Each month we ask an artist or group to share three musicians they think have gone under-appreciated and three new names who they hope will avoid a similar fate. This time, Irish songwriter CMAT discusses hers
When CMAT was preparing to release her debut record – last year’s excellent If My Wife New I’d Be Dead – she was filling her weekdays operating a helpline for malfunctioning service station coffee machines. By contrast, when Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson and I speak a month before her second LP drops, music is now her full-time occupation and it’s leading to some perplexing globetrotting. Two days before our chat she was in Los Angeles, the next day Macclesfield, the day after it’s the Netherlands, and when we speak she’s in a Brazilian cafe in London.
CMAT’s debut record tactfully set the longing of country against the sparkle of electro-pop. She describes her quickfire follow up Crazyad, For Me as “a lot more serious. I don’t really care so much anymore about how something I do is perceived. I know the people who come to my concerts really love it and are really committed.” The response is likely to be equally rapturous though, as early singles ‘Have Fun!’ and ‘Whatever’s Inconvenient’ suggest an expansion as opposed to an evolution of a sound that won so many plaudits and culminated in CMAT winning Ireland’s Choice Music Prize. As she prepares for its release, I spoke to her about six underrated artists who all have informed her sound, starting with her 3 more established selections.
CMAT: Shirley Bassey calls into question the definition of “underrated”. She’s very known and is a household name and is highly critically acclaimed by some, but bashed by others. I think everything she has gone through and the way she has come up is extremely underrated. Her career as it stands is very unusual so I’m fascinated by her. Obviously I think the best thing about her is her voice and that’s why everybody loves her. My vocal coach produced and co-wrote an album of hers in 2007, which had the P!nk cover ‘Get The Party Started’ on it.
TG: I remember that track being everywhere when I was a kid, but was really surprised to see it only charted at number 47.
CMAT: This is the thing that’s really interesting about her. Live is everything for her and her relationship with live music is the most important thing in the world. The thing that’s interesting about her stardom is that she hasn’t had many songs that have charted, and she hasn’t sold that many records, or at least not as many as you’d think, but she cannot stop selling tickets, especially in America. The only songs that would have charted might be the James Bond songs she did. She did that 2007 album [also called Get The Party Started] and apparently she performed the new songs for like two shows, and then said, “I don’t want to do these songs anymore, I want to perform the songs people love.” She doesn’t get the credit she deserves. Also, she’ll be cantankerous and difficult to deal with in the weeks leading up to a big show and then at the end of it she’ll be like: “Ooh I was being a bit of a bitch wasn’t I?” That’s what separates her from others, her humility.
CMAT: She was a country and western singer who would have predated Patsy Cline. She was a very, very early arrival to the country scene. She had that career in the ’50s, then went away, got divorced and came back with this album in 1979 – Special Delivery – which is maybe one of my favourite albums of all time. This album has an amazing song called ‘A Lesson in Leavin’’ on it. It’s been one of the number one albums for my second record. It’s like a country funk record, and is quite a feminist album; her talking about how terrible men are. Especially at that time country did not pander to women’s interests.
TG: She’s also well known for duets, which is something you’ve just done with John Grant on ‘Where Are Your Kids Tonight?’; can you talk about how that came about?
CMAT: I just stalked him for a little while and begged everyone I knew who had anything to do with him to put me in contact… and it worked. From the age of 15 I’ve been so obsessed with his work and really think he’s the best contemporary musician today. Every time I’d meet someone who’s in his band or on his label I’d be like, “Can you tell him to get in touch with me!?” I wrote a song for him, with him in mind, and eventually he agreed to do it. I made peace with the idea of getting someone else to do it, though I really didn’t want to. He’s such a handsome guy, he’s ridiculous looking. I only really work with very handsome people, that’s part of my job.
CMAT: People really consider them to be one hit wonders and to not be cool, or important, or relevant, which is why they’re underrated. I absolutely worship them; I worship the ground [singer] Phil Oakey walks on. This guy was making music with Giorgio Moroder at a pretty early stage, he went to Los Angeles to make music and was just annoyed that they didn’t have any PG Tips. The three of them that are in the band (Oakey, Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall) have never moved out of Sheffield because they don’t seem to like anywhere else. They’re only interested in making music for the music itself and have a back catalogue that really fucking backs it up.
I moved to Manchester a few years ago, and I really wanted to learn about the history of Manchester bands so I tried to get into New Order and Joy Division. I do really like them but there was a level of seriousness to the bands from Northern England in the post-punk or electronic scene that ultimately doesn’t resonate or appeal to me. But when I was in a YouTube wormhole I came across a 20-minute video of Phil Oakey giving out about having to record an album in California and the lack of PG Tips. I found it so endearing as he’s so beautiful and strange looking. He’s dressed like all the fancy New Romantics of the time but is just some bloke.
CMAT: He’s my favourite person in the world. End of. He’s the best – the best songwriter I know and he has something a lot of much more widely known musicians lack – I don’t really understand why the build has been so slow. When I first heard his debut album [Black Country Disco] I thought it was the best pop album I’d heard all year. But I think it’s started to go for him now a bit. He did a lot of songwriting for others [Kylie, Celeste, AlunaGeorge] but has stopped that to focus on his own project, which is great as a clarity of vision comes from working on your own stuff, and I think that’s really clear in what he does. I know what his next album is going to be and it sounds fucking incredible. He’s such an artist and I like that he’s working in such a commercial medium but doing something in such an uncommercial way.
CMAT: I played a show in Nashville, and as with a lot of shows, people go through the promoter applying to be my support. Generally, you get a couple, but for this Nashville show it was three times more than usual, and I came across a load of music that way as I will listen to everyone who applies. Emily Nenni applied and I said yes, but in the interim period she’d booked a gig, which I was quite upset about as I wanted to see her live. Anyway, I got into her music and she’s just great – the stuff she’s been releasing recently is so good. She was supposed to come to the UK this year but had to cancel because of visa money issues. Hopefully I’ll see her soon. She’s got this song ‘Messin’ With Me’ which is amazing. She’s basically threatening to beat somebody up if they keep harassing women. It’s great!
TG: With your love of country, playing in Nashville must have been a big deal. Did the city itself live up to your expectations?
CMAT: I was really worried. My number one concern was that I’d be disappointed by it, especially after I’d named the lead song on my debut album about it. I’d really tied myself to the city and was so worried it’d be shit, but it was fucking amazing. Within five minutes of landing I was in a bar and these girls came up to me and said: “We’ve closed our shop that we work in – in North Carolina – for four days in order to drive ten hours here to your show. So please let us buy you a drink.” I said “absolutely”, and ended up getting shitfaced with them, not getting home till five in the morning.
CMAT: She should probably be the most famous person on the planet. Anyone who’s a fan of Tinashe knows that her career has travelled in a lot of different directions – it’s gone up and down. For years she was being billed as the next big thing, she’s so insanely talented, but it never really broke for her. I would argue the reason for that was being on a major label and doing the major label thing. She’s independent now and the first LP she released as an indie artist was Songs For You, which is amazing, it’s so imaginative and creative. It’s wildly good to listen to and is groundbreaking production wise. There’s a thing with Tinashe that I’ve realised as a super fan, and I consider myself to be a super-duper fan – I’m five minutes away from starting a Tinashe fan club – there’s a thing with her where she does something and a year and half later there’ll be a carbon copy of what she’s done in the Korean music scene.
TG: I’m sure you’re aware of her collaboration with Charli XCX and Ty Dolla $ign from a few years ago?
CMAT: I remember when that song, ‘Drop That Kitty’, came out. I remember the exact day which makes me feel very old now. I was into Tinashe before I was into Charli but Charli has since become a massive factor in my life. Ty Dolla $ign not so much.
TG: Would you mind talking about how Charli XCX became a massive factor in your life?
CMAT: I got to go to a listening workshop with a group of fans and we heard her unreleased music. All the fans were mostly being really positive, going: “Oh my God, this is so exciting, this song is really good!”. Realistically, I was nobody; I wasn’t working as a musician at that time, I was working at TK Maxx and I shouldn’t have said anything. But I was really critical of the music. I remember she played ‘Focus’ for the first time and I thought, “That’s fucking brilliant, that’s a great song.” She then played this one song – which I will not name, as it’s become quite a big hit for her – but I said, “This song is not good and you should not release it.” I was really honest and said, “This is not as good as you are and is pretty reductive. Specifically, it sounds like and reminds me of another artist who is releasing music at the minute, and it feels like it’s capitalising off of that trend, so it’s beneath you. You’re an innovator and a really brilliant songwriter!” She’s since released that song and it has become a massive hit for her!
Being critical doesn’t make me nervous, which is something that has had a terrible impact on my life in some ways. I think it might be a very Irish thing, or it comes from growing up in a massive family, but if you don’t advocate for yourself then you’ll be destroyed. Being opinionated is something I’ve inherited from my family. I’m very bad at keeping things to myself.
She spoke to me afterwards and was like, “What’s going on with you?”. I think she was very confused about why I was there. She was very honest and said, “What are you doing? You’ve obviously got a good ear and know stuff about music but you’re not doing anything with yourself. You’re not doing anything with your life and that confuses me because you’re talented.” She was dead right. She told me I either needed to move to London or go back to Dublin and be around friends and people I made music with. I went back to Dublin and I started my career from scratch and it was probably the most important thing to happen to me ever. I’ve not spoken to her since then and I’m pretty confident she doesn’t know who I am but I’m very grateful to her.
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