Smile Politely

Finding happy places

Cowboy Monkey wins cool points on name alone, but the vibe in that place certainly doesn’t hurt. There is artwork on the walls, competent waitstaff behind the bar, and consistent entertainment of the highest quality on stage. When I hear Beat Kitchen is reuniting at The Monkey, I think, “Great band, great bar. Let’s go!”

Several years ago, Mike Ingram started an open mic night at this hip night spot, despite the fact that he is one of the most scheduled musicians in town. When he’s not a DJ or singing at weddings, he’s performing as one half of Mike & Kayla. Somehow, with all of that, he coordinates the open mic on Tuesdays at Cowboy Monkey. He runs the sound board, introduces acts, and even performs (usually solo). As if that’s not enough, he’s found the time to take a young musician under his wing.

Brittany Helfrich is a talented young musician and a semi-regular at Open Mic Night. She recently took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her life, Cowboy Monkey, writing and singing music, and collaborating with Mike Ingram.

Smile Politely: How long have been playing guitar, and how did you get started playing at Cowboy Monkey?

Helfrich: I’ve been playing guitar for about five years now. I met [Mike Ingram] about two years ago when I went to my first open mic night at Cowboy Monkey. After a while, we realized we play some common tunes and started teaming up on a few.

SP: Did you study music in high school?

Helfrich: I’m from O’Fallon, Illinois. I’ve been singing since third grade, and I was in madrigals and jazz choir in high school. I didn’t start playing guitar until I turned eighteen and came to U of I. My first guitar was actually the first thing I ever bought with a credit card.

SP: What made you decide on the guitar?

Helfrich: I always wanted to play because my biological grandmother sang and played guitar, but I was in foster care and it was really difficult for my foster parents to provide extra things like that. I know they would have done so if it were feasible. They are proud of me for teaching myself what I have so far, and I can only hope that I will continue to improve with more years of practice and experience.

SP: Do you write any of your own songs?

Helfrich: I’ve been working on some, but I’m weird about playing in public. I feel like originals have to be “ON” to go over well with an audience because they don’t know the song at all. However, once I finish up with school and have more time, I foresee that changing. I just bought Mike’s loop pedal from him, so I’m gonna work on figuring that out and getting some originals ready for future performances.

SP: Sounds awesome! Where do you get inspiration for your songs?

Helfrich: A lot of the stuff I used to write came from a pretty dark place. Even though they aren’t songs I would necessarily consider playing in public, they served a purpose in helping me grow as a person and get to a healthier place in life. Now, most of what I write comes from a place of love. In the past year or so, even though I’ve been writing about a mostly negative experience, I’ve tried to focus on what was good about it. Or what I’ve learned through the experience, rather than writing a song about how “________ just sucks.” It helps me stay positive and keep life in perspective and not worry so much about the little things. I’ve also written a couple cheesy little diddies about my boyfriend. He’s excellent.

SP: That sounds incredibly healthy. And it seems like you may have had a somewhat unstable childhood…

Helfrich: Indeed … but it made me who I am. I couldn’t be happier with where I am or who I’ve become, so, in retrospect, it was worth it. I’m a lot stronger for everything I’ve experienced, and I hope that, in the future, the experiences that I’ve had will enable me to help others. I think my dream would be to become a music therapist, because I truly believe that music can change lives for the better. It has definitely changed mine.

SP: Obviously! What’s your favorite part about performing at Cowboy Monkey?

Helfrich: I really love the vibe at Cowboy. Ever since the first time I played, Mike and the Cowboy crowd have been extremely supportive. It’s a family of musicians that comes together to listen to each other and hang out. I think my favorite thing about playing is creating a connection, sometimes with people you’ve never even met. You’re telling the audience a story with your words, your voice, and/or your instrument. When the audience is really listening is when it’s awesome! When they pause their conversations and start singing along or whatever…

SP: The night I was there, the table talk was loud. Maybe Mike Ingram could play two or three songs at the beginning to get the crowd warm and paying attention.

Helfrich: I think he usually does that, at least to get a sound check, and he introduces the acts. But then he has to run to the board and get really quick sound checks. Maybe someone else who knows the [sound] board could help, so he wouldn’t have to do so much running back and forth.

SP: He’s working overtime up there!

Helfrich: Yeah … Mike is definitely one of the hardest-working musicians I know. I respect him so much. Once, when my friend Miranda and I were both there, I played first. She joined me for “Dog Days” at the end of my set, and then I left the stage and she went straight into hers. I think making some fun, transitional collaborations would be a fun way to smooth out the pacing and help [Mike].

SP: Do you play other places?

Helfrich: I played a short opening set for my friends in The Heroic Charade back in March at Pub 13 in Pontiac. And I’m playing a 15-minute set at Turn It UP on the afternoon of April 12. I also loved playing before Vacation [at the Station Theatre]; that was wonderful. Seriously, The Station is another one of my happy places. I feel at home there.

SP: You sure seem to have burst onto the music scene in C-U! I can’t wait to hear you play again.

Helfrich: Thank you!

SP: Thanks, Brittany! It’s been great talking to you.

Here’s a video of Helfrich doing a WEFT session. Skip ahead to 24:40 to see her in action.

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