Hyper-feminity, urban isolation, and red-headed glamour - Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell chats to Irish musician CMAT.
Named an Essential Artist for 2021 by Pop Buzz and one of Hot Press’ Hot for 2021, if you haven’t listened to CMAT’s ‘I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby’, do so now.
Interviewing Ciara Marie-Alice Thompson, CMAT, was like sitting down to have a cuppa and a natter. "I would say C-mat and my friends would call me C-mat, but John Creedon calls me C-M-A-T", she exaggerates each letter in a slow, deep voice. It’s funny that she brings up The John Creedon Show so quickly. It was listening to it on RTÉ Radio 1 that I first heard CMAT, and I think Creedon is great. Thompson holds her heart in agreement. Bedecked in her distinctive red hair, glamorous gold hoop earrings and a Patsy Cline t-shirt, there are no airs-and-graces; "I am just stirring my tea with a fork that is plastic because I forgot to bring a spoon... we're just doing what we can to get through this lockdown".
Over Zoom, Thompson spoke to me from Finglas, where she lives with her grandparents. She is a proud Dub. “I went to secondary school and spent my teenage years in Dunboyne. I keep getting written about [as] 'Proud Meath Woman' and I'm like ...I am not a Meath Woman, don't ever let it be said about me. But then there was this one festival..." and she launches into an anecdote about being asked, as a 'proud Meath native' to play the local gig and all of a sudden it’s: “Up the Royals!.. I'm like Charlie Haughey, I'll just say I'm from wherever" she laughs.
Having tried Trinity for a while - “I was really bold in school, I didn't study.[...] I got there and thought 'ok, cool, so I can just keep winging it and being a legend' and em, no” - Thompson decided music was the path for her and formed the duo Bad Sea. “Bad Sea actually ended in 2017 but I guess I didn't come apart from the band unit until the end of 2018"
I was hesitant to ask why. I also wasn’t sure whether it was for personal reasons or professional and artistic direction, and a split from a duo seems more fractious. Either way, I figured it wasn’t amicable. I asked anyway.
"Em, [it was] a mix of everything. In 2017 we had done lots of gigs[...] It was going well, but I was mentally very bad. I've had a couple of wobbly-bits in my life and that was one of them”. Thompson described playing Castlepalooza, and going through the press photographs afterwards; “ I just didn't recognise myself. I was looking at a picture of myself and I did not think it was me! And I was like, 'oh..... ugh that's bad'”.
“I was really unhappy in general, but I was really unhappy creatively. I wasn't doing well creatively. I think I was kind of being stifled... in a number of ways, and it was like (panicked voice) I've got to move to Manchester! I've got to blow my life up! But then sure I moved to Manchester and it made everything worse” she laughs. “So that's why Bad Sea ended. It just wasn't a good creative relationship between me and the other person in the band. We just weren't coming from the same place. I don't think he understood me".
It was shocking to see a confident young woman, with such distinct style, find herself so far down a road she never wanted to be on, and one that made her deeply unhappy. "That's the experience of most women musicians, to be honest with you. It's something that's happened to so many amazing women musician friends of mine. [...] The only reason I ever started writing songs, from when I was eleven, was to deal with my personal problems. It was my therapy[...] So when your therapy gets taken away from you because someone tells you you're not good at it anymore [...] you think that's the most important thing. But it actually really doesn't matter whether you're good at music or not, it just matters that it's working for you”.
It's almost like it took me being stripped of my identity for four years in that relationship, both creatively and personally [...] in order to be so self-assured as I am right now - where [...] I know exactly what I'm doing.
As we got caught up in conversation about this problem it became clear that, unfortunately, this was not a once-off occurrence; “I was having this conversation two nights ago with Aoife Nessa Frances” - if you don’t know Aoife Nessa Frances - “she released, I would say, not the Irish album of the year, but the Irish album of the last five years, she's so brilliant” - she continues: “but we were having a conversation and [realised] 'oh. The exact same thing that happened to you, happened to me, also happened to this girl, happened to this girl, happened to this girl’. [...] it's almost like it took me being stripped of my identity for four years in that relationship, both creatively and personally [...] in order to be so self-assured as I am right now - where [...] I know exactly what I'm doing. I think it's the same with her, it's the same with a lot of people. It's a terrifying prospect. It's also terrifying knowing how many of my friends are in either professional or personal relationships like that and never get out of it. That's even more terrifying. I'm very lucky that I got out of it”.
After both of us sitting for a moment, down-trodden at such a reality, I pulled up my professional socks and got back into the job at hand, asking Thompson about her fabulous style. It’s in her music, her dress sense, her artwork. If you are not yet acquainted, her video ‘Rodney’ will give you the CMAT-style crash-course.
"I just love country music[...] both aesthetically and in style. But then also, I'm from Ireland so it's not like I'm coming from the American South and I have really good (her fingers do air-inverted-commas) references. Like my references are really watered-down country music, glamorous references”. She continues: “And then also I love archival footage. Ever since I was thirteen I don't think I watched modern music videos. I think I'm just really old-fashioned, but not in a way where I'm doing that pastiche thing. I don't think I would want to do pastiche country music [...] I love old things, and I also love old things that are informed by the working class. That's very important to me [...] I love glamour but oh my god if I see another pair of Kim-Kardashian fluffy joggers! I hate it! I just wish people would dress more fun, I think there's a lot of 'fun' missing from wealthy people. They don't have 'fun', dya know what I mean?"
I add that I don’t think CMAT is just a country-gal when it comes to her image though, there is a definite feminine glamour to everything she wears. I then launch into my love of a particular pair of red shoes from the aforementioned ‘Rodney’ video, which then causes Thompson to disappear stage-left and come back with the glorious sling-backs; "I love glamour, and I do love hyper-femininity. I have kind of a political reason I suppose.
I just think hyper-femininity is very punk now because it's been cast aside for so long
“When you think of an alternative Irish musician that is a woman you think of Dolores, who was a tomboy, and there's still glamour there, there's still make-up, but it's very male informed clothing. The same with Sinéad O'Connor, it's very male, it's very androgynous. It's almost like androgyny is the key to being taken seriously. If you're kind of replicating what a man does, that's how you get taken seriously, and that's how you get listened to. Or, you do that acceptable form of femininity. Because the one thing about Ireland is, don't be too sure of yourself! Don't love yourself too much. Don't be too glamorous, don't be dressing yourself up and making yourself look too good, because 'Jesus that one, if she was a bar of chocolate she'd eat herself'! I just think hyper-femininity is very punk now because it's been cast aside for so long”.
For someone with such a vibrant and distinct style, it would be easy to think Thompson didn’t seek approval of others, but she still speaks about the love and safety she felt in the queer scene in Dublin; “the place I felt accepted very early on was the queer scene [...] I am very loud and my personality has always been 'la!la!la!la!' and I always felt like I was getting given out to - I physically can't stop myself from talking sometimes [...] But I always felt very accepted and praise for that kind of behaviour in queer spaces. I think the hyper-femininity comes as a result of knowing that if everyone else is giving out about me, at least there are little corners of the arts scene in Dublin that will be like 'just go for it!!'. And it is just what I want to look like, it's how I want to dress. I just feel the most confident”.
Dolly, Tammy and Loretta Lynn [...] also encapsulate that thing of 'big glamour', big hair, big this, big that, but actually we're all very sad” she laughs “We're all kind of in bits
I ask her who her influences are; "I absolutely adore eighties Coronation Street. Liz McDonald is the style icon of my life. She is a hoooooer, she was a slapper. She was having fun! She was interesting! And I always think kitchen-sink soap operas, and stuff that is related to working-class people always does the much, much better job of giving loads of dimensions to women characters [...] Here you've got a woman who is a barmaid and has a perm and wears leopard print mini-dress of a Monday at 2pm and red stiletto high-heels. But then also she's dealing with the death of her baby, and she's dealing with this and dealing with that, so you're looking at her but you're hearing so many more stories that are deeply affecting her[...] And that's the reality! Particularly it's the reality of women who dress-up big. Whenever someone dresses up big, and bold, and in a way that is going to attract as much negative attention as positive attention, there's always a reason”. She cites Amanda Lepore as another of her favourites and ‘the big three’; “Dolly, Tammy and Loretta Lynn, because they also encapsulate that thing of 'big glamour', big hair, big this, big that, but actually we're all very sad” she laughs “We're all kind of in bits”.
‘I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby!’ was my favourite song of 2020. One of my favourite lines in the song goes: “And I feel bad 'cause I didn't cry/ When someone I grew up with died/ But I break down every time I'm on the scales”. It’s that dark Irish humour, stemming from brutal honesty; “I think I write songs the way most Irish people tell stories. I think my songwriting is very Irish. [...] Country and folk music inform so much of what I do, and the root and the ethos of country music and Appalachian folk is just pure honesty.
“Honesty for me is a very hard thing to do in real life” she says “the only way I can justify being so brutally honest about myself and my feelings and my life in my songs is by making a big joke of it, and by turning it into gas craic even though it’s not. I can’t stop myself from doing this. The humour is like a buffer zone between me and my emotions”.
“If someone asks me what the song is about, I can be like (in an Americana accent) ‘it’s just about wanting to be a Cowboy, it’s just like going around and being Cowboys’ but what the song is actually about is gender politics and urban isolation and how badly I was affected by both of those things when I was living in Manchester. But I don’t have to say those things every time because I’ve made a joke of it. If I don’t want to talk about it I don’t have to. In a way, it’s protecting myself”.
“I guess also it’s important in life to make the small things big and the big things small [...] I also just hate po-faced songwriting. And I also really want to be entertaining. Other than being a really great songwriter, that’s what I want to do [...] I feel that a lot of alternative music that is left of centre, and has a political point [...] and a real message behind it, the live shows are just boring! Even though the songs and the songwriting is amazing, the live shows can be just [..] crap. They take themselves really seriously and it’s just depressing”.I agree with her, and launch into my own anecdote of a big gig of a big serious artist I attended that was just boring.
Like everyone else, Thompson’s world has been turned upside down by the pandemic; “I sat down with my manager in December and we planned out the next six months and what I was going to do. Then I had another meeting with him on the 5th of January and he was like ‘ok so everything is cancelled, you’re not doing any of that.” While we still haven’t seen a CMAT album, Thompson assured me that if there ever was one, it was going to a surprise.
Instead of asking about plans for the future (that almost feels insensitive at the moment), I ask about her unabashed completely indulgent dream: “I love music television so much and it’s a big influence on me [...] I did a Christmas show with Whelans and I did it like the Cher show, there were loads of comedy skits in between, there was loads of acting and then there were musical performances. And that’s maybe my favourite thing I’ve ever done because I got to put Junior Brother on the same program as a bunch of Drag Queens. That’s probably the thing I’m proudest of to date. I would love to do a proper big-budget music television thing, not a long-running thing, just maybe four episodes of people coming on and making them wear silly costumes and they’ll have to do it, and they’ll love doing it because they’re [...] on the CMAT show. That would be nice”.