CMAT Is Camp, Cry-Inducing Country You’ll Be ‘Crazymad’ For

The up-and-coming Irish singer-songwriter talks to Jezebel about Buc-ee's, banjos, and being broke on her first American tour.

CMAT Is Camp, Cry-Inducing Country You’ll Be ‘Crazymad’ For

There’s a fabled chain of country stores situated along the highways below the Mason-Dixon line renowned for its people-watching and restrooms clean enough to dine in. Here, you can buy a grill, build a wardrobe, and binge on beef jerky or “beaver nuggets” aka corn clusters coated in a viscous brown sugar caramel. This, I’m told, is Buc-ee’s. I’ve never actually seen it for myself but Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson, aka CMAT, was there just there and paints me a vivid portrait.

“It’s basically a cross between a gas station and an amusement park,” the Dunboyne-bred singer-songwriter describes, showing off a row of teeth gems from canine to incisor. “And Buc-ee? He’s a beaver.” I’m grateful for the clarification. With Thompson’s Irish lilt, Buc-ee sounded more like what an American would call a guy who fills his pockets facilitating bets on football games.

We’re chatting backstage at the Bowery Ballroom, the last stop on her first American tour which began on March 24 in Boise, Idaho. For three weeks, Thompson and her band drove from the Pacific Northwest through the Heartland until finally, they arrived here—a necessary venue on any indie artist’s ascent. It was their bus driver who introduced them to the red-capped, semiaquatic rodent along the way. Later, when she takes the stage, she proudly dons a rhinestoned Buc-ee’s t-shirt. It’s unclear whether it’s official merch or she made it herself.

So far, 2024 has been as thrilling to Thompson as, well, being inside of a Buc-ee’s. Her second album, Crazymad, For Me, drew critical acclaim with NME dubbing her “Dublin’s answer to Dolly Parton. She’s also sold out a number of venues on this tour, is booked solid on the European festival circuit this summer, and made headlines after getting a bit cheeky at the Brit Awards. Her kind of country—an amalgam of melancholy pop, put-on twang, and poignant lyrics—is resonating.

On the bridge of her breakout single, “I Want To Be A Cowboy, Baby” she belts about wanting to go to her first rodeo. “What’s that cracked up to be” she wonders. Then, “I wanna stop relying on men who are bigger than me.” Like another redhead with a certain flair for theatrics on the rise, CMAT is good for a lyrical gut-punch you can still groove to. It’s a two-step to be sure, just with tears.

For some reason, CMAT is pleased to be here in America. Almost immediately, she says she’s found this country culturally, socially, and politically fascinating since she was a child.

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Growing up in a small village outside of Dublin, Thompson recalls how it seemed as if everyone had pledged their allegiance to the states—especially, its country musicians. “A tradition specifically in old Dublin households is that you’ll have a framed picture of the Pope or a framed picture of John F. Kennedy. And then there’s also a subsection of people who have a framed photo of Tina Turner or Dolly Parton.”

“Bitches in Ireland love Tina Turner,” she says before specifying: “Tina O’ Turner.”

As a child, Thompson spent so much time engrossed with all things stars, stripes, and Trisha Yearwood that she remembers speaking in an American accent before the one I’m hearing now. Her family, she tells me, eventually had to “get it out of her.” I don’t ask what that entailed.

“I think the appeal of country music, for me, was that I just seemed to take to it very well,” Thompson says. “Like, I was able to sing it, and play it, and write it, very well. And I wanted to be good at something.”

Thompson’s first two records, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead and Crazymad, For Me, both call out to the U.S.A.—but only in a “mythical” sense, she clarifies. On the former, there’s “Nashville” a bittersweet track about suicide and dreams gone unfulfilled, and on the latter is “California,” a breakup track where Thompson taunts her former lover (or anyone that’s fucked with her) about a trip to the Golden State: “Some have called me cheap/but it’s not that fucking deep/Like, what’s left for me but poetry/and getting really old?” Thompson, like Parton, can spin a yarn—made all the better by swear words and heaps of self-awareness. It’s a basic fact that every country song worth a damn (“The Bridge,” “Fast Car,” “XXX and OOO’s,” “Goodbye Earl,” “Merry Go Round” etc.) tells a story. She teems with them—in song and speech.

There was a moment, however, when she abandoned the genre for “indie music from London” like Bombay Bicycle Club—an early believer in Thompson after she wrote to them asking for advice.

“I feel like people go through that phase where you like, love something when you’re younger then you’re like, ‘no, this is for old people not cool, hip, edgy people that do drugs,” she says. “And then when I was in my early 20s, I kind of grew up a little bit and I was like, ‘I’m taking this back.'”

In her reclamation, Thompson studied the sociopolitical origins of the genre, which is likely why so much of her work mythologizes America. At multiple points throughout our conversation, she notes a “tension” in the states (an understatement) and muses about the starkness of New York City. I jest about the starkness everywhere—especially given it’s an election year, there’s an ongoing genocide in Gaza, and student protests across the country are being snuffed out, all of which has only exacerbated young voters’ measurable cynicism.

“The reason that the vast majority of people in the world don’t have the time to occupy themselves with political and social issues is because they’re fucking poor,” Thompson says.”My mom didn’t know anything or care about politics when we were growing up because she was working two jobs and had four kids she was raising the whole time. My mother is not apathetic. She was just fucking busy.”

Thompson is an egalitarian, that much is clear. At a different point in our conversation, she offers another anecdote about recently visiting the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City and spends no less than five minutes explaining how, when enslaved Africans were brought to America without their belongings—including beloved instruments like the banjo—they built approximations of them from memory, thus planting the seeds of American country music. Before she completes her thought about it then being appropriated by white people, she pivots to Kermit the Frog.

“Because Jim Henson is a genius, he’s like, ‘That’s why Kermit is going to play the banjo,'” she explains. On the “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit does just that. That the banjo appears on one of his most beloved songs—about the polychromatic links between humanity—isn’t lost on her.

“It’s all girls and gays here,” a concert-goer later remarks to me at the bar before Thompson’s nearly two-hour set begins. If the demographic wasn’t already a dead giveaway, the pre-show playlist—a collection of famed pop girlies from Kelly Clarkson and Sheena Easton—certainly is. Then, Thompson appears in a zebra cowboy hat, sequined fringe jacket, and hot pants. For well over an hour, she kicks, shrieks, and appraises herself in a full-length mirror on stage. All the while, she tells her stories—including her fixation on Buc-ee’s.

“Let’s treat this place like a Bookie’s, aye?” she bellows. The girls and gays go wild. America, it seems, is starting to love CMAT right back.

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