Genius shows itself, but you have to be paying attention. I'm not talking about the manufactured stuff. If you're looking for a line cook who does calculus on the side of a dumpster during his smoke breaks, you might want to look in a screenplay. If you want true genius, true talent ... you have to get out there. Just living in Champaign-Urbana gives you a big step-up in the “I knew ______ before he was big” department. See a band you've never heard of; duck into a pub downtown; take in an art exhibit. There are brilliant people all around you, right here in the corn fields.
If you live in the Champaign-Urbana area and you've never heard Kayla Brown, do yourself a big, fat favor and get on it. The woman is a phenomenon. From the first time I heard her sing, I knew she was special (I knew that because I have two ears and a brain).
Every year, on the last day of school, Mr. Wood, the high school orchestra teacher, would have an open floor. We could sing, dance, read poetry, play music ... whatever our hearts desired. (I usually did stand-up bits from Bill Cosby and the least vulgar parts of George Carlin.) Kayla Brown brought her guitar and sang.
I liked her; we were German class buddies. We had never spent time together outside of school, but we had a rapport. I wouldn't have called us friends back then, but we definitely got along. Kayla played viola and jerked around in all her classes, and we didn't pay a lot of attention to her because she was gone a lot. But when she had the floor, her throat just opened up and her mouth poured out this ... this soul all over the room. We were completely mesmerized by this girl. The sound that pushed its way out of her belly was beyond her years. It didn't make any sense, this wisdom and maturity and depth of feeling. We were kids. And on the last day of school, she was a rock star.
Fifteen years later, I'll pay any cover at any venue to hear Kayla Brown sing. She has incredible stage presence and really knows how to pick her collaborators. She sings a huge catalog of favorites, yet manages to make every note her own.
I talked to singer/guitar player Brandon T. Washington about Kayla's start in the local music scene...
Smile Politely: How did you meet Kayla?
Brandon T. Washington: I have known Kayla since she was in 7th grade. I was a substitute at the time. She was a ... tough student. When I heard her middle school rock band, Feaze, I knew she was talented. A few years later, she started showing up at open mic nights at the [Cowboy] Monkey when Mike Ingram and I were trading off hosting. She used to borrow my guitar.
She told me once that, if she hadn't have come out, she wouldn't have met Mike, which started a fruitful partnership between them. I was always happy that I was able to facilitate that meeting, even if it happened by chance.
SP: That's how this town works. I'm glad it does!
I decided to talk to Mike Ingram to find out a little more. I've seen him at The Great Cover-Up as Spinderella, and he's tackled the persona of the lead singer from the bitchin' '80s band Europe (to thunderous applause). As innovative and talented as Mike is, some of my favorite performances of his are with Kayla and an acoustic guitar.
Smile Politely: How did you and Kayla Brown first meet?
Mike Ingram: Right around the time that Monkey opened, and Brandon T. and I started up the open mic (back when we'd alternate weeks hosting). Brandon ran into her around town somewhere (she was nineteen and working at Guido's). He knew that she, back when she was fourteen or fifteen, had a band called Feaze on Parasol. He asked if she was still playing ... and he told her to come out to open mic sometime. She said she didn't have a guitar, and he told her she could use his.
So she started to come on his weeks ... but, one week, I think Brandon and I swapped, and she showed up and I was there [hosting]. She asked if she could use my guitar and I (after some horrible past experiences with letting people I didn't know borrow my guitar at open mics) said no. I don't remember if I finally relented on that first night, or if it was another one a couple weeks down the road, but I did and, obviously, I'm glad that I did.
SP: And you started playing together?
Ingram: We started teaming up on songs at open mic sometimes, and eventually got an offer to play every Wednesday at Silvercreek. Those were our first real gigs together. I had also been dipping into the four-hour cover gigs in places like Danville and Rossville and the like, and I started bringing her along on those, too. Not long after that, we started Darling Disarm with me on drums, Kayla on guitar, and Kristen Castagna on cello. At some point Kristen left [Darling Disarm] and I moved to guitar, and we added James Treichler on drums and Tyler Bundy on bass.
SP: When did Darling Disarm break up, because I think I remember seeing them at The Cover Up a handful of years ago...
Ingram: About four years ago? I can't remember when she moved to Nashville, but I think that was around the time that things slowed down. I think we only did a few, sporadic shows after that. We did Portishead for the Cover Up, but I think everything else has been billed as [Kayla Brown].
SP: That's right! I remember the Portishead set! It was incredible.
Ingram: That was one where I was glad they were shooting video.