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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Annabel Nugent

CMAT, Ireland’s biggest new star: ‘I wanted to make Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell for the girls’

Sarah Doyle

Within minutes of meeting Irish singer Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson, I discover three things: she is a hugger, she has a Diet Coke addiction, and her favourite movie is Frank, the 2014 drama-musical in which Michael Fassbender wears a ginormous papier mache head for the entire duration. “For me, that’s the most accurate depiction of being in a band, being on tour, and making a record,” says Thompson, who is not wearing a giant fake head. In fact, amid the cacophony of chatter, I only now notice that she is only in a towel. “Sorry,” she purrs theatrically. “Who would’ve thought the basic room at Premier Inn wouldn’t have robes?”

The 27-year-old, who performs under the moniker CMAT, is part way through photo shoot prep – which explains the hot pink 1920s-style wig on the table and the mountain of tulle on the bed. Also: the towel. Niall, her make-up artist, is getting to work. A hotel room of sartorial treasures is a fitting setting for a musician whose love of camp is as extensively documented as her love of country music. Both are all over her exuberant second album Crazymad, For Me, which follows 2022’s If My Wife New I’d Be Dead – her acclaimed debut that shot straight to No 1 in Ireland and won the RTÉ Choice Music Prize that year. Thompson makes left-field, over-the-top pop with plain-as-day melodies and powerhouse vocals indebted to icons like Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks. She’s been described as “Dublin’s answer to Dolly Parton” more than once.

Like the country music icon, Thompson is a fan of theatrics – and perusing her past photo shoots, it seems she too subscribes to the Parton-ism: “The higher the hair, the closer to God.” Today, though, her bright copper-red hair is shorn short and freshly washed. Her image was recently transposed onto a doll as part of the merchandise for Crazymad. “I asked for the fattest doll they have because I knew it was never going to be big enough,” she says. The biggest they had was a UK 10. “And that just shows you that the world is a f***ing terrible place.”

Thompson’s new album maps her recent relationship with a man “a solid eight or nine years older than me”, whom she met while still in school. It ended badly. “Back then I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love him!’” Thompson – a big fan of impersonations, I’ll soon learn – feigns a girlish sickly-sweet pout. “And then as I got older, the horrible reality of that relationship was fed back to me by my family and friends. It was like I had been living in a false version of events,” she says. “I was f***ing ‘delulu’ as the kids say these days.” Niall cocks an eyebrow. “They do!” she laughs. “Being delulu is the solulu…” (Translation: “Being delusional is the solution.”)

Crazymad is decidedly not delulu. “I’m milking what I can from this grief,” Thompson states on “California”, the album’s clear-eyed opener and de facto mission statement. “They’re gonna make a movie of it,” she sings. “Oh no, it won a Razzie!” On fizzy follow-up “Phone Me”, she modulates her cheating paranoia to an Eighties pop frequency. “Where Are Your Kids Tonight?”, featuring John Grant, sees the two vocalists locked in a mid-tempo slow dance on a spaceship.

On the album and in conversation, Thompson namechecks Vincent Kompany, the Wagatha Christie trial, and Marian Keyes. Sonically, too, her touchstones are disparate. Tattooed on her upper arm is the silhouette of the little-known Seventies folk artist Judee Sill; similarly, she adores the psychedelic output of American singer Linda Perhacs who, even lesser known than Sill, now works as a dental nurse in California. “She’s so good, I can’t even talk about it,” Thompson clutches at her chest. Making Crazymad, though, saw one icon take precedence. “I wanted to make Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf – but for the girls,” she says.

When musicians set out to make a dramatic album, Thompson says, they’ll typically reach for strings or something really lush. “They go for cooler references, like [Sixties pop star turned experimental artist] Scott Walker punching the slab of meat with his fists,” she says. “And there’s this notion that Bat Out of Hell is an uncool record and maybe this is a really hot take, but I would base that opinion in misogyny because everyone I know who loves that album is a woman in her fifties, such as my mother. It was literally my mam’s favourite record,” she says, her Dunboyne accent thick as double cream.

Answers from Thompson tend to conclude along the lines of “I don’t know how I got here”. Conversation veers into unexpected places, down musical rabbit holes and funny dead ends. She intersperses her thoughts on musical craft with spectacular one-liners. “I’d rather be a short-term b****, long-term legend” is one. “I’m convinced Dolly Parton is running her own Pinterest account” is another, and so is: “I had the fear of saying the word horny over and over again in a song when my grandparents are still alive.” Later, as she tells me of her antiquing addiction, Thompson recalls with despair how her mum made her bin her collection of Toby jugs because they were “the art of the oppressor”. Even the simplest questions evoke a splendidly mad answer.

Clowning around: CMAT in costume
— (Sarah Doyle)

Thompson has the bravado of someone who knows their pop star dreams will pan out. Or at least someone who knows full well when they’ve made a hit, like, say, “Nashville” off her last record – which she had hoped would bag her the Ivor Novello, the only award she truly wants. “I’ve been guilty of going for critical acclaim in the past but actually my most successful songs and the ones that mean the most to me are almost always the stupidest ones,” she says.

Not “Nashville”, though.  “I genuinely still believe that the best song ‘musically and lyrically’ of the year 2022 was ‘Nashville’ by CMAT and I backed myself so f***ing much,” Thompson says. She lost to Sam Fender who picked up the prize for his hit song “Seventeen Going Under”.

“We’ll see what happens this year.” Thompson smiles, showing off a tiny diamante gem stuck to her front tooth. 

“Is it too much?” Niall asks her, concerned about the fluttery pair of fake eyelashes newly glued on Thompson’s lids. Perhaps because Thompson – who graced the cover of her previous single dressed in a head-to-toe jester outfit – recently said she wants to try a more “pedestrian” look. The tons of tulle and aforementioned wig in the room, however, beg to differ.

“I feel like it’s the same thing with my music, I set out to make easy, simple music that is instinctive and then it turns out to be something f***ing weird, but I think it’s normal,” she laughs. “But anyway, giving the radio what you think the radio wants will never work.”

I don’t think enough people make themselves look bad in art, especially not now when everyone is skinny and perfect

Thompson fosters an intimate connection with her fans online. Recently, she promised her followers that if Crazymad reached the Top 10, she would send her wisdom teeth to one lucky devotee. (Unfortunately, that’s yet to transpire.) But being a young woman online does, inevitably, result in a degree of vitriol – something Thompson says she’s largely unbothered by. “Every time I hit the main page of TikTok, it’s a s***-show,” she says. “It’s generally just, ‘This is s***. I hate this. She’s fat. She’s fat. She’s fat. She looks like Chucky.’ The minute one person said I looked like Chucky the Doll, every comment on my page for two weeks was just “Chucky,’” she says. “But if that’s the only thing they have against me, then that’s totally fine. If they were saying things like ‘she’s a selfish person or she’s not as smart as she thinks she is’ or something very specific that would cut a lot deeper.”

Thompson isn’t afraid to be self-critical. In fact, she enjoys it – probably a symptom, she suggests, of the “whole Irish Catholic-ness thing”. While she sees the purpose of self-love anthems and empowerment pop, it’s something she has no time for personally. “I’m interested in not only how being a woman in this world can be very bad, but also how it can make me a bad person at times,” she says. “I think that’s my angle: to own up to my terrible attributes and ultimately put the blame on myself. My job will always be to make myself look bad because I don’t think enough people make themselves look bad in art, especially not now when everyone is skinny and gorgeous, wearing a bedazzled bodysuit and being impressive – but I don’t really want to be impressive. I want to be good at writing songs with a point.” 

Born in Dublin and raised in Dunboyne County Meath, Thompson was a troublemaker at school – which will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent more than 90 seconds with her. “I was apparently a distraction,” she laughs, describing how she would put a sticker in the middle of her forehead and tell people to look into her “third eye”. “I had this full fringe, which my mam made me get to hide my unibrow because she thought it was child abuse to pluck it.” She can’t remember a time she wasn’t writing music, recalling one of her earliest compositions, which expressed her wholehearted desire to be bald, because the French plaits her mother insisted on – “to keep away the lice” – hurt the hell out of her scalp. She sings me a few silly, catchy bars.

Coming from a family of nurses and teachers, Thompson’s starry aspirations weren’t altogether welcomed at first. “My family love to do a bit of revisionist history and say they’ve always been super-duper supportive but at the beginning they were like, ‘What the f*** are you doing?’” She was working odd jobs up until two years ago when she got signed; her last job was fixing coffee machines over the phone. 

In the nicest way possible to the people of England, I do think the class divide is a lot bigger here

When she moved to London to pursue music full-time, Thompson says she didn’t meet a single person like herself for a long time. “This is probably a bit of a mean thing to say but a lot of them were f***ing delusional, saying they didn’t have an easy ride but then letting slip they went to Brit school [the performing arts school attended by Adele, Tom Holland and Amy Winehouse],” she says.

“In the nicest way possible to the people of England... I do think the class divide is a lot bigger here. I’ve met very few English people that do music on this level who are from a working-class background or like a normal background. They’re all really, really posh.”  Later, she adds, “I mean my family would f***ing kill me if I ever said we were working class because they have that thing, like, ‘We’re not working class, we just go to work!’”

An hour in the make-up chair, and Thompson is a woman transformed. A thick swoop of eyeliner grazes the hot pink eyeshadow on her eyes, which in turn matches the brilliantly garish colour on her cheeks. “I think for the hair, let’s do something low-key like a big blow-out and then we can pin it up under the wig,” she says, reaching for the hairdryer. Next, the clothes: tulle or frills? I’m sure whichever she picks, it’ll be very pedestrian.

‘Crazymad, For Me’ is out now via AWAL

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