CMAT breaks the UK: ‘It’s definitely happening over here. She’s getting bigger and bigger all the time’

It has been Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson’s year, with a chart-topping second album, sold-out gigs and a growing reputation in Britain and the US

CMAT. Photograph: Ellius Grace/New York Times

Before she became obsessed with Dolly Parton and Paris Hilton, the young Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson’s first crush was Courtney Love. She adored Love’s cathartic punk-pop but was even more impressed by the singer’s determination to be 100 per cent herself – to pour every last drop of her personality into her music. “Courtney Love was loud and hyperfeminine. She was edgy – never androgynous,” Thompson told me last year. “She was big and took up a lot of space and wore a lot of make-up.”

Projecting a larger-than-life persona has likewise been a guiding principle for Thompson, who, as the chart-topping pop shape-shifter CMAT, has had a stellar 2023. Her second album, Crazymad, for Me, went to No 1 in Ireland and romped to No 25 in the UK. She has appeared on Later ... with Jools Holland, the BBC’s flagship music show, and sold out a string of nights at Dublin’s 3Olympia Theatre, earning a five-star review from The Irish Times. Today, we also name CMAT as the best Irish solo act of 2023 and rank Crazymad, for Me as one of the very best Irish albums of the year.

“She’s worked really hard to get to the position she’s in,” says Robin Murray, editor of Clash magazine, which has championed CMAT in Britain – it describes Crazymad, for Me as “a thrilling reminder of just how ambitious and exciting pop music can be”. Murray adds: “She’s a great live act, which definitely helps. CMAT gives great interviews, and uses social media well. I went to a karaoke bar in Dalston [in east London] with CMAT and can 100 per cent confirm she, and her best mate from the band, do a wicked version of Stay by Shakespears Sister.”

CMAT has more in common with B*witched than with Bell X1 – and that can only be a good thing

Thompson’s success is doubly significant because it rejects the idea that Irish music’s natural state is po-faced and portentous. CMAT is the anti-U2, neither preachy nor self-important, her songs simultaneously heartfelt and hilarious. She has more in common with B*witched than with Bell X1 – and that can only be a good thing. Consider her recent single Vincent Kompany, an emotive bopper named after the Belgian soccer star that references St Anthony yet quivers with sincerity. She’s not trying to be cool, which therefore makes her the coolest person in the room.


She is also prepared to speak up for herself. “When I was growing up, the alternative-music scene, not just in Ireland but ... in the UK and in America and stuff ... the women were skinny and not wearing make-up,” she told me in 2022. “They were very modest and very reserved. And they weren’t loud, and they weren’t talking a lot.”

As with all the best pop sagas, CMAT has a great origin story. She was born in Dublin and partly raised in Dunboyne, Co Meath. She studied at Trinity College before leaving to focus on music. She moved briefly to Denmark when she was 18, hoping to find inspiration in the Nordic winter. Then, after meeting another musician on the dating app Tinder, she formed the band Bad Sea. They went on to play the Hard Working Class Heroes and Other Voices festivals.

Before long cracks appeared, however. Thompson’s singular writing was more concerned with humour and truthfulness than – that word again – cool. Such an outlook didn’t go down well. “The reason that band dissolved was because I was writing lyrics and making songs that were specific to me and my experiences, and were honest,” she said last year. “The feedback that I was getting was, like, ‘We can’t release joke music. Like, this isn’t a comedy act.’ And I was, like, ‘I’m not doing comedy music. I’m writing the way I talk to people.’ The way I communicate is exactly the way in speech and amongst friends as it is in music.”

Adrift, she moved to Manchester and tried to get her solo career off the ground while working at TK Maxx. Everything changed in 2018 when she took the bus to London for a songwriting workshop by the pop star Charli XCX. “She was, like, ‘You need to sort yourself out ... You seem like you’re really good at music. But you don’t know what you’re doing right now,’” Thompson said. “‘You need to figure that out. You need to move back home or you need to move to London. Why would you stay in Manchester? You don’t know anyone there.’ [And] I was getting the bus back to Manchester.”

With those words in her ears, she returned to Dublin, and CMAT was born. She was a musician unleashed – drawing on her love for Nashville country music, modern pop and confessional writers such as John Grant (with whom she duets on Crazymad). In her Twitter bio she dived in head first, describing herself as a “global celebrity teen pop sensation”.

That was quite a boast. But CMAT lived up to it with her widely praised debut, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead, one of the best albums of 2022, which she described to Rolling Stone magazine as “if XTC was writing for The Nolans” and “the Nolans were making that record with Glen Campbell, which would go on to be covered by Paris Hilton”.

Yet, as Rolling Stone pointed out, the music was deeper than CMAT necessarily let on. Amid the sparkle you could see the glimmer of tears. “Between the jokes and pop-culture references, Thompson offers searing insights into loneliness,” the magazine observed, noting that she “prioritised the sesh over stability, a country twang that’s as comfortable on a disco pop song as it is on a searing ballad, and some of the most engaging songwriting out there”.

CMAT. Photograph: Ellius Grace/New York Times

CMAT also spoke frankly about her mental health. Last year she told The Irish Times about her struggles at Trinity. “I had, probably, a full mental breakdown ... I wasn’t eating, I was taking loads of painkillers, I wasn’t sleeping.”

CMAT: ‘I had a full mental breakdown – it was better just to get it out of the way’Opens in new window ]

That combination of honesty and dizzying pop quickly won her fans in Ireland. The real challenge was to break into Britain, graveyard of so many overhyped Irish acts. CMAT made it look easy. “Her first album, she put a pop-up confessional in our east London shop. It was fantastic. She was so good,” says Nigel House, director of the UK’s Rough Trade record-store chain. “She was going to marry a couple in the shop, though I don’t think that happened. It’s great – she’s going from strength to strength, isn’t she? It’s definitely happening over here. With the new album we did in-stores around all the shops, and they all went bonkers; they sold so fast. She’s getting bigger and bigger all the time.”

“CMAT feels like an artist who is authentic and relatable yet very much in her own lane, still at the beginning of her journey but already with armfuls of alternative pop star quality,” says Alison Howe, executive producer of Later ... with Jools Holland. “What sets her apart for us is the unique way her music brings indie, pop and country together and how she totally commands the stage, singing every lyric with purpose and passion.”

House describes her as the full package. “It’s not just about the songs. Everything she does – she looks great, she sounds great – people love her. People are on board with the whole package. She talks sense – and great songs as well. It all goes together, doesn’t it?”

Where will Thompson’s journey lead next? To bigger and better things, surely. As The Carpenters – more heroes of hers – might have observed, she’s only just begun.