Austin American-Statesman: “Sara Hickman: Where Goodness Matters”

Acts of giving are basic part of Hickman’s life

By Brad Buchholz
Friday, June 30, 2006

Singer Sara Hickman stands alone with her acoustic guitar before another packed house, an audience that has been stomping, screeching, squealing and even singing along to some blues and ska tunes they seem to know by heart. “I want you all to know that I love you,” she says as the set reaches its climax. “Thank you for coming out and blessing me with your presence.”

This room is rockin’, all right — but we’re not talking about the Continental Club on a Friday night. Rather, this is Sara Hickman, live, at the North Village Branch of the Austin Public Library on a Monday afternoon. It’s a children’s show. Forty kids and their parents in a big conference room. If you’re 6 or 7 years old, this is heaven.

At home among the sunflowers, Sara Hickman shines in the early evening light, but she’s just as radiant onstage, playing for kids and adults. Laura Skelding, AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Hickman doesn’t just sing to the kids at the library; she sprinkles the room with magic. Blond and buoyant, awash in happy colors — orange T-shirt, hot pink Crocs sandals, green nail polish — Hickman frequently wanders into the audience with her guitar and sings to each child individually. She’ll crouch down on one knee, look a little boy in the eye, sing a tender melody just for him. “I wish you peace, I wish you hope, I wish you love. . . .”

“This is the only time that this room of people will be together in our whole lives. So enjoy it while you can,” Hickman says as she introduces her final song, inviting everyone in the audience, parents and children alike, to reach out and embrace the person next to them, “And if you see someone who doesn’t have anybody touching them, just lay your hand on their back. Just let them know you’re there.”

Sara Hickman has found a niche in children’s music — and she has three prize-winning children’s CDs (“Newborn,” “Toddler” and “Big Kid”) to prove it. Yet it seems wrong, in so many ways, to introduce her here, in this story, in the context of a children’s show. Hickman has, after all, just released an adult album called “Motherlode,” a self-produced comeback album, the most ambitious project of her career. It’s a two-CD set — the first disc about shadows, the other about sunlight — reflecting the yin-yang of womanhood. The dark disc has songs about doubt and depression and death on it; it’s a long way from one of her children’s ditties such as “Red Wagon.”

All the same, Hickman thinks it’s right and good for us to meet her in the library, in the environment of children and their songs. In fact, she says the experience of writing children’s music for the past seven years has enhanced her growth as an adult artist. It has encouraged her to speak more sincerely, to take bigger risks.

“I think I might say that I’ve been empowered by doing children’s music,” says Hickman, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the library conference room after the kids have gone home. “It freed me from a past in which I was always being compared to my contemporaries . . . in an industry that presumes that if you haven’t won Grammys or sold lots of records, you haven’t achieved greatness. It’s the kind of comparison that can really eat away at your soul.

“People used to say to me, ‘I’m coming to your show tonight, so that when you’re famous I can say I met you then.’ But why isn’t ‘right now’ enough, if you feel moved in that moment? In children’s music, I don’t have anyone coming up to me, saying, ‘You know, you should be touring with Raffi.’ The right now is good enough for children. All that matters is that you are who you are. And it has really empowered me to be me.”

Over the course of eight adult albums, Sara Hickman has long embraced the idea that each of us yearns to be loved, that the fleeting moments we share are sacred, that honest expression of joy and sorrow is necessary to our health. Her experience in children’s music has only strengthened this conviction, and inspired her to celebrate both the child and the adult inside of her grown-up audiences and within herself.

“It’s like a grand lullabye,” says Hickman, cradling an imaginary infant in her arms as a matter of illustration. “I’m gently rocking back and forth between adults and children, trying to help everyone see that it’s just really all the same thing.”

Grown-up intentions

In creating “Motherlode,” Hickman aspired to draw from a childlike place — “Hey, let’s use our imagination and draw outside the lines for a while.” — to create an adult album that grabs a grown-up’s attention. This message is first conveyed on the CD cover (which features a lovemaking scene from the Kama Sutra, with domestic props such as ironing boards and laundry baskets in the foreground) and runs all through the music. Message: There’s more breadth to this cheery singer than you might have thought.

Hickman, who has lived in Austin since the mid-90s, touches many moods on “Motherlode” — from a tragic snapshot of marital abuse (“Twenty Years to Life,” by Tricia Mitchell and Monte Warden), to a spiritual, springtime garden romp (“Birdhouse”) to a wry rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper,” backed by the Tosca string quartet. The album is ruminative to the extent that it plays with so many colors that seem at the same time contradictory and complementary: How do all these different shades fit together, in our hearts and in our lives?

“I feel like I live in this unfinished house,” says the singer, 43, who is happily married and has two young daughters. “And I’m wanting to build these memories inside of it — not just at my children’s shows, but within my own family, in my community, in the world. . . . I don’t want this nation to fall apart. I don’t want relationships to fall apart. I want people to talk with each other.”

This enthusiasm — a life ethic, a determination to love that motivates all her music — is ultimately more distinctive and enduring than the songs. “I want every moment of my life to be a moment of intent,” says Hickman. And if you don’t believe her: The record of her journey proves the point.

Hickman grew up in Houston, volunteered as a candy striper at local hospitals, attended the High School of the Performing and Visual Arts. On the encouragement of her high-school music teacher, she played her first live shows in juvenile psychiatric wards. It was a scary experience for an innocent 16-year-old. But the notion that songs might bring solace to others opened her eyes to the healing power in music and broadened her social conscience.

As an adult, Hickman has embraced this link between a musical life and compassion. She doesn’t just play benefit shows for the homeless — she’s delivered food and clothes to them on the street and welcomed them into her home. She’s played music in hospital burn units, as therapy for recovering stroke patients, for handicapped and abused children. As a young woman, she visited a clinic for touch-deprived children in Romania — and the memory of that experience shakes her to this day.

“My favorite shows are the ones where I work with kids who get no attention,” says Hickman, whose empathy was reinforced by her own battle with depression as a younger woman. “It’s almost as if it’s too much for them, though. When the music is over, I’ll spend twice as much time sitting and talking with them. I’ll be holding these kids, and they don’t want to leave, because that’s all the hugging they’re going to get. For years, maybe. Sometimes, I’ll come home and I have to just be quiet because I have to process how sad that is.”

Three years ago, Hickman was touched by the tragic story of Bryan Gutierrez, the 21-month-old Austin boy who suffered severe brain damage after his baby-sitter stuffed a wad of paper towels down his throat. Gutierrez would die three months later; the damage to his body was too severe. But in the first days after the incident, Hickman expressed her sorrow to a friend — who, by coincidence, happened to be an acquaintance of the Gutierrez family.

And so it was in the spring of 2003 that Hickman was invited to visit the boy and his mother, Victoria Guiterrez, at the Christopher House hospice. The mother was sitting in a chair as she entered the room carrying her guitar. Hickman remembers the light, a most beautiful glow, coming from a window behind her.

“She was the most beautiful woman. I remember she was very young. Her hair was pulled back, and she had the most radiant smile — very warm, and very accepting,” recalls Hickman, wiping away tears as she tells the story. “Her son was draped across her lap in way that made me think it looked just like the ‘Pietà.’ His head was turned toward me, and he had big, brown chocolate eyes. I didn’t say a word — I just came in and smiled at her, and she nodded back.

“I sang three or four songs for him, and then I left. She was trying not to cry. I was trying not to cry. It was one of the most beautiful moments in my life, in that we both understood that his life was coming to a close. The essence of it was like being the Little Drummer Boy; all I had was my song. What more can we wish for in this life, to experience holy moments like that?”

All things good

With the release of “Motherlode,” Hickman has begun to play a few more adult venues — and to let the woman within her emerge more completely. She enjoys dressing up, “to be a little sexier, a little saucier” for a change, as she steps onto the grown-up stage to play her grown-up music. And yet. . . .

“I’ve played the Mucky Duck in Houston, at 10 o’clock at night,” Hickman says with a smile, “and there’s people with their 4-year-old at the show, people who don’t even know I do adult music, thinking why in the world is Sara doing a show so late?”

Hickman has done children’s music so well, for so long, that it might have eclipsed her reputation as an adult artist. But this does not ruffle her. Hickman did not record “Motherlode” to distance herself from it. She’s proud of her children’s albums and has no intention of halting that aspect of her career.

“I have a real beef, in fact, with the industry thinking of children’s music as being less important than adult music,” says Hickman, her passion rising as she sits in the empty library. “I mean, the essence of music starts in childhood. They’re hungry. They want intelligent music. If you give them something that’s challenging, they’ll sit and listen and talk and interact with you forever. But if you give them sappy, boring music – yeah, they’re going to be bored.

“In our society, most people tend to think that kids come in as an empty slate, and we’re supposed to fill them up. And I totally disagree with that. They come into the world brilliant and ready to deliver.”

Hickman cites “Turn it Off” as her first political children’s song in that it invites kids to sing out against “dumbing down” influence of television: “They’re stealing the childhoods that you’ll never see/by selling you something that they want you to believe/Don’t buy into their lies/Don’t let them take you for a ride/The next time the TV is on just yell, ‘Let’s take it outside.’ “

In many ways, Hickman feels she has received creative validation from her children’s audience. Hickman’s husband, graphic desinger Lance Schriner, says children quickly tap into the most powerful aspect of her personality — her genuine spirit. They don’t have the capacity to see her with an adult’s cynicism.

“It has always been a big risk for Sara, to go out into the world, full-out, with her genuine personality, even though her basic love for life just shines out like a light,” says Schriner. “We’re so inundated with false image in this world, especially when it comes to stars in popular culture. Everyone, it seems, is wearing a mask. So some adults look at Sara and think, ‘This must be her façade.’

“But kids see right through you. So if there is any kind of façade, kids see through that immediately. And that’s why children almost flock to her, because she identifies with them honestly and clearly.”

Sara Hickman’s genuine example has clearly begun to rub off on her own daughters, Lily and iolana. When she was 6, Lily one day went into a drawing frenzy — creating some 30 oil pastels of swans and castles and abstracts and frogs — and then announced she would sell them in the neighborhood, for 25 cents apiece, to raise money for homeless people. After collecting $2.50 in a baggie, mother and daughter set out to present the gift to a stranger.

“We went out and found a homeless woman up on some train tracks over by Amtrak,” recalls Hickman. “She was about 70 years old. And she was carrying three backpacks — one was full of teddy bears, one was full of Bibles and one was full of junk. She was talking to herself, not really in this world.

“I said to Lily, ‘We should go talk to her.’ I went over first, to make sure it was all right, and the woman came out of her high a little bit. And when Lily finally came over, to say, ‘This is for you,’ the woman just burst into tears and said, ‘I was just praying to God that I would have some money to get something to eat. Thank you so much.’

“And I thought, ‘Wow. What does that say to Lily? How does that alter her life?’ I can’t imagine. But I want the goodness in my daughters to shine out. I want them to have a life where goodness matters.”

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