This eclectic ping-ponging around social touchstones is something that CMAT - Dublin singer-songwriter Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson - is becoming renowned for, both in and outside of her music. Whether through heartbreak anthem ‘Another Day (KFC)’, which namechecks the comfort she found in ordering another round of the Colonel’s wares, or via the kitschy soap opera-esque video for 2021’s ‘I Don’t Really Care For You’, her world seems to grow more technicolored and detailed with each release.
“My hair and make-up artist always says, ‘Ciara, you’re such a CV, such a CV!’,” she laughs, “which is a culture vulture, but I’m like, ‘Ivy, that has a bit of a different meaning now…’” Needless to say, she’s on the money. “I am a culture vulture. I can see something from a mile away and know that I love it.”
Even the anecdotes she offers up today give a varied but multifaceted look at CMAT’s cultural inner-workings. From first writing songs aged 12, inspired entirely by Taylor Swift (“I was fully, straight meat-and-two-veg country music; I had no interest in being an authentic version of myself”), to following Bombay Bicycle Club on tour when she was younger (“I used to be an avid stalker of them, and I would do it all again if I could”), via explaining her debut album’s due date, the same as George Harrison’s birthday - “And two days after my own birthday - Pisces season!” - her musical upbringing has been varied, and she’s comfortable with that.
Granted, the road to that sort of self-awareness isn’t always an easy one. Suffering badly from cystic acne as a child, Ciara’s young, outgoing personality was quickly turned on its head. “I had teeeeerrible confidence issues,” she recalls. “I went from being the loudest child you ever would’ve met to continuing to be the loudest child except with severe insecurities.” Instead of socialising, she “basically locked myself in my bedroom for six or seven years” and began to absorb as much culture as she could get her hands on. “Then I came into adulthood and realised I knew so much more about pop culture than almost everyone else the same age as me, and I knew nothing about everything else.
“I knew nothing about interpersonal relationships. Because of that, when I was 18 and I got into a relationship, it was with someone way older. And while I was in an 18-year-old’s body, I had the cultural and intellectual mind of someone well into their 50s but the emotional width of an 11-year-old.” She pauses. “That combined made me a songwriter I think,” she cackles.
While for Ciara herself, the charm of songwriting is in exploring the minutiae, that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. Not one for speaking in sweeping generalisations (“It’s just not interesting”), she’s always been drawn to “distinct characters” within genres, who drill down into the tiny details that colour our everyday lives and experiences. And, while she admits that “world-building is second nature” to her, it’s only since focusing on this solo project that she’s been able to explore that fully.
“When I was in my old band, I was always writing lyrics that were very specific to me, and had lots of my own references,” she offers up. “I was always singing about Diet Coke. I think people think I’m doing it on purpose, but I always think about how, in the ‘60s, people sang about cigarettes in every song because they were just smoking cigarettes every day. I drink six or seven cans of Diet Coke every day - it’s gonna make its way in! When I don’t have a can of Diet Coke, it’s no bueno…
“But I kinda came into conflict with one other band member in particular, who was always like, ‘We’re not trying to be funny here, why are you doing all these funny lyrics?’ He was all ‘it’s not all about getting the jokes in’ and I was like, ‘I’m not joking!’
“I think a lot of people may misidentify me as novelty or humorous,” she continues. “I love comedy and humour, but I’m being serious pretty much all of the time. They’re never funny songs! But then, when I started writing what I wanted to write, that was when people started relating to it. And this was me singing about fucking Blanchardstown Shopping Centre in Dublin; most people have not been there.” She winks, ”but I have…”
The subject of humour is clearly an important one for CMAT. While, as Ciara says, her songs are never designed to be explicitly funny, it’s on grammatically-perplexing forthcoming debut album ‘If My Wife New I’d Be Dead’ that she’s decided to explore the ways in which we - as a society - use comedy to mask our true emotions. “The concept of the album is specifically about my psyche, but also the entire history of the nation of Ireland, and the entire generation that is late Millennials, or early Gen Z,” she says, keeping a barely-straight face through her rather sizable claim.
“It’s all about comedy and dark humour and this whole coping mechanism of ‘Jokes, jokes, jokes!’,” she goes further. “That double edged sword of comedy, which is like, ‘Ah yes, you can get through anything at all - the worst years of your life - if you just make jokes about it all the time’. But it’s also that thing of, if we keep making light of everything and we keep constantly joking about everything that happens to us, we’re not taking any time to reflect on the impact that it’s had on us. We’re not owning or facing our problems at all, constantly.”
While ‘If My Wife New I’d Be Dead’ explores this societal problem writ large, it’s also given Ciara an avenue to process her own experiences in a way she admits she never would have otherwise. “It’s my biggest problem, 100%,” she admits. “I’m really bad at talking about things in real life. There are songs on the album that are about things I will just never be able to talk about, and I know this. I’m really good at talking about them through song, but then if someone comes up to me and says, ‘Ciara, what’s that song about? Are you going through something right now?’ I’m like, ‘Pft, nooo!’” she mockingly retorts, “‘I just listened to a podcast!’”
A deft exploration of some of life’s darker moments and realisations, it’s a record that also offers up an even greater window into CMAT’s rich and witty world. Most importantly, however, it continues her mission to create something worthwhile, like her musical heroes before her.
“For the people who continue to give me their attention, I want to be doing something that’s worth their time, energy and effort,” she nods emphatically. “I say this about four times every day, but I want to be John Grant: he’s doing his own thing and being exactly who he is, not caring if people take him seriously or not, while still trying to make things that are beautiful. That’s exactly what I want to do; I’m not interested in the whole ‘blowing up’ and ‘having a moment’ thing. Fuck the moment!”
‘If My Wife New I’d Be Dead’ is out 25th February via AWAL.
As featured in the December 2021 / January 2022 issue of DIY, out now.