Cynthia McDermott is tall, tattooed and muscular, and that visual is all the more more striking when you see her on stage with a tiny mandolin, singing her custom mashup of early jazz, hip-hop and contemporary R&B.
“I wanted to find a way to make older jazz and swing more relevant to a wider audience and also to myself,” she said.
McDermott’s band is the Pimps of Pompe and, before the Coronavirus wiped out every public function, they had a March 31 show planned to celebrate their self-titled debut album. The songs jump from Beyonce and Salt ‘n’ Pepa to Django Reinhardt and a couple originals.
“It started out, it was going to be more French music, a lot of songs in French lyrics, gypsy jazz and more of a cafe feel, and I wasn’t really super excited about it,” she said. “I listen to rap and hip-hop and stuff and there’s a part of me that really identifies with that, but I love being able to sing those lyrics and say those things but do it in a sophisticated, beautiful way. So to me, the juxtaposition of the things I’m saying but how I’m delivering it, that’s always entertaining to me.”
McDermott grew up in Florida, in a musical family—her mother sings and plays guitar, and her father plays in a progressive bluegrass band and he got McDermott into Texas swing. She had just started college when her mother bought her a mandolin—her mother also got one for herself—and it’s been her central instrument ever since.
“I like bluegrass and I love what other people do, but it’s never really been the thing that speaks to me the most, as what I want to get into,” she said.
McDermott and a boyfriend traveled the country for seven years making music together. When that partnership ended, McDermott struggled to find her own musical identity and compass. Only after moving to Asheville, nearly three years ago, did she hit upon her current direction. For the first time, she fell into a collaborative music community.
“I have grown so much in this scene because I went from a very monogamous musical relationship to a very non-monogamous setting,” she said.
By turning the mandolin into a central voice in musical styles one doesn’t associate with this instrument, McDermott has created a niche all her own.
“Every day, I’m like why do I play the mandolin when I want to play jazz and hip-hop and R&B or whatever else I want to do,” she said. “There were some times I was like ‘I should just stop playing mandolin or do something else,’ because it doesn’t make sense with what I want to do. I’ve done it for so long, I guess I just thought ‘Let me see if I can do it and try to make it work,’ because this is what I do.”
McDermott has brought this approach to other areas of her life. She said she grew up overweight, but now is committed to yoga and crossfit-style workouts.
“One of the great things of getting in a gym, the journey of seeing what I’m capable of doing, the things I do now, I definitely couldn’t do a year ago,” she said. “I’m 34 and I’m kind of tired of letting insecurities and under-confidence and doubt get in the way of what I want.”
And she’s heartened at some shows, when she sees younger girls approaching the stage.
“As a female bandleader, hopefully I’m setting an example,” she said. “That’s always cool to me when younger girls see me play and are interested and tell me they play music too. Like ‘yeah, keep going with that.’”