CMAT: ‘I had a full mental breakdown – it was better just to get it out of the way’
The singer on mental health, hyperfemininity and using humour as a shield
CMAT: ‘I’m making people become interested in personal problems by being entertaining.’ Photograph: Sarah Doyle
“I’m really good at calling in sick and I have an amazing skill of going to a GP and getting whatever I want. Every time I go to a GP, I have a residual fear of knowing I’m there for something specific I have to get, and if I don’t get it my whole life is going to fall apart. I can almost turn on the tears... I hate doing it but needs must.”
Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson, aka CMAT (an abbreviation that has stuck since its first use on a message board when she was a teenager), is holed up in an Airbnb in order to write songs for her forthcoming solo debut album.
For 45 minutes, however, the creative flow is interrupted as she thinks back on her six-month stint as a student in Trinity College Dublin (“I had, probably, a full mental breakdown . . . I wasn’t eating, I was taking loads of painkillers, I wasn’t sleeping.”); working full-time in Supervalu in Finglas village (“All of my problems, my mental health issues, cleared up very quickly.
I realised the thing I was best at in music was toplining – coming up with melodies, lyrics, hooks, arrangements, structure; the skeletal form of everything
I used all of my spare time and money to focus on music, it was the best thing I ever did”); and using the medium of songwriting to better handle her mental health issues (“from about 12, it was definitely my therapy and still is. If I need to get rid of a problem, or if something has been knocking around for a while, annoying me, once I write about it the problem is gone or it’s on the first steps to getting rid of it”).
As lead-ups to a life in music that started in 2016 with the indie duo Bad Sea, the way Thompson tells it is that something had to break, and if that something was her then so be it. “There was also a lot of personal stuff going on in my life at the same time as I was starting college, and that might have sped up things. I think I would inevitably have had a breakdown at some point, so it was better just to get it out of the way.”
In autumn 2017, she left Dublin for Manchester, staying there until December the following year. She moved there, she recalls with barely stifled irritation, because she couldn’t afford to live in London, which was for her the ideal city in which to try to become a collaborative songwriter. “I realised the thing I was best at in music was toplining – coming up with melodies, lyrics, hooks, arrangements, structure; the skeletal form of everything is what I know I can do.”
Working in the city-centre TK Maxx and occasionally getting the bus between Manchester and London for what she vaguely terms “music stuff”, she admits she didn’t get around to doing much on the creative front. One industry event in London, however, changed her life.
“It was a Spotify event where people were invited to listen to unreleased music by Charlie XCX and to give their thoughts on what you heard. I was under the impression that it was kind of like a co-writing session but that wasn’t the case. It was mostly a room of teenage fans that just loved everything they heard.
The root topic is always about a problem, but in order to get to the place where I feel comfortable talking about it, I have to make a joke out of it
“When it was my turn to say something, I just let lash – ‘weellll, I think the hook in the first part is really good, but then it loses its way, you’ve got two different versions of the song, and I like the production on the first half of that version and the production on the second half of that version, so . . .’ I was being really specific and critical because it isn’t good for anyone if you just say you love everything. Detailed opinions are helpful.”
After the event concluded, Charlie scoped out where Thompson was sitting (“I mean, I was soooo f**king loud!”), walked over, crash-landed and went through her for a shortcut. The successful UK songwriter asked what her deal was, heard the reply (“I said I was trying to do this and trying to do that”) and, says Thompson, “completely copped what was going on with me... She just knew. I got the bus back to Manchester and then soon after broke up with my boyfriend and returned later that year to Dublin.”
Cue the genesis of the CMAT we have known for the past two years or so, which has developed into a fully unaffected, unambiguous and stone-cold solid pop songwriter and performer.
Hyperfemininity honed in the club
“When I was younger, and definitely still now, I was very loud and very much a talker. Even when I was a child, I used to constantly get into trouble at school because I couldn’t stop talking and people didn’t like me. That’s fair enough because it can be annoying, but the first place where I felt I was ever accepted for being the exact person I am, and where I didn’t find myself self-editing, was in gay clubs.
“I used to sneak into them when I was about 15, and it was the first time in my life that I truly felt being loud was a good thing, that you were supposed to have a personality, you were supposed to have specific niche interests, and that people would like you for all of that.
“Hyperfemininity within the context of the gay community is something that’s seen as radical and against the norm. Even in Ireland, especially now, it’s so ridiculous that hyperfemininity is always pissed on, but the gay scene made me feel emboldened. I didn’t care if people hated me for it because I knew that somewhere people would appreciate it.”
With a visual style that is part Bunty comic strip and part pop-culture saturation (just take a look at her vast amount of Pinterest boards for the all-embracing, meticulous and obsessive lowdown), Thompson’s image/design aesthetic is “aggressively” hyperfeminine. Everything she does is so informed and stems not from any books she may have read but rather from the feminist/activist experiences of people whose lives she has devoured via magazine articles. The list is lengthy and includes Eartha Kitt, Dolly Parton, Bobby Gentry, Loretta Lynn. “It’s a decision I made to exaggerate my own femininity for the sake of performance and the sake of the song.”
She incisively notes that “specifically in Ireland, there’s a very acceptable form of femininity when it comes to alternative music, or, indeed, even mainstream music. If you think of Irish women musicians, you think either Dolores O’Riordan or Sinéad O’Connor – there’s a bit of make-up but it’s specifically androgynous or blurring the lines.” This is all well and good, she adds, but “in order to get to a point where, as a woman, you’re successful at making alternative music in Ireland that’s how you have to present yourself as.”
It is that particular form of femininity, she continues, or “the kind where it’s very reserved, little or no make-up, with a simple tee-dress and flat shoes. Everything is very pared back, not in your face and very much unbothered. I’m not at all saying this is a bad thing, but if you present yourself in any other way you get flak for it. A lot of the time when a woman – especially with women songwriters – does something to her own standards in a feminine way it’s disregarded as novelty. The hyperfemininity of what I do is a direct result of my personality.”
Which is, as if you can’t tell by now, as vivacious as a rainbow and as restless as the earlier clouds. Thompson’s songs, meanwhile, have smashing melodies, throwaway witty lines and an authentic vulnerability that could sucker-punch emotionally if thought about too much. It’s all very howls of laughter through gales of tears and, equally, quite self-protective, isn’t it?
Thompson nods in agreement. The origins of the songs aren’t in comedy but in pain. “The root topic is always about a problem, be it mental health or social, or a serious issue. But in order to get to the place where I feel comfortable talking about it, I have to make a joke out of it.”
She says she has no time for barefaced solemnity. “I can’t deal with it and I don’t care about it. I’m making people become interested in personal problems by being entertaining. The more honest you can be about those problems the more people you reach.”
CMAT releases her debut EP, Diet Baby, which includes the new song, I Don’t Really Care for You, on February 23rd