CMAT Makes Country Music Sad, Smart and Strange

In April 2020, a new force in Irish music announced herself with a song about love, loss and fried chicken.

The video for “Another Day (KFC),” CMAT’s debut single, opens with the singer dancing cheerfully in front of a blue screen. “Baby give me something else to do,” she sings, in a style pitched between country twang and ‘60s pop, “I cried in KFC again over you.” Then, suddenly, the camera swerves to a dark room where the man this song is addressed to sits gagged and tied to a chair. CMAT, still grinning, dances over and slaps him in the face, then eats a bucket of chicken while sitting on his lap.

Since the video came out, CMAT — an acronym for the 27-year-old artist’s name, Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson — has become a huge star in Ireland and won fans further afield with country-pop songs that are irreverent, vulnerable, sad, smart — and decidedly strange.

Her 2022 debut album, “If My Wife New I’d Be Dead,” went straight to No. 1 in Ireland, and was awarded the RTE Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s equivalent to the Grammys. A follow-up, with another grammatically wayward name, “CrazyMad, For Me,” arrives Friday, and she has tour dates scheduled in Ireland, Britain and the United States.

The connection between Ireland and country music is longstanding: The “singing cowboy” Gene Autry toured the country in the ’30s, and the genre was further popularized in the ’60s by groups known as showbands that played in rural dance halls. In the ’90s, Garth Brooks’s stadium gigs in Dublin triggered a nationwide craze for line dancing. CMAT brings this tradition up-to-date, combining the enduring country themes of heartbreak and self-destruction with camp humor and a distinctly Irish sense of the absurd.

“I think the structure of everything I do is probably always going to come from country music,” Thompson said in a recent interview. “I’m always going to sing like a country singer.”

CMAT’s country-pop songs are irreverent, vulnerable, sad, smart — and militantly strange.Credit…Ellius Grace for The New York Times

“CrazyMad, For Me,”however, also branches into psychedelia, anthemic pop and rock ‘n’ roll. For this album, Thompson said, she “wanted to make something that sounded very theatrical,” like Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell.”

The Meatloaf influence is clear in the slow-burning, claustrophobic ballad “Rent” which builds to a rock ‘n’ roll chorus with a spiraling piano line and howling vocals — but there is also “Have Fun,” a pop anthem showcasing an Irish fiddle.

Mattias Tellez, the album’s producer, said Thompson’s voice was “timeless, and powerful, and so distinct,” displaying “qualities I hear in the likes of Billie Holiday, or Ella Fitzgerald — that power, and control, and spontaneous humor.”

The new album draws on Thompson’s life, looking back on a tumultuous relationship the singer began with an older man when she was in her late teens. It follows her from her lowest and messiest point, before she reckons with the past and decides to move on.

Along the way, she weaves in references to St. Anthony (the finder of lost things — a favorite of Irish mothers), Miranda from “Sex and the City” and the “Wagatha Christie” trial that recently gripped Britain’s tabloids.

The single “Where Are Your Kids Tonight?” sees CMAT collaborate with the singer-songwriter John Grant. The two appeared onstage together in September, at Dublin’s National Concert Hall, where Grant was performing a concert of Patsy Cline covers. CMAT was the guest star, singing “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “She’s Got You.”

In an email, Grant said working with Thompson was “a blast.”

“They absolutely love her in Ireland, and with good reason,” Grant said. “Looks like the rest of the world is catching on.”

CMAT began her career describing herself online, ironically, as “a global pop star” who “lives in Dublin with her grandparents.” Prepandemic, she was working in a cafe: She had no money, and was recovering from a period of depression and disillusionment, after the band she’d formed at 18, Bad Sea, failed to gain traction and split.

She reinvented herself as a solo act, self-releasing singles including “I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby!” and “Nashville,” a dreamy (and surprisingly exhilarating) song about suicidal ideation. She rapidly gained fans, in particular among young Irish L.G.B.T.Q. people. (Thompson, who is bisexual, once told an interviewer that she’s “making music for the girls and the gays, and that’s it.”)

“I think the structure of everything I do is probably always going to come from country music,” Thompson said in a recent interview. “I’m always going to sing like a country singer.”Credit…Ellius Grace for The New York Times

Her career took off just in time for Covid-19 to rule out the chance of touring. “Everyone was stuck at home, and had nothing to do, and didn’t know how to exist on the internet,” she said. “But I did, because I’d been there. I’d spent a lot of time in a room by myself.”

As a teenager, Thompson was an avid Tumblr user, and wrote fan fiction about Bombay Bicycle Club, an English indie band. She focused on building her own online following, with live streamed events including “CMAT’s Very Nice Christmas,” and the “CMAT Confessional Line,” during which fans called in with life dilemmas for her to solve.

Thompson has since swapped Dublin for Brighton, England, and has reached a point of success where the “pop star” line is no longer a joke. She has even won the recognition of her idols: On the track “So Lonely” she asked “Who needs God, when I have Robbie Williams?,” attracting the online attention of the man himself. Writing on X, formerly Twitter, Williams called the duet with Grant “majestic.”

“Now I am actually kind of living like a pop star,” Thompson said. “And now, trying to keep up the pop star thing, and having a fake life, and a fake personality to go with it, just feels wrong.” Instead, she is steadily cultivating a unique brand of anti-glamour, appearing in videos in clown costumes, elaborate wigs and male drag, or with facial prosthetics, bleached eyebrows and gems stuck to her teeth.

The intimacy she has forged with fans has only intensified: Recently, Thompson promised on X that if “CrazyMad” reaches the Top 10 in Britain, she would send her wisdom teeth, freshly removed, to a lucky follower.

In the same spirit of authenticity, the album shows its creator’s flaws, as well as her triumphs. “When I was making this record, two things happened,” Thompson said. “I got angrier about some things, but then I also realized that I had done some things wrong in my life.” Across its 12 tracks, the album shifts from blaming her ex to forgiving herself for her own mistakes.

“I feel like no one is trying to make themselves look bad anymore in their music,” she added, “but we’ve all done things wrong in our lives. I’m an embarrassing person who’s done some very embarrassing things.”

The album’s ecstatic final tracks, “Have Fun” and “Stay For Something,” complete this journey from resentment to regret, through self-acceptance to, ultimately, optimism.

“There’s no point in suffering,” Thompson said. “You could just have been having a good time. Because life is very short.”

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