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Kitsch, Country, and KFC

Written by on March 31, 2022

CMAT @ The Peppermint Club [3/21/2022]

Photos by Mallika Singh

Self-proclaimed jackass of the Dublin scene, global popstar, and cowboy aspirant, Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson, professionally dubbed CMAT, takes the stage in a deep blue frock, white cowboy boots, and tassels flared in lieu of a Colt Peacemaker. Straight out of a Nashville jukebox, the rhinestone-studded cowgirl is a vision to pen a Glen Campbell ballad to. Yet, in an accent not from any American state, southern or otherwise, she belts out, “It’s about to get real country.”

Diet Coke in hand, CMAT pauses before performing “2 Wrecked 2 Care.”

Touring a month into the official release of her debut album and “pandemic baby,” If My Wife New I’d Be Dead has all sorts of country and pop and country-pop fans across America clamoring to hear the Irish singer’s take on Americana. Indeed, the audience gathered at the Peppermint Club, seems dressed for a hoedown whose theme no one seems quite able to agree on. Beaded shawls glitter under crocheted headwraps, tassels adorn the backs of jean jackets, and go-go boots compete with spurs and emblazoned leather for the dance floor. Lauren, bonafide country and CMAT superfan from Tennessee (she flashes me her Dolly Parton wallet like a passport), is nonplussed by the contradiction in the crowd. Justifying her own choice of a sequined coral pink jumpsuit (which later earns a shoutout from CMAT herself), she muses, “It’s exciting—she’s taken something so traditional like country, and crossed it with camp.”

Lauren posing with her autographed setlist and Dolly Parton wallet.

That’s exactly how CMAT sees herself as well. In a sit-down with the artist after the show, CMAT was quick to pay her respects to her muse Johnny Cash, “a god in Northern Dublin.” According to the popstar, “Ireland has a really great relationship with Country-Western music. It’s always been around me—I just took to it more than my siblings because it’s fucking camp, and sad, and dramatic.” Indeed, “camp” is the perfect classification for CMAT, a singer-songwriter who can open emotional wounds with her razor-sharp wit, while laughing about a Diet Coke addiction in her next breath. She could take herself seriously; despite being on her first tour in an unfamiliar country, CMAT works the crowd with the familiarity and confidence you’d only expect from a seasoned performer. 

In performing “Every Bottle,” ad-libbing at times where a guitar solo should go, CMAT laments the absence of her backing band with a sheepish smile, “They couldn’t get visas, your country is very hard to get into!” Yet, their absence is rarely felt; during the performance of “Lonely,” classically sung with doo-wop backing vocals, the audience steps up to fill the gap unprompted, whispering back “She’s so lonely” to CMAT’s rueful chorus “I’m so lonely!”

CMAT’s stage presence alone is one for the books. Even a mere flipping of her hair back and forth in a protest against Los Angeles heat, earns the singer cheers and whistles from her adoring crowd. At one point, bending over to grab a loose cord, in response to the raunchy “Yeahs!” coming from fans, she admonishes her audience with a wink: “It’s not that kind of show.” Unabashedly brazen for an artist who first began recording her music only two years ago, CMAT has the confidence of a seasoned musician with the ease of a friend meeting you for a beer. 

Emerging mid-concert from backstage with her sonic signature, the omnichord, CMAT places the clunky thing across her lap and begins tuning the synthetic notes emerging from it. “I know it sounds like a Pokemon theme song,” she winces. Without the backing of her guitar strum to offer the formulaic comfort of an upbeat pop-tempo, the omnichord offers a repetitive progression that not only emulates the tinkling tune of a childhood music box, but evokes the simplicity of those constant reminders of our childhood that offer comfort. For a song about leaving home, and leaving behind what you know, it’s an apt choice. 

The glitz and glamor of her bubbly persona is less embellished, as CMAT opts to lean into that transparently raw narrative of hers while performing “Nashville.” The song cuts deep with a sudden air of exhaustion and dead-end desolation: “I’m tired of looking at this body, I’m tired of living in this brain,” she sighs into her mic. Channeling the anxiety and desperation that accompanies taking a chance on the unknown, CMAT’s chorus, “I’m going to tell everybody I know that I’m moving to Nashville,” envelops the audience. Her voice carries across her hushed fans, stretching the end of “Nashville” into a note that soars upwards with an indignant hope and rugged optimism you’d only expect to find in the Wild West. 

Perhaps the most electrifying moment of the night, is when CMAT sings her opening line to viral hit “Another Day” or, more infamously, “The KFC Song.” For a song written about letting go of an ill-fated relationship while scrambling to save face in front of your loved ones—to begin with “I cried in KFC over you!” is a questionable decision for most. But that’s who CMAT is—her comedic absurdity is what brings the crowd of superfans to the tip of their steel-toed boots, cheering at the most effervescent part of the night for the cowgirl from Ireland. 

Underneath that blithe, charismatic stage presence is an air of doleful conviction—she can make you laugh as swiftly as she can tug at your heart strings. Moments of tense seriousness are few and far between for an artist who laughs at herself often, but CMAT’s wit is far from her only talent. With her ongoing motif of loneliness undercut with raunchy one-liners and craftty wordplay, CMAT offers up a shoulder to cry on, all the same granting her audience of lonely hearts a reprieve of laughter every so often. Wandering the deserts of Los Angeles, artist CMAT has proved herself to be, in every sense of the word, a cowboy of the music industry, shepherding in a new era of country that’s flamboyant, glamorous, and punctuated with vulnerability and humor.

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