A mother's kisses

Sara Hickman doesn't need to please anyone anymore

Sara Hickman said it herself. She was always the girl on the front porch...the girl next door...the girl wearing gingham, playing guitar, spreading joy with the crystal-bell, soft-dove voice as she sang "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." She was the hometown girl whose handcrafted gem Equal Scary People took her to the big city. She was the tomboy belter with wide blue eyes and a smile that bounced like sun off of stainless steel. She was Dallas' little darling and humanity's little heroine. She said it herself, and we saw it. In fact, some of us lived it with her.

Sara Hickman is still those things. Only, lose the "girl" and add "woman." Lose the "tomboy" and add "mother." Lose the "Dallas" and add "Austin." Keep the smile and the doo-dah, the darling and the heroine. She is still all that--still the Texas singer-songwriter who's as comfortable playing to Kennedy Center tuxedos as to La Zona Rosa cutoffs; the nightingale who goes dumpster-diving with the homeless and comes out with a song; the arrow of public consciousness who points to Romania and makes local a universal woe. She is still the uncompromising soul who fought the music industry and found that to lose was to win. But these days, maybe Hickman's eyes are a little bluer. Maybe her love is a little tougher, her lyrics a little rougher, her heart a little wiser.

You might say that she has grown up, and we've seen it. We've lived it with her.

Hickman's public high road from girl wonder to Strong Woman is evident in her new album, released by the small, respected folk label Shanachie. Two Kinds of Laughter, produced by former Talking Heads and King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew and written almost solely by Hickman, marks a return to her roots even as it charts a movement into deeper waters. A beautiful and cohesive piece of work, it trawls the murky inlets of divorce and heartbreak, the turbulent seas of motherhood, the alternating tides of optimism and despair, and the bittersweet buoyancy of a title track loosely inspired by a Milan Kundera book. (Hickman and the Czech king of cynicism and misogyny are unlikely bedfellows; but then, everybody can glean something from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting).

All the while, the new album pushes further--past the markers of Hickman's previous musical boundaries--and finds her in a quiet, rocking space where ebb and flow are part of the journey. It's a little sad, a little happy, a lot pensive. It's got the classic strains of Sara-pop--the semi-goody two-shoes of light folk. It's got sophisticated, brooding ballads. And it's got the wonderful, impish goof for which Hickman is known. In short, it's whole--a Jungian sort of piece. It's Sara-py.

"I remember a writer said once that my shows are very therapeutic, and I think that kind of stuck. I think at that time, people came to my shows and they felt like I was going to make things OK for two hours...and I loved that," Hickman says on a sunny April afternoon, sitting cross-legged on the powder-blue carpet of her spacious new house in Austin. In this dusty-white suburban ranch house with bay windows and a back yard full of toys, Sara lives quietly with her 20-month-old daughter, Lily Blessing.

"Then, there's also a part of me that wants more, that wants to explore more for me. Being [a therapist] is satisfying to some degree, but it's not my responsibility anymore. My responsibility is not to take care of people in my audience. My responsibility is to search inside of me and talk about what's important to me, and sometimes that's very revealing and very painful, and sometimes it's just fluff. And in the last two years, it's been really tough, and a lot of my music reflects that...I want people to take me seriously, and I want people to know that I really play the guitar quite well and that I have a beautiful voice and what I say is important. And I think for so long, what I was reflecting was that kind of happy-go-lucky person and, you know, not showing my depth. I want people to know I'm angry, and I want people to know that I'm capable of having everything, all those feelings--care and confusion and very severe heartbreak."

With Two Kinds of Laughter, Sara Hickman has come home to herself. The last decade has been full of victory and defeat: She has been dropped by a major label, found herself in business with another for a quick while, has endured a difficult custody battle that is still ongoing, and is raising a child all by herself. After all that, the album rekindles the simplicity of the singer-songwriter sitting on her front porch, crooning lullabies, ferrying her followers into dreamtime.

And yet, the album goes beyond the sunshine girl of Vickery Street, or the temporarily sidetracked and star-struck sweetheart of major-label hopes. Two Kinds of Laughter is not all sweetness and light. It's unadulterated, adult storytelling. One has only to listen to haunting songs such as "Eight," "Optimistic Fool," "Secret Family," or "Let Go" to understand that Hickman has seen highs and lows and is honing the art of self-reinvention. Not only is she doing that musically, she says, but spiritually--thanks to Lily, who accompanies Sara almost everywhere.

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