with it.
With that, CMAT found herself feeling disassociated from herself, as a person and artist.
“I completely let go of who I was and then what would happen was, I would see videos of myself or pictures of myself on stage or in music videos and I would be like ‘I don’t know who that is’. I saw photos of myself performing at a festival and I did not recognise myself.”
"I would say I'm a pop songwriter, but a country music singer. I think that's an important distinction."
She describes the following year and a half as a time that consisted of her “not making good decisions” for herself.
“[I was] addicted to weed, a massive comfort eater, I never left my house, I just watched loads of Gilmore Girls while cutting my hair at 4 o’clock in the morning and gluing it to my walls, telling myself ‘This is who I am!’ I didn’t do anything to help myself for a full year.”
On top of her extra-curricular activities, nothing was happening when it came to music. What she did, she says, wasn’t good, because of the identity crisis she was undergoing.
Enter stage left – guardian angel Charli XCX.
“In July 2018, I was on a songwriting session with Charli XCX,” she says. “After we were workshopping and investigating her music, she came up to me specifically and goes: ‘so, what’s going on with you? So you’re a musician?'”
“She asked me what I was doing and I just started bullshitting her about my co-writing. She was like, ‘but where are you living?’ I told her I was living in Manchester and she was like ‘right but where are your friends?’
“And I was like, ‘Em, I’ve got friends in London and I’ve got friends in Dublin” and she goes, ‘so all of your friends are doing music in Dublin and in London but you’re in Manchester? I feel like you need to make a decision.
“There’s no reason for you to be in Manchester. You either need to go to London and deal with that expense and that workload, or you need to go back to Dublin and figure out who you are.'”
She didn’t ask her any other questions – CMAT says it was almost like she knew the crossroads she was at in her life.
“I was on the Megabus back to Manchester and the whole time I didn’t sleep, I was just like ‘I need to break up with my boyfriend, I need to get him out of my house’, my mind going at a hundred million miles an hour,” she says.
This newfound sense of freedom sparked a creative period for CMAT who penned the Americana sad banger I Wanna Be A Cowboy, Baby! which would later become her signature song thanks to its soaring chorus.
“The more time I spent on my own, the more I moved away from that identity crisis that I was having. I just started being a better writer because I was writing for myself and I knew who I was.”
She moved back to Dublin and began filming herself doing songs in her mam’s kitchen and, in her words, “It kind of took off from there.”
“I just figured it out because I was alone. My mission in life is to remain single forever and to help other people I know get out of bad relationships. If that was a paid job, I’d give up music and do it tomorrow, just break people up.”
Who is CMAT now, then? Across her socials, she describes herself as a ‘global teen pop sensation’.
“My definition of a popstar is very loose. I think the reason I enjoy calling myself a popstar is because it is so at odds with what I am and what I actually do”, she says.
Beyond her ‘brand’, the world of CMAT is a Greek tragedy of sorts.
“I write songs about my trauma but I make it funny,” she explains. “I try to weave narratives of other people’s trauma into my own. I like to take a particular psychological phenomenon and expand on that in any way I can.
“I like to make the big things in life smaller and I like to make the small things in life big. So for example, Diet Coke is Catholicism and heartbreak is like … a latte … Trying to get depth out of things that people don’t pay attention to, and make light of things that people give way too much weight to.”
The best example of this is the previously mentioned Another Day (KFC), a song that’s simultaneously about a break up and also the moment where your card gets declined in your favourite fast food outlet.
CMAT’s particular brand of charisma is infectious – it’s hard not get swept up in the absurdities that aren’t actually that absurd at all. It would be easy for cynics to scoff at what she’s created purely because of how meme-worthy it all is. Simply put though, CMAT actually doesn’t think it’s about her at all.
“The CMAT character … that’s not for my enjoyment, that’s just what I think is the best way to present the songs and give them the best shot they have of connecting with other people,” she says plainly.
In her own words, collaboration is key to the success of CMAT. It takes a village, and will continue to do so.
“It’s a community thing. It’s not one person and their actions. It’s one person and all the people that they asked to work with them and that they collaborate with. It’s not you at the centre of the universe.
"Everything that we do is for the songs. It's not for me. It's not for my f*cking ego."
“Loads of people have worked on everything with me. Like, I write all the songs myself and that is the foundation for the project. That’s the only thing I do completely by myself. Everything else is collaboration, it’s other people working in tandem with me to put the songs on a pedestal. Everything that we do is for the songs. It’s not for me. It’s not for my f*cking ego.”
Despite the circumstances, 2020 was a good year for her – a slew of successful singles, a performance on RTÉ’s The Den reboot, her very own Christmas special at Whelan’s, an Other Voices appearance, performing with Villagers’ Conor O’Brien at Visions at Vicar St, to name but a few of her achievements.
“I nearly died,” she says on the latter. “I have Conor’s number on my phone now, and every so often I’m just like, ‘oooooooooooooooooh!’
“I would die for him, maybe. Actually, yes, there’s not even a question about it. He was very kind about me and my music and he really didn’t have to be. He could have punched me and I would have been delighted.”
"I just watched loads of Gilmore Girls while cutting my hair at 4 o'clock in the morning and gluing it to my walls, telling myself 'This is who I am!'"
That moment was the first moment in the year that she allowed herself to feel proud of her merits.
“There’s been a lot of impressive things that I’ve been doing recently that everyone’s like, ‘Was that amazing?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah it was fine’ and I don’t really feel it. But the minute he popped his head around the dressing room door, I almost died. That’s possibly the best thing that happened to me in 2020.
“I think that was the first time that happened, in general, I don’t feel [proud]. I think that’s a bad thing to do, if you’re constantly congratulating yourself, you’re just going to get shit really quickly.”
For all her talk about being a popstar, there are few heirs and graces about her. “All the stuff that seems cool, I wouldn’t even really acknowledge it, mainly because it wouldn’t even occur to me that it is an impressive thing because by the time something comes out, I’ve worked on it for months.
“You just can’t be giving yourself credit all the time. In an individual sense, no one person’s musical catalogue is going to change the world. It’s not.”
When she wasn’t working on the above, she spent 2020 writing songs – her plan for 2021 was to travel to Lisbon to continue writing an album, but they’ve been put on hold with the new Covid-19 restrictions. In the meantime, she’s writing with other artists, which is “one of her favourite things to do”. There is new CMAT material coming in 2021 though.
“There’s a lot coming in 2021,” she confirms, “I’m just not sure in what form.”
Of course – like all good popstars, it’s good to keep up an air of elusiveness. As far as what it means to be a popstar to CMAT in 2021, goes, her description of herself doesn’t seem that far off.
“I truly believe a popstar is anyone with star power that just wants to bring a lot of people in to their world. And they do what they want as well, they just change album to album and they expect everyone to come along with them and usually they do. That’s what I like about popstars.”