Cover Feature CMAT: Mad About The Girl

CMAT has long been a superstar in waiting. Now, with momentum tangibly building ahead of second album ‘CrazyMad, For Me’, it’s time for Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson to take centre stage.

Emotional rollercoasters on a Glastonbury Sunday morning are usually reserved for those trying to push their way past the horizon of an imminent four-day comedown. But at 12.30pm in the Woodsies tent back in June, Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson was living out the sort of misty-eyed, memorable tipping point that careers are made from.

Having turned down a slot in 2022 in favour of waiting for “one of the big five stages,” the gravitas and potential attention of playing the world’s most beloved festival was not lost on the singer better known as CMAT. “My whole last six months had been leading up to Glastonbury,” she recalls. “When we got it confirmed this year I thought, ‘Oh fuck, now I’ve got to be really good…’” But the reality was more than even she could have wished for.

Throughout 40 minutes of carefully-constructed chaos, in which belting heart-on-sleeve vocals, stand-up style banter, drag-esque extroversions and some really, really very good songs combined, the peripheral shade-dwelling bystanders all rose to their feet. By the end, as Thompson led the entire packed tent in a slowly swaying two-step to the strains of 2020 single ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy, Baby!’ - a song she’d prefaced as being about a time in her life when she’d felt at her loneliest ebb - the whole crowd sung its chorus back. Thompson, in a perfect visual metaphor for everything her project is about, stood front and centre in a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘CMAT is a silly bitch!’ and earnestly, gratefully sobbed.

For the past few years, since the release of ‘...Cowboy’ and the witty, country-flecked quartet of songs that made up 2021’s ‘Diet Baby’ EP, CMAT has been something of a cult secret beloved by those in the know. Like drag culture, she says, “it’s a private joke that’s only for the people who get it”. But in recent months, it’s one that has begun to spread. Following that Glastonbury show, Ciara headed back home to support Florence + the Machine on a pair of Irish dates. The day we meet, she’s premiering the video for her new single ‘Where Are Your Kids Tonight?’, a duet with one of her longterm heroes, John Grant. Later that evening, Robbie Williams will take to Instagram to post about his love for the song, not once but twice.

CMAT is, undeniably, in demand. But she’s also not there yet - a reality that Thompson, sat in a meeting room at her label’s office, make-up spread over a table as she attempts to eat a spicy paneer salad, curl her hair and conduct this interview simultaneously, is all-too aware of. “I read this interview recently where Dua Lipa’s personal trainer said that, for her to be performing at an optimum level, she has to sleep for 16 hours a day. And she’s able to do that, whereas I am just out of my house all of the time, constantly,” she says. “I’m probably as busy as someone like her, but the level is so much lower that I’m just dirty all the time. I’m the mangiest pop star going.”

For what it’s worth, Thompson smells perfectly fine from where we’re sitting, but the underlying point behind the gag still stands. Underpinning her hard-won rise at every step has been graft and resilience, an unwavering sense of self belief and the ability to pick herself back up from the darkest of corners. CMAT might be a silly bitch, but Ciara is a far more complicated character.

CMAT on second album 'Crazymad, For Me', Glastonbury and Robbie Williams CMAT on second album 'Crazymad, For Me', Glastonbury and Robbie Williams CMAT on second album 'Crazymad, For Me', Glastonbury and Robbie Williams
“People find loud women off-putting and I am as loud as they fucking come.”

Born in 1996 in Dublin, Thompson spent the majority of her youth in the tiny commuter town of Dunboyne before moving back to the Irish capital to study, and then across to Manchester with her then-boyfriend to pursue music. Throughout these periods, the constant thread was a feeling of frustration at the lack of opportunity afforded to her. “A lot of loneliness came from feeling like I was trapped in poverty, in the sense that I felt I was really talented and good at writing songs, but no one fucking listened to me because I was working in a TK Maxx,” she says. “Nobody had any time of day for me. I wrote 75 million songs and a lot of them were good, and I’d be bringing them back and forth to London but no one cared because I wasn’t interesting enough because I didn’t have any resources to be interesting.

“I felt like, for a lot of years, there was a thing I wanted to do but I literally couldn’t see a way of executing it. I had two jobs - I was also a sexy shots lady - because I just wanted enough money to get the Megabus to London to do writing sessions and gigs, and all of my spare time and effort and energy went into trying to be a musician and a pop star. I was so angry and frustrated all the time that no one was paying attention to me because I didn’t have any money. And that was how it felt, that there was no way to get my foot in the door because I didn’t have any connections or resources.”

Eventually, she would crack the door open by leaving her old band Bad Sea, splitting with her partner, moving back to Dublin and beginning to put her songs on YouTube where she was scouted by a management team. The flights of fantasy coupled with feelings of extreme isolation that populated last year’s full-length debut ‘If My Wife New I’d Be Dead’ capture the intensity of this time, while October’s forthcoming follow-up ‘CrazyMad, For Me’ acts as a potted document of that breakup and the years of anger, questioning and resentment that would follow. However, where CMAT’s poetic leanings and tendency for the swooning epic might lend a romantic hue to many of these offerings on record, the reality was far less rosy.

“I find it funny, because I get a lot of people telling me I should write a book but my life was not fucking interesting,” she explains. “I didn’t do anything. All my drug-taking was sad and weird and not that social, and that’s another thing - that entrapment directly leads to substance abuse and that was very much the same for me. I was stonked out of my brain on hash the whole time that I lived in Manchester because I did not want to be in my reality. So temporarily getting out of it for a bit was like, ‘Great, love it’.”

Still, however, Ciara wouldn’t let herself give up. Upon leaving Manchester, she remembers landing her dream proper job as an auctioneer’s assistant but acknowledging that, if she was ever going to make an album, she would have to turn it down for fear of being “too content”. “In an alternate universe, I’m itemising Tupperware from the 1960s - I could have been a contender!” she laughs. “But even when I was working in a shop, and had no money, and was a normal girl by textbook definition, I also wasn’t relatable because I was a fucking freak. I was selling cigarettes and scratchcards on the till and in my head I was like, ‘None of these people know how good I am at writing songs…’ I’ve never been humble in my life.”

CMAT on second album 'Crazymad, For Me', Glastonbury and Robbie Williams CMAT on second album 'Crazymad, For Me', Glastonbury and Robbie Williams CMAT on second album 'Crazymad, For Me', Glastonbury and Robbie Williams CMAT on second album 'Crazymad, For Me', Glastonbury and Robbie Williams
“What I want to do is be, objectively speaking, the best songwriter ever.”

In conversation, it is easy to spot the difference between CMAT and Ciara. Where her pop star persona is a fun-loving rhinestone cowgirl, slaying her way across the stage and popping out choreography and splits at every turn, Thompson is a fast-talking overthinker with an intriguing mix of supreme confidence and ready self-criticism. The two are both sides of the same coin, but they’re also fundamentally separate. “The way I’ve always thought about it is, CMAT is singing songs about a girl called Ciara, but CMAT is not Ciara,” she begins. “When CMAT is on an Instagram Live it’s all, ‘Hey girl, slay’ and you have to do that so people find you pleasant. I don’t want people to come into contact with me outside of me singing and be put off immediately.”

Do you think you’re off-putting? “Oh 100%. I’m really annoying,” she answers immediately. “I’m not saying this to rag on myself, but I know I’m off-putting because I had a difficult time until I became a pop star and I would regularly meet people who just did not like me because I talk so much all of the time. People find loud women off-putting and I am as loud as they fucking come, and I’m very much a woman - I’m very girly - but I don’t do the demure thing. I’m the opposite of chic.

“I’m very selfish, and I know that about myself, and it’s hard not to be selfish and self-centred when the thing that brings me the most joy and fulfilment and peace is just me talking about myself, which is what my music is,” she continues. “I watched that Wham! documentary the other day, and George Michael is one of the nicest men ever to work in music - so talented and so brilliant - but when I watched that doc I really related to the bit when he cried because ‘Last Christmas’ didn’t go to UK Number One because he wanted four Number Ones in a year, and instead Live Aid went to Number One. He’s fucking fuming even though he also sings on that, but he didn’t write the song so it wasn’t good enough. I really related to that.”

It’s rare to find a burgeoning pop star in 2023 that’s ready to be truly candid, and far far rarer to find one that’s willing to own and admit their flaws in such an open-book way. Thompson’s lack of artifice might be polarising for some (even her bandmates, she says, sometimes won’t talk to her in rehearsals for fear of incurring the brunt of her ambitious criticisms), but it’s also undoubtedly part of what’s got her this far. There’s a hustle mentality to the singer that knows if you want to make it, you’d better buckle up, strap in for the ride and keep your skin thick. It’s an ambition that also comes through in spades on ‘CrazyMad…’ - an album that takes the melodic bones of her debut and bulks it up into a concise portrait that balances granular lyrical detail and widescreen sonic ambition.

“Objectively I know that this second album is probably going to be the best album I ever make,” she shrugs. “I think it’s the best collection of songs, and they’re really instinctive, and it’s about something really real and raw and quite simple, so on some level I think it’s gonna be the one that everyone likes the most. I wanted to make something that people could say was objectively really good. I don’t know how close someone like me can get to the George Michael thing of being omnipresent, I obviously can’t get anywhere close to that, but I’d like to think this would be my version of an attempt at doing something big: that’s why I’m excited.”

“I know that this second album is probably going to be the best album I ever make.”

With her second album mere weeks away, CMAT has every reason to feel this way. It’s no coincidence that, in the run up, she’s been ticking off bucket list moments from a Spotify featured artist billboard in New York’s Times Square to a Radio 1 Hottest Record in the World launch for recent single ‘Have Fun!’. ‘CrazyMad, For Me’ takes the detritus of a toxic relationship with a man that Thompson describes as “blowing through my life like the Tasmanian devil for five and a half years and using me like a scratching post”, and turns it into a superlative document of pith and pain.

‘California’ opens as a meta introduction to the album-writing process itself; a song about “egging [her] on” to make the record in the first place, set to an epic exhalation of freedom. “The guy in question is not going to be happy about this album; I’ve not spoken to him in six years and I probably won’t speak to him ever again because he was lowkey an evil bastard and I don’t want him anywhere near my life,” she says. “I had this thing that people are gonna think I’m a fucking sadcase for bringing it all up six years later, but California is me going, ‘Well I’m gonna fucking do it anyway’.”

On the bass-led stalk of ‘Phone Me’, she draws parallels between Cassandra - the character in Greek mythology whose prophecies were never believed - and Rebekah Vardy. On the gutting ‘Such A Miranda’, she flits between Sex and the City references and the sucker-punchline: “Grown ups just get on with it / But I’m still not as old as you were when we first met”. The stormy, atmospheric pop of ‘I… Hate Who I Am When I’m Horny’, meanwhile, brings to mind The Maccabees’ most enveloping moments whilst weaving in some wholly CMAT one-liners (“So you ask me first off what am I into / I say ‘God, self destruction and a Britney tune’ / You know she’s so lucky, she’s a star”).

The whole thing is a supremely smart knitting together of pop culture references high and low; the product of a songwriter who “spends most of [their] time reading things on the internet,” but who is equally committed to the craft of what they do, of making things witty and beautiful wherever possible. “I think you’ve gotta do some songwriting, dontcha?” she laughs of her approach. “In the nicest way possible to the established way of doing things at the moment which is: ‘What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me? I’m going to write a song about it and not do anything except type the story up’. And sometimes that’s beautiful; Sam Fender can do that and it’s really effective, fabulous. But a lot of people are attempting to do that [badly].

“I think it just has to be poetic. Guys, we can do poetry, it’s not illegal! We can do things in a creative way when making creative things! Talking about things is difficult, I’m very bad at therapy. I go when I’ve had a bad mental break which has happened to me a couple of times, so after that I’ll go almost as a way of proving to myself that I’m looking after myself. Give myself a pat on the head, ‘Look at me I’m going to therapy and I don’t want to die ha ha ha’. But I’m not good at it because I can’t describe my emotions unless I’m using Rebbekah Vardy and visuals and melody and things that are on a different level than language. I have to deliver my own feelings to myself through songwriting otherwise I’ll never know what happened.”

In Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson’s 27 years of life so far, a lot has happened: some good, some bad, some hard and, more recently, some completely life-affirming. Entirely unsurprisingly, her dreams are both sky high and totally true to herself. She would like, specifically, to win the Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically, “because if I hit that mark then I know I’ve been doing what I want to do, which is be, objectively speaking, the best songwriter ever,” she explains only with a slight hint of a wink. But she’s also aware that, having fought long and hard to get to a point where her own unique vision of the world is being seen and understood, she’s not ready to let that go any time soon.

“I don’t need to be recognised by everyone. I love pop music but I’m not willing to sacrifice my own communication in order to make something palatable,” she nods, tooth gems glinting, as she adorns herself with the gold hoops and bright red curls that turn her into CMAT. “I don’t think my goal is for people to see me as a normal girl. If I was to be a figurehead that inspires anything of anyone, I would like to inspire normal people from normal backgrounds to be very creative and very investigative. I don’t need people to think anything of me except, she’s a bit fucking annoying but at the end of the day, that song fucking bangs.

“Put it on my headstone: At the end of the day, that song fucking bangs.”

‘CrazyMad, For Me’ is out 13th October via AWAL.

As featured in the August 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

Read More

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Stay Updated!

Get the best of DIY to your inbox each week.