Like the fields of my childhood, I remember when it was all pop stars like CMAT around here. Funny and fiercely intelligent, unable to be moulded and unafraid of not fitting in, eccentric and bold and brilliant and unlike anyone else. Pop stars whose love and understanding of pop music went so deep that they made themselves into the stars of their dreams, and became the stars of ours in the process.
Their only media training comes from locking themselves in their bedroom with a stack of Smash Hits and a pile of records they’d picked up in a charity shop just because they liked the covers. With her encyclopaedic knowledge of everything from early 80s Miki Matsubara records, to Gilda Radner sketches and Robbie Williams albums, CMAT is that kind of pop star. The sort who writes songs that can save your life, because when people who truly love pop music make pop music, they make the best pop music in the world.
“Lyrically, I kind of wanted it to be like if XTC was writing for The Nolans,” she says, “and then I wanted it to sound like The Nolans were making that record with Glen Campbell, which would go on to be covered by Paris Hilton. The goal was to make songs I wished already existed, and then to make those songs all about me and my emotional problems.”
Since the 25-year-old singer’s debut single in the spring of 2020, she’s built a cult following from her home in Dublin, where she lives with her grandparents while she recovers from an AliExpress addiction. Now CMAT – real name Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson - releases her extraordinary debut album, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead, a collection of her singles from the last two years along with nine new songs.
The country music establishment won’t think CMAT is country, but in truth she’s more country than most of what's played on country. She’s way more interesting and musically exciting too. She’s country in the same way that Kacey's star-crossed is country, and in the same way that Pearl Charles or Tristen are country.
It’s a mad melting pot of disco, pop, country and everything else she’s ever obsessed over - and it sounds incredible. CMAT takes her sharp understanding of modern pop and soft spot for Dory Previn and Vashti Bunyan and mixes them together with her passion for post-punk bands like Orange Juice and Television and love of Dolly Parton and Boney M to make something entirely unique and unlike anything else.
“I learned how to sing through country music: it’s the number one influence on how I sing,” she explains. “So while I’m not a country musician, I do think I’m a country singer. It’s glam. It’s tacky. It’s beautiful. It’s fun. It’s vibrant. Lyrically those artists like to have fun.”
Straight away she told me she liked Holler because we write about “good” country music, and pretty soon all of my carefully researched questions went out of the window. She talks fast. Buckle up and hold on tight. You don’t want to miss anything.
What do you think of as “good” country music?
I think good country music is just country music that comes from a place of honesty, no matter what that place is. I think Shania Twain is very good country music, for example. A lot of the authenticity freaks - the good ol’ boys of Nashville - probably wouldn't say that. But I would say that, because she loves it, and you can tell she loves it. She's not setting out to exploit people who have a deep connection with country music for reasons outside of the music itself.
I think there are artists and a part of the industry that's built upon exploiting the vulnerabilities of people who are attracted to country music for reasons that are deeply personal and historical. Shania doesn't do that. It’s just her. It's her thing. She loves to have fun with it. Then you have the others who sing about trucks when they haven't driven a truck a fucking day in their life, and that pisses me off a lot.
You've got a song called ‘Nashville’ - have you ever actually been to Nashville?
It's about suicide. But the refrain is about how I'm going to tell everybody I know that I'm moving to Nashville, but I've never been to Nashville, and that's kind of the whole point of the song. It's kind of being upfront about the fact that I really want to go to Nashville, but I haven't been yet and maybe I'll never get to go. Maybe that's a dream that will never be fulfilled, because sometimes life is a disappointment.
What did you grow up listening to?
What I was brought up on is kind of a funny. Basically my mam had four CDs when I was growing up, and that was it. My family isn’t musical. I didn't meet anyone who played the guitar until I was about 12 or 13. I think the four CDs were one by Mary Black, the traditional Irish singer, and A Woman's Heart, which is a compilation of women singing traditional Irish songs. Boney M's Greatest Hits, which I do actually genuinely think was a pretty huge influence on me. A Beautiful South greatest hits.
Then I think we always had one Robbie Williams CD of some description. There was Sing When You’re Winning and then Swing When You're Winning, but never at the same time. We never had multiple Robbie Williams CDs. We had Life Thru A Lens at one point, which is an insane album. Robbie Williams is a huge influence too, because those albums are insane. They’re absolutely bananas. He was allowed to write so many of his own songs and you can tell because they're fucking weird. They’re a bit country too.
Something like ‘Road To Mandalay’ is definitely country! I love that song. What else?
He did a couple of live streams during the beginning of lockdown, and there was one day where I thought it'd be really funny to screen record myself just typing the words “play 'Road to Mandalay'” like 50 times over and over again. “Please Robbie, I'm an NHS nurse. I'm doing this for the NHS”. I'm not an NHS nurse. He didn't play it. I haven't heard him singing that song or those guitary songs for a very long time. He doesn't really dip into that part of a catalogue, which is crazy, because I think that’s his best work. We can’t solve the Robbie Williams problem today though.
So you’re growing up listening to Boney M and Robbie Williams, where does country music fit in all this?
Um, I don't know. It does fit in somewhere though. I think that my entryway to country music must have been, not necessarily listening to Dolly Parton, but hearing about her when I was a child. People always brought her up as a joke in Ireland, but everybody loved her music.
I think the number one country artist in Dublin is Johnny Cash. I'm from North Dublin, which is kind of the more working class area, and there's just a couple of artists that for whatever reason seem to really pop off there. One of them is Bob Marley, and then for whatever reason Johnny Cash has just always been huge in and amongst Dublin communities. So I probably heard of him first. Then it just came in dribs and drabs after that.
What did you think of country music when you were a child?
I just remember whenever a country music thing would fall on my lap or brought to me when I was a kid, I would just really take to it. One instance in particular was the film Walk the Line, which I think came out when I was about eight years old. I got my sister to download me the soundtrack and I learned all of the songs.
I remember my mam used to make me go to athletic training twice a week. I don't know why, I was a really really lazy kid, and I hated exercise. We used to have to do laps and laps of the running track, and there was a hill off to the side of the running track and then there were loads of trees. We’d have to run like 15 laps, and me and this other girl would just run off up the hill and hide in the trees on the first lap and just sit there for 20 minutes and then wait and join back in at the end and nobody would notice.
We’d just sit there eating jellies because I’d bring jellies in my pocket, and she would make me sing to her all of the time. So I’d just sit there singing all the Johnny Cash songs from the film, particularly all the ones that had June Carter on. I think her favourite was ‘Time's A Wastin’, the June Carter song with Carl Perkins. She’d be like, “do it again, do it again”. To this day I think of it and realise, wow, I really did do literally anything to avoid physical fitness
I definitely remember Tammy Wynette coming on at some point singing 'D.I.V.O.R.C.E' and all that, but I feel like when it really popped off was Taylor Swift. When I was 12, she released her first album. She was 16 and I had never heard anything like it in my life. When I was 12 I was just fully convinced that I was going to be a pop star. There was no other option.
When did you start writing your own songs?
I got a guitar for Christmas, and I could play all these Taylor Swift songs because they're really easy. I was also really really into Beatles, but their music is really hard to play. Taylor Swift was just like three or four chords, and amazing melodies lyrics that are fun to sing if you're a girl. So I started to play a couple of Taylor Swift songs, and then immediately after that I just started writing songs. I just loved her, but then, as a result, I got really into Dolly, and then it was just Dolly Dolly, Dolly, Dolly till the cows came home, for a very long time.
What did you like about Dolly?
There was nothing about Dolly that I didn't like, everything about her was just appealing to me on every single level. Especially because when I hit 13 I started to be a moody teenager. I think when I was 12 years old I would be like, “I'm going to be a pop star and I'm amazing and I'm so beautiful. I've never done anything wrong in my life”.
Then I hit 13 and was like, “Everything is so bad. The world is a terrible place. What are we gonna do?” Dolly has a lot of songs that work for that. Taylor didn't have songs that work for that, but Dolly does. ‘Down From Dover’ was my favorite song when I was 13. So dramatic. I was just into anything deathy then.
How much of how much of a pop star are you now?
I think I'm a bit of a pop star. I think I’m like a grade F pop star at the moment, but I'm looking to get up to a grade C.
What did you do before you were a pop star?
I was working in 70 million different jobs at all times. After I finished school I moved to Denmark for four months. I was supposed to live there for a year and a half with my family, but then I got into college in Dublin, and I moved back early.
The funny thing about Denmark, though, was that I had a whole top floor to myself. I had broken amps and broken guitars and broken pianos and broken keyboards and every broken instrument I could get my hands up there. I’d find them by the side of the road and bring them into my loft, because that's what I'd been doing for my entire teenage years - rescuing instruments that nobody else wanted and then never really playing them.
I spent literally four months alone in that room, because I was kind of not well mentally, but I just wrote more songs than I had ever written over a consistent period. Constantly writing songs and constantly playing.
Then when I came back to Dublin, in order for me to be able to afford to go to college, I had to work a job. So I was working a job, then also doing this really intense full time course, and then trying to do music on the side. It's just got too much and I had a complete breakdown. I was very not well by the end of it. I was really, really deeply unwell.
But the funny thing was, after I dropped out, everyone hated me for it, but I was actually fine from that point onwards. Because I made the decision to just do music. So all I had to do was work full time and then do music when I wasn’t not working, and that's basically what I did until last year. I was just always working a full time random job, and then inevitably either leaving or getting sacked because of music.
Who does all your artwork?
Rachel O'Regan, and she is a very big Blaze Foley fan. Me and her bonded in a pub one night when she came to see me. We got talking afterwards and she asked me if I liked country music and if I liked Blaze Foley. We just got really really drunk. We were talking about Blaze and Townes Van Zandt and all that kind of shit. And then she's like, “I'm going to do your artwork!” I hadn't released anything at the time so I just thought she was fucking crazy. I just assumed she was going to be shit.
Then I woke up the next morning with an unbelievably big hangover and went to my phone and saw that she’d followed me. I clicked into her Instagram page and I immediately started crying. I remember just thinking she was so good. It was exactly my kind of thing, to a tee. It’s my favorite kind of shit, because I love detail. Especially in imagery, and in my lyrics. My lyrics are very wordy and my songs are very dense and I just remember instantly thinking that something about the kind of songs I write was reflected in her artwork. She is a genius.
What’s the story behind the album title, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead, being misspelt?
It's a very long story, but I'll give you a truncated version. I was on a bus on my way to what I believe was, at that time, an intervention. This would have been around the time that I left college and was very unwell and was doing a lot of crazy things and a lot of bad things. It was like a gentle intervention.
I was on the bus, and I could see there was a book up high on the emergency exit shelf above me, and when the bus came to a stop the book fell off the shelf and hit me on the back of the head. It actually fell and it hit me. It was a hardback edition of a book from the 1970s called The Dreamers Dictionary, and I opened it up and on the inside there was an inscription that said, “To Mary, I will never forget you, God bless you always, your undercover lover, Mark Carol”.
Then on the other side it said “PS, if my wife new I'd be dead”. Which is just crazy, and then in the book itself, it was basically like a dictionary for interpreting your dreams, and all of the things that were even vaguely sexual had been underlined and highlighted by this guy. I've never seen anything so insane and funny in my life.
So then eventually, when I got to the place where I was supposed to be going to have this really difficult conversation, I just turned up with this book, and said, “Let's talk about this!” So for two hours we did, and then we never had the difficult conversation, because we were just laughing at that book for two hours.
I always really think of that as a really good pin-point in this belief that I have that people will do anything to deflect from a difficult conversation, but in particular use humour and comedy and things that are funny as a huge crutch. If you're going through a difficult time, or if you go through something really difficult, then you can laugh at it and it's made a lot easier. And you can kind of get through it.
It’s a coping mechanism, but also a really bad coping mechanism. It’s basically like plastering over a crack in a car. That's kind of what the theme of the whole album is. Humour as a device and humour as a coping mechanism and the upsides and the downsides to all of that.
What I love about you is that you really take care over every single aspect of being a pop star. How important is that to you?
I say this all the time, but I've spent a very very very significant portion of my life alone in a room with a computer. I've spent more time on the internet than almost anyone I know. I spent so much time alone in my bedroom when I was a teenager. I’d see a Wikipedia list of the 100 greatest Westerns of all time, and I’d just think “Well, I've got a whole weekend here, I'm a teenager, I don't have any friends, I'm just gonna watch all those”.
Then anytime I heard a song that I liked, I would find out everything that there is to find out about the person who made it, and all the people associated with the people who made it, and all of the artwork involved. I just have had so much time on my hands in my life, and I spent very little of it ever communicating with other people and quite a lot of it just like reading, and watching and listening to things and really dissecting people to within an inch of their life in terms of their industry.
So when it came to do my own stuff, I just knew I needed to have all the bases covered. In case some freak like me came along.
CMAT's debut album If My Wife New I'd Be Dead is released on March 4th on vinyl, CD and cassette.