I’ve wanted to interview masterful mandolin player, accomplished singer-songwriter Cynthia McDermott since 2018 when I first met and heard her play. The time has finally come!
Juggling three pre-pandemic music projects, she focuses these days on booking her trio, Pimps of Pompe. It’s a band that specializes in jazzed-up covers of hip-hop and R&B. Cynthia describes it as “swing with swag.”
She reflects on her bandmates saying of Garron Chesson, “he’s a groovy, well-educated upright bass player with a solid sense of time and the ability to float back and forth between hip-hop and jazz voicings.” And of guitarist Duane Simpson, “he’s a unicorn, and his style, his fills help drive that R&B vibe I’m going for.”
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Phoenixville, PA in July of 1985 and when I was four, my mom, stepdad and I took a trip down the east coast in our Toyota Tercel with a pop-up camper towed behind. We traveled to the Florida Keys and back up the Gulf coast. When we got to Panama City Beach, they decided to stay and build their new life together there. Thirty-three years later, they’re still in the house where my younger brother, Nate and I grew up!
Did someone suggest you learn to play & sing?
I was surrounded by music even before the day I was born. Mom was playing guitar for my dad in an old-time fiddle contest when she was 8 months pregnant with me, so the guitar was very close to my tiny baby self!
My mom has a beautiful voice and when I was young, I would harmonize with her when I wasn’t feeling too shy.
When I discovered Nickel Creek, their mandolin player Chris Thile totally blew me away. I started college that year and bought my first mandolin and started taking lessons.
People often regret that they didn’t stick with an instrument they were forced to learn as children. What is it that keeps you motivated to keep at it?
This is a great question because I struggle with motivation but striving to play like the greats whose music I admire so, and makes me feel so deeply is what keeps me going. I’ve learned not to approach practicing/playing with a critical ear, because that’s not conducive to accessing that space where great music comes from.
Who are your heroes and influences?
Jethro Burns is one of those musical heroes whose playing sets the standard for me. He had a joyful, playful, mischievous approach and beautiful sensibilities. He was one of the first mandolin players to branch out into the worlds of early jazz and swing, my favorite styles to listen to and play. He incorporated innovative chord variations and possessed great phrasing; he was also a funny prankster. I have a tattoo of him
on my left bicep!
I met a man who would become my partner for the next seven years. When we met, I played bluegrass and folk. Then I started listening to and began to learn Western swing. We traveled the country together, eventually venturing to Spain and France. We immersed ourselves in Bebop, Bossa Nova, Klezmer and Frank Zappa while keeping our sound rooted in vintage jazz.
The most magic I’ve experienced playing music though, has happened at a long-standing national festival/fiddle contest in Weiser, Idaho. Aside from performances by the contestants, musicians come to camp and jam. It’s an environment where you convene with some of the greatest living swing guitar players. They break down their chords for you, jam with you, sing harmonies with you, tell dirty jokes and pass the bottle with you. I make sure I go every year, no matter how busy my schedule.
How many and what kind of mandolins do you have?
My F-style acoustic mandolin was built by a maker in Birmingham where my dad lives. He had it made for me as a college graduation gift; my workhorse mandolin for a decade. My A-model acoustic was made by my favorite builder, Lawrence Smart. That’s the mandolin I play now. My electric is a crazy Frankenstein, customized by the previous owner (a member of Blue Oyster Cult). He added a couple strings to it, so instead of 5 single strings, the 3 lower strings are singles and the top two, doubled. I’m excited about having another electric built for me by my friend Ben Bonham from Weiser, ID.
Who are your vocal influences?
Ella Fitzgerald is my favorite singer for her tone, range, sensitivity and her ability to scat. Billie Holiday cuts straight to your heart and a modern R&B singer I admire is the artist H.E.R, Astrud Gilberto too; for her soft, soothing style.
Original songs you are most proud of and why?
I wrote a song called “This Is How It Is.” Stylistically it’s a mix of Bossa nova and Stevie Wonder, and lyrically it’s based on what I learned from studying yoga philosophy; that life goes smoothly when I accept what is, instead of trying to fight it. That doesn’t mean don’t fight for what I want, but do it from a place of accepting conditions as they are in this moment. The song helps remind me because it conveys that message.
The songs I write now are textured, layered, locking into a groove and finding variations. I incorporate personal experiences. If I’m struggling in the dating world, I will write about that! I write songs that reveal my vulnerabilities; that are relatable to people going through the same things.
Notable past or upcoming performances?
The Pimps of Pompe performed at the Django Reinhardt birthday celebration at the Grey Eagle 2 years ago. It was the first time we were on a notable stage with an audience full of avid listeners. They loved us!
We play Sundays at the Battery Park Book Exchange, at The Foundry Hotel Lounge on the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of every month and weekends at the Lobster Trap. We’ll be taking our maiden voyage on the LaZoom Bus October 1st. We will also be on the Grey Eagle patio October 27th.
I’m also part of a group called GypsyGrass, led by the talented Ben Phan as well as Queen Bee (Whitney Moore) and the Honey Lovers. You can keep up with my shows by visiting:
Peggy Ratusz is a vocal coach, song interpreter, and songwriter.
For vocal coaching email her at firstname.lastname@example.org