“I’m still drawn to the sad things,” Cynthia G. Mason shared with the late, great Philadelphia City Paper. “Mournful, sad songs. I’ll hear a song that sounds like pure grief somewhere. I want it to hit me in the gut.”
Her lyrics are about adult sons grieving their mother, a new parent’s feelings of terror and joy, the near-miss of almost not meeting someone monumental in your life, the ambivalence and dread that come with certain obligations. Small moments loom large and hit hard. Magnet Magazine called her music “as vivid, evocative and narratively compelling as a film.” Philebrity likened her music's “ageless directness” to "a hypnotic sesh watching old Super 8 movies of people you don’t know.”
Cynthia’s voice has been described as a little broken, plainspoken, and hushed, while her songs have been called both “confessional” and “detached,” sometimes in the very same review. (Performing Songwriter Magazine) She admits that while her lyrics come from a very personal place, they are left open enough so that the listener can relate to them in his or her own way. In “One More Trip Back East,” you, the listener, sit in the room, listening for each breath. By the end of the song you’re in the diner, too, sharing things that you once kept secret because now it doesn’t matter anymore:
Sons will gather round / Sit for every breath
Start for any sound / Any harbinger of death
You will flinch then fret / Over what went wrong
He split to forget / But now it won’t be long
I think you both know / He got here just in time to let her go
So he won’t come unwound / And you won’t kneel to pray
But that history is bound / To still get in the way
By fire by flood by beast / A peaceful passing is rare
One more trip back East / Is more than he can bear
But I think you both know / He got here just in time to let her go
We will sense our kin and town / In the twists and turns we take
On the way up and way down / In the roots of each mistake
We’re in this diner booth / Coffee is getting cold
Trading stories from our youth / All the ones he never told
And I think you both know / He got here just in time to let her go
A sense of place is also central to Cynthia’s music. And for her, that place is the city of Philadelphia, with its beauty, melancholy, and grit. You can hear it in “Telltale Song,” with the worry of driving through the city for that first ride home from the hospital with a newborn. It’s in her single “What Forgiveness Will Allow” when she looks for a sign in the flickering lights across the Schuylkill River. “18th Street” documents her departure from a beloved apartment, and the streets of Philadelphia are featured on the home-recorded Quitter’s Claim, horns honking on the corner. In “What Forgiveness Will Allow,” a bus enters a break between verses, and the 34 trolley and West Philadelphia make an appearance in her earlier albums.
Born in West Philadelphia, Cynthia began studying classical guitar when she was seven. Her first concert was Joan Baez at the Academy of Music. Not long after, she and her friends were trekking down to Washington, DC to watch Fugazi and the other Dischord bands of the early 90’s. She treasured both acoustic, folky things as well as the wilder stuff. She joined her first band when she was fifteen. In the coming years, Cynthia spent most of her free time at all-ages shows around Philly. But she continued to have a strong attachment to her acoustic guitar and started developing droning fingerpicked patterns, influenced by what she was hearing on the electric.
At the turn of the century, Cynthia met members of the band Need New Body and soon found herself playing with musicians Larry D. Brown, Chris Reggiani, and Christopher Sean Powell. The Philadelphia City Paper’s observation at the time: “You can just see the standard press blurb: Acoustic guitar-strummin’ songstress joins forces with three-fifths of an art-jazz-rock freak-out troupe. But that’s a bit reductive when it comes to this group. Why accentuate polarities when they make music that sounds so natural?” Cynthia collaborated on several recordings with Powell, most recently on Cinematic Turn, which they recorded at Miner Street Recordings with producer Brian McTear. She has also made several recordings with Brown, including the stark and intimate full-length album Quitters Claim, as well as the single “What Forgiveness Will Allow.”
Cynthia was featured on the cover of the Philadelphia City Paper and won several City Paper Choice Awards. She contributed to a Muscle Shoals tribute compilation where she covered Duane Allman’s “Please Be With Me.” And she covered Richard Buckner’s “Surprise, AZ” for a Believer Magazine music compilation. She appeared on BC Camplight’s album Hide, Run Away, singing on several songs, including “Blood and Peanut Butter,” which was featured on Grey's Anatomy.
Most recently, Cynthia graced the stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and contributed vocals to Sun Airway's album Heraldic Black Cherry after a hiatus from music.
In an interview with Patrick Rapa, Cynthia shared her reasons for leaving and returning to music:
You said part of the reason you left music was you weren’t enjoying it anymore. Actually, I think you said you “hated” it. What was wrong? Was it music or was it you?
Oh, it was probably both. I had been playing music since I was a child, then playing all ages shows, clubs/bars since I was a teenager — in bands and solo. I’d had short breaks from it before where I developed some contempt for it, didn’t enjoy doing it for whatever reason. But, this time it got to the point where every new album I heard just sounded terrible, everything I tried to write sounded terrible, and every show made me feel terrible. For the first time, I started saying “no” to every show. I took my guitar and gear and put it in a closet in my house, closed the door, and that was it. It was a little extreme. But, yeah, friends have told me that there was maybe a dip in their interest in music during those years, too, and also a complete change in the music business. And, of course, some of it is that I got older, met my husband and had a kid, and I wanted to sit down at the end of the night and quietly read instead of go out to rock shows. But, I think I know now that desire for quiet and calm, spending time with my family, doesn’t have to mean completely eliminating music from my life like the infectious disease that I made it out to be. I guess you must really love something to hate it that much. I’m also going to pull the lady card and say that I do think it’s harder for women who decide to have children to continue at the pace they are going with music — recording, touring, finding time to write, practicing. Caring for an infant and then toddler can be all-consuming and you see a lot of ladies dropping out at a pretty high rate at a certain point in their lives. I have seen some returning, too, sometimes when the kiddies get a little older and it gets more manageable.
So what’s changed? How did you and music get back on better terms?
Small moments, a few big things. My husband and I would venture out every once in a while. He knew I was missing music, but that it was a touchy subject for me, so we would go out infrequently, check something out and he’d look over to gauge my reaction, like “What do you think? Is this doing anything for you?” In 2013, we went to that ‘Dancing Around the Bride’ exhibit with Lee Ranaldo at the Art Museum and he was getting all of these cool sounds out of his guitar, performing John Cage. Dancers would pop out every once in a while to perform. We spent the whole day there, wandering around the room, taking it all in. I remember I had a horrible cold, but we were both just in the zone. That show had an effect on me, there was some kind of spark. We would go into Fergie’s and listen to some Irish music over a beer, get the nosebleeds at the Philadelphia Orchestra. Laura Marling and Jason Isbell released records that year with some killer songs. So, I started listening more, looking around to see what was out there for the first time in a long time. That got me more interested in playing and my fingers started to itch for the guitar. Some of it is just time. I have a little bit more time for it now. My daughter is getting closer to 5 and can occupy herself a little more. It’s easier to find those odd times in the day to pick up the guitar and noodle around and get into my own head a little bit, spend some time alone.
I’ve had this old-man thought about awesome musicians who fade away when life/family/work start piling up: I just hope those kids get to see their parents play, on stage, with people clapping. To see how much ass their moms and dads can kick. Does it mean something to you have your daughter see you perform?
It was really something when I first pulled the guitar out and started playing for my daughter. I remember she looked at me with a look of such surprise and curiosity and actually said, “Mommy, you play the guitar?” We looked at each other with our eyes bugging out of our heads. I was just as alarmed. My own kid didn’t know I played the guitar? What? Now, as soon as she sees me pull out the guitar, she will immediately grab her little drum and start playing with me, conducting, and yelling “Louder!” “Faster!” She is way more punk rock than I am. Maybe there is a drum kit in her future.
There’s still that same old sadness in your new music, but I’m detecting maybe something else: a new energy or urgency, maybe? Do you feel your sound has changed?
I’m still drawn to the sad things. Mournful, sad songs. Those are always the songs that knock me out. I’ll hear a song that sounds like pure grief somewhere. I want it to hit me in the gut. I want to try to hit someone in the gut. I don’t want to mess around. I think the songs might be a little more driven, a little more complete. I wrote a lot of them on the train or waiting for the train. The instrumentation on the recording really came together nicely and added a lot to each song.
Since you’ve been gone, music has become a short-attention-span dystopian hellscape dominated by social media and self-promotion. Are you dealing?
Yeah, didn’t someone just discover that we officially now have the attention span of goldfish? I’ve tried to avoid the hellscape/social media for so long. I still have my flip phone, even though it has dropped on the floor and down many, many flights of stairs. When I’m away from the computer, I’m away from all of it. But, like many people, I still spend way too much time in front of the computer each day. I don’t like that everyone just stares at their phones all day, fondling them. I’ve always been a beat behind with this stuff. I was crotchety when I was 20. I never liked CDs and held onto my cassettes. Then I didn’t like mp3s and held onto my CDs, even though I never liked CDs. I liked vinyl, but didn’t love it the way I should have. Now, I’m being told that people are making/buying cassettes again, so it’s time to go deeper into that closet and pull out my old boxes of cassettes from ’96, ’98, start trying to sell those at shows. There were listservs, there was Friendster, then Myspace. By the time Facebook came along, I was done with oversharing. I really wanted and needed some privacy. I just got on Twitter a few months ago to get connected a little bit and it’s okay. I like taking a peek every once in awhile to see what’s going on. But, if I’m on it now, I already know it's on its way out. I’ve always been pretty bad at self-promotion, but I know that’s always going to be a part of it, so I’m trying to find a way to have a toe in, but not get pulled all the way into the hellscape.
There’s a whole new generation or two in Philly who don’t know who you are and why they should pay attention. What should they know?
I’m the one who writes the quiet song on the album where the rocker pulls out the acoustic guitar for that one track. It’s the song about someone dying or how you’ve let someone down. Except it’s like that for every song.
Cinematic Turn is really gorgeous. I missed having new CGM in my earphones. Does it feel good to be “back”?
Aw, thanks! We have to stop meeting like this. I’m starting to feel like those kids in the British Up series where the filmmaker meets up with them every seven years to see what they are doing with their lives. Here’s Cynthia from Philly at 40. I had a great experience recording the songs and I’m happy to be back. I realized how much I missed talking to other musicians, people in the music scene, writing, practicing. It’s nice that I’m not hiding the fact that I’m a musician anymore. There are people who didn’t know me in that capacity at all, so it’s kind of a relief to be up front and open about it. I’ve been enjoying playing the guitar so much more now than I ever did before. It’s a pleasure. It’s so strange how that can happen after all those years.