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.

Lily is ever present--in her music, in her lifestyle, and in the flushed maternity of Hickman's face. Lily is present even when she is not in the room. A simple cry from the kitchen, where the girl is playing with her grandmother on a late afternoon growing later, brings Hickman up off the floor. Throughout the day Lily trundles into the master bedroom where we sit, wanting "ne-ne"--breast milk--or the simple reassurance that her mother is nearby. Lily may go with one of Sara's friends next door to jump on the trampoline or contemplate picking the strings of her toddler-size guitar, but she is very much there.

"If I'm not working on my music, generally 92 percent of the time I'm with Lily, and the other 8 percent is answering phone calls or paying my bills," Hickman says. "She's certainly shaping everything I do...You know, there's a lot of things I believed in, but I could never really grasp them before. I've kind of always felt like the square. I've always kind of been on the outside. I always put my nose up to the glass and looked in and saw all these other people having a party.

"And I've come to the fact that I'm not on the outside--or maybe I am on the outside, and it's a whole different world out here and I kind of like it and I don't really want to go inside. I don't really want to be at that party, you know. I like being who I am, and I like that I'm spiritual and sensitive and that I cry over flowers blooming or the sun setting. And Lily brings that to the surface all the time."

She laughs shyly when she says that she can relate to Madonna, who has made much of her recent motherhood in the press. Sara is more understated, but seems equally eager to share the epiphanies of motherhood and the proclamations that having a daughter makes her feel stronger, more feminine.

"The feeling is indescribable," she says quietly, and the tears gather in her eyes. Her expression goes inward to a place that only parents can understand. "I mean, if you've never tasted chocolate, how do you describe that to someone? And if you've never gone on a Ferris wheel, how do you tell them what it's like to go up in the sky? I look at Lily every day, and I just say, 'Where were you before? Where were you before?'"

But the circumstances that brought Lily into Hickman's life, and the results of her coming, have been less than joyous at times. Although the singer doesn't want to say much about the whirlwind romance that led to her marriage, Lily's birth, and the subsequent separation of Hickman and her husband, friends say that it has been extremely difficult. The couple are engaged in a custody battle that has brought on much of the heartbreak to which Sara refers overtly in some of her new songs and obliquely in her conversation.

"I've never really talked about it, and I'm not really sure what people know. I will say that it's real painful, and I'm not sure how to talk about it, because Lily's at the heart of it," she says. Again the tears well in her eyes. "But I feel really good about Lily, because everybody seems to think I'm a great mom and I'm doing a good job...I just want the best for her. I want her to be a happy, healthy child, and so far, I feel that's been true...And I don't see the need to talk about it publicly. I, ah, I want to stop here. I feel that it's between my husband and me."

Hickman is forthcoming about other things that have been close to her heart in the past few years--particularly the subject of her break five years ago with Elektra Records, which rereleased Equal Scary People, released the all-new Shortstop in 1990, and then abruptly dropped her from the label. In discussing the "whole Elektra thing," Hickman's voice fills with conviction; it is tinged with hard-learned wisdom.

She explains that her troubles with the label began almost at the beginning, when Elektra executives wanted her to include on her major-label debut a song she recorded for the Arachnophobia soundtrack, "Blue Eyes Are Sensitive to the Light." Though "it was a guaranteed hit," Hickman says now, she balked at the idea of including on her record a song written by someone else.

"And all of a sudden, I felt this cold draft come in under my doorway," Hickman says of her relationship with the label. "But I was like, 'It doesn't really go with the rest of my record.' It was this very straight-ahead, poppy, milquetoast, Celine Dion pop love song, and I really didn't want to do that."

Shortstop was released without "Blue Eyes," and Elektra was not happy. Yet for a while, Hickman and the Music Business looked like cozy chums: She hosted her own show on VH1, toured with labelmate Billy Bragg, and appeared on Rubaiyat, a 1990 Elektra compilation celebrating the label's storied history. She would record with Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti. She performed at the Kennedy Center. It all looked so promising.

But Shortstop would be her sole Elektra record: When she brought to the label the follow-up, Necessary Angels, the company refused to release it; execs there found it too incoherent, not at all like Shortstop...or so they said. (Now, even Hickman refers to it as "an alphabet soup.") In the end, Hickman was cut loose and would spend the next year and a half trying to raise money to buy back the album's masters, an effort that eventually paid off--interestingly enough, with the help of Elektra, which eventually came down from a $300,000 asking price to $25,000. Meanwhile, Hickman's friends and fans and even a former Elektra colleague rallied to her side, buying $100 prisoner-of-war-type bracelets to benefit the cause. After the record-label rollercoaster, the show of hometown support restored some of her confidence.

"I look back on it, and I'm glad it [Elektra] happened, because it strengthened my music," she says now. "It just strengthened what I had started with in the beginning, because I think I kind of got swayed a little bit by Elektra. I actually remember someone referring to me as a kind of Taylor Dane type, because I had these big lips and [they said] if I would just kind of play that up..." She pauses. "I thought, 'People in Dallas will think that's weird, people who know me.' I was like, 'I'm just not comfortable wearing negligees and stuff.'"

Historically, people in Dallas have had a lot to do with Hickman's feelings of success. She attributes her burgeoning fame in the early '90s to Brave Combo's Carl Finch and friends such as Christine Lavin and Josh Alan, with whom Sara has recorded or performed or produced. Finch, she says, was absolutely crucial to her coming out as a songwriter, to her deciding to pursue a career in music instead of visual art, which she studied at North Texas State University and East Texas State University.

It was Finch who first contacted Hickman after seeing her on a cable-access program in Denton in 1987. He called the station, got her number, and told her to come over as soon as she could. He didn't even know her, but he told her he would help her make a record, which he did: Finch not only produced Equal Scary People, but he also plays on it and released it initially on his Four Dots label.

Theirs is a friendship that continues to this day, and if Finch was once drawn to the gifts of a 24-year-old girl he had never met, he's perhaps even more enamored of the resilience of a woman who has endured a handful of bad relationships and emerged with her talent intact.

"I tend to find myself responding to and attracted to people who operate with a great deal of faith in the intangible world," he says now. "They don't put nuts and bolts and facts and figures in front of them--they just do what they do. And Sara is that kind of person. That's where she's enormously blessed. She has this incredible gift for knowing what humans respond to. Sometimes I think about an artist's ability to reach people as a sphere that extends out from them, almost like an aura. And Sara's lasso is enormous. You can almost see this thing swirling. And when you look at the faces of the people who are drawn into her, it's beyond adoration. It's deep faith. The greatest thing a performing artist can do is have the faith of the listeners."

Yet for a long time Hickman felt as though she let down her audience when she failed to make a second record for Elektra. Her sense of gratitude to her Dallas contingent, her feelings that she had somehow failed her friends, affected her profoundly in the year after Elektra broke the contract.

"I know it sounds corny, but in a way I felt like I kind of let Dallas down," she says. "I felt like I had put a lot of heart and soul into that community and I had had so much cheerleading, and so I felt like, How embarrassing. They believed in someone who really isn't that good. It's kind of like going through a divorce. It's painful and it's long and it's scary. Basically, I just felt stupid and rejected, because everybody knows about it when something like that happens."

Those feelings hung around for about a year, she says. Meanwhile, she went on to the California-based label Discovery, which released Necessary Angels in 1994--and which was a subsidiary of the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic conglomerate she thought she had escaped. She would leave the label before ever cutting a new record, though Discovery would release the self-titled debut by the Domestic Science Club, the country-plus trio featuring Hickman, Patty Lege, and former Dixie Chick Robin Macy that has since disbanded.

By 1996, Hickman had decided she would go indie. She was tired of the formulaics and the pressure to create songs that were not her; one label executive asked whether she could make a new song sound, you know, a little more Alanis Morissette. Hickman's response to the strong-arming was to seek out a small, artist-friendly label. Two years ago, she settled with Shanachie, which she says has given her free artistic rein: "I just wanted someone who would listen to me." Last year, Shanachie allowed her to clean her closet and release the odds-and-sods collection Misfits, which features songs recorded between 1971 (when she was 8) and 1995.

After her experiences with major labels, Hickman has a strong, slightly barbed view of the industry. She mentions an encounter with her songwriting friend Pierce Pettis, who shared a word of personal wisdom with her one evening several years ago.

"He said, 'You know, I quit the music business,'" Hickman recalls. "And we were sitting on stage when he said that, but I knew what he meant. It wasn't so much that he cared what anyone thought about him, or him trying to write a song to please the label. He just gave it up, and all he did was write for himself, and the minute he said that, I started carrying it in my heart. I was like, I quit the music business. I realized you just get caught up in the whole thing. I just want to go and put my music out, and I don't care if only 10 people buy it."

So far, it's too early to gauge how well Two Kinds of Laughter will do; with the late-March release date, the label won't have accurate figures for at least two months, if then. But regardless of what the numbers might say in eight weeks or eight years, Hickman says she is pleased with the scope of the new album and is already working on the next one, which will further explore her use of voicings and chord arrangements, as well as continue her more personal, introverted songwriting. Numbers and awards are not the way she measures success anymore. She has learned to look inward for that.

"I think there's always been a little silent pocket in my heart that's very quiet, and it's the consistent thing that keeps me going," Hickman says. "It's this little voice that, when I'm really down, it's there, and it goes, It's OK, you're doing OK, you're doing what you need to do. I think that for a long time it was hard, because I think people value, or they look at success as, you know, winning a Grammy and living in these stellar homes, and blahblahblah. And to me success is knowing that the next time I see Carl, he's going to nod his head and have that grin, and I know that he's saying, Oh, yeah, you're doing it. I want the success that comes with my peers who look at me and go, Man, you rock.

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