Singer, songwriter, free spirit, businesswoman, mother of two, wife, community do-gooder – happily wearing many hats
By LYNETT OLIVER
Not everyone who attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts went on to play the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, fight with record companies, appear on "The Tonight Show" and have thousands of adoring fans.
Some grew up to be parents, to speak to state agencies about children’s rights, to champion the homeless, to travel the country as literacy advocates and organize benefits for Amnesty International, the Austin Zoo and others. Austin-based singer, songwriter, mother, wife and humanitarian Sara Hickman doesn’t belong to one of these groups. She belongs to both.
Hickman, 40, knew early that she would one day make her living as a singer and songwriter. She even made an album. "I remember being 7, 8, 9 and making little tape recordings, making up skits and writing the music, making up commercials. I had a Dan Fogelberg album cover that I opened, and I covered the whole thing with construction paper and remade it into a Sara Hickman album."
And she knew it was also her gift to lift people’s spirits.
"I remember telling my mom when I was 5 or 6 that I thought I was an angel and I was sent here to make people happy, that was my purpose," Hickman says, laughing. "It’s as clear as yesterday."
With an art professor for a father and a weaver for a mother, it’s no wonder the young Hickman (first as a DeKalb, Illinois, girl, then as a Texan by age 6) felt called to the artist’s life. And with both grandmothers working as volunteers in area hospitals, she had perfect role models for helping others.
"Both of my grandmothers worked in hospitals as volunteers. Very early on I tagged along with them and did stuff with them. Also I think it has to do with my parents’ divorce when I was a child," says Hickman. "There’s that need to help others not feel pain and grief, even if it’s temporary."
In high school, a teacher suggested a way for Hickman to harness her helping energy and her musical gifts.
"She really took an interest in me because I was in a lot of turmoil. My parents were getting divorced; it was very ugly," says Hickman. "One day she said I want you to go sing at this psychiatric unit for teenagers. That was it. I was singing to some kids from my junior high. Singing to them and realizing what they were grappling with and that my music, just for that moment, was helping them feel loved really altered the course of my life."
She has been ministering to others through music ever since.
The spunky singer has taken her guitar into psych wards, children’s hospitals, or-phanages, shelters and on stage for countless benefits. From the words of her songs to her everyday actions, it’s all one cohesive message.
So when I see you down, I wanna pick you up/I wanna make you
laugh and remind you of the best of times
– "The Best of Times," from the fabled Necessary Angels CD
I’m the girl who’s happy making her way in this world
Optimistic, that’s me
– the admittedly silly "I Wear the Crown," from Two Kinds of Laughter
Let’s go kayaking
Gonna make you my kayak king
What a wonderful life as your aquatic wife
when we go kayaking
– with ex-Dixie Chicks member Robin Macy, "Kayaking," from Domestic Science Club (which also includes work by Patty Lege)
Hickman’s lyrics do reflect an upbeat, positive and, yes, occasionally silly person. She’s been told by those in the "biz" that her music isn’t dark enough and has been written off by critics as too sweet. But a closer look reveals a woman who’s seen her share of the darkness of the human spirit and chooses to focus on the light.
"I’m not going to weigh anyone down with the details, but when I faced any trauma – fear, abandonment, firing, attack – my friends became my armor" is about as much as Hickman wants to say about the troubles in her past. After dealing with her parents’ divorce early, she also faced rape, physical assault, the death of a lover, a stalker and a suicide attempt. All before the age of 25. Add a failed marriage and ugly divorce, unsatisfactory relationships with two record labels, and collapsing on stage to the mix. Add meeting, falling in love and marrying Lance Shriner; having two children, LILY (an acronym from Hickman for Lily, I love you) and iolana (heavenly bird in Hawaiian, the lowercase preferred by Hickman); touring nationally with Nanci Griffith; and experiencing an amazing outpouring of fan support to buy back Necessary Angels when the record company shelved it unreleased.
It’s been quite a ride and Hickman credits her support system with keeping her on track. "These years have been a testimony to love." she says. "My mother; my children; my husband, Lance; my best friends; my fans – their love has kept me moving forward when I felt like running away, giving up, crawling into a hole.
"The great thing is that love never stops believing in us. We stop believing in ourselves," says Hickman.
It’s this kind of hope and optimism that infuses her work, both musical and otherwise.
"Sara always focuses on how she can help those in need, and I think that’s how she manages a positive, grateful attitude even when times may be tough for her personally," says Corinna Whiteaker-Lewis of Amnesty International’s Austin group. In 1997 Hickman donated proceeds from a concert to provide the fledgling group’s seed money. According to Whiteaker-Lewis, Hickman didn’t give just money: "From the stage she encouraged the audience to become involved with human rights and as a result over 200 postcards were signed and mailed on behalf of prisoners of conscience."
The roll of groups that Hickman helps in one way or another is long and includes SafePlace, House the Homeless, Race For The Cure, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and The Mautner Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps lesbians with cancer.
Closer to home, she has been the Half Price Books Reading Ambassador since 2001. Since becoming a parent in 1996, Hickman has written and recorded three CDs of children’s songs: Newborn, Toddler, and Big Kid. She also began performing for children – with whom she has a special bond, according to Kirk Thompson of Half Price Books.
"We were first drawn to Sara after seeing the amazing connection she has with children," says Thompson. "The songs she writes and performs contain many different rhythms and rhymes, which are all of the fundamentals when transitioning small children from talking to reading."
In addition to producing a song and story CD for the company, Hickman traveled around the country to help Half Price Books open its Half Pint Libraries, which provide books to children’s hospitals, clinics and special-needs schools.
"I was often worried about going into hospitals because I was afraid I might not be able to handle seeing children in those situations. It was so hard to see these tiny children that were sick or hurting," he says. "Within minutes though, Sara would have them clapping, laughing and yelling. And excited about reading. It’s truly been a wonderful experience simply being around her."
Members of another group singing her praises are the folks at House the Homeless. Hickman learned a bit about finding joy in the midst of pain from a homeless woman she sings about.
Her mother named her Joy
It was the last word from her lips
How strange that a woman with not much more than a name
Can find such happiness
– "Joy," from Necessary Angels
According to House the Homeless president Richard Troxell, Hickman shows up on Christmas day each year to spread a little holiday cheer.
"Sara is an amazing person," he says. "She’s given freely of her time. We do a thermal underwear drive each year, and she comes to provide underwear, cookies and sing holiday songs. Sara’s about caring about others and thinking outside oneself. That’s just who she is."
In addition to the organized "big scale" work, Hickman also does little everyday things. "I don’t think of it as ‘this is mine and that’s yours.’ I’m always thinking ‘if I was in that person’s place.’
"There’s this one [homeless] guy I keep taking for breakfast," she says. "I spend time with them and see what they need. Whatever they need, I go get it for them."
Whiteaker-Lewis says Hickman carries extra children’s car seats in her vehicle. If she sees someone driving with a child and no seat, she gives the driver one.
"Last year some time, she ran into a grandmother that had several children in her car and none of them had car seats," she says. "She told the woman to meet her somewhere, and she rounded up a bunch of car seats. This lady was so very grateful. That’s another way she works, on a very personal level, and she passes that on to her children as well."
Whiteaker-Lewis attributes the loyalty of Hickman’s fan base to the person behind the music. "Because it’s so genuine, that really registers with her fans. So when’s she’s had troubles, they come back around for her, too," she says.
The trouble she refers to is what’s come to be known as The Necessary Angels Story. After graduating with a degree in fine arts from North Texas State University in Denton, Hickman moved to Dallas and played in clubs around town, and self-released her first album, Equal Scary People. Elektra Records took notice, signed her and released it under the Elektra banner. Next came Shortstop, and the third was to have been Necessary Angels.
Only the record company that signed Hickman because they liked her style, her lyrics, and, well, her, then asked her to change. They wanted a pop-diva, a smooth songstress, a cross between Amy Grant and Alanis Morissette. Hickman had written and recorded the most personal stories of her career, intimate musical portraits of everyone from her aunts with whom she spent summers to her father and their distant relationship after the divorce.
Elektra politely shelved the album, retaining the rights and asking $100,000 for them. Heartbroken and ego bruised, Hickman called for consolation her mother, who suggested asking fans for the money, offering numbered bracelets in return for a $100 contribution. The idea seemed ridiculous at the time and Hickman says her response was something like "Oh, Mom." But as she thought about it, something shifted.
"I called Elektra, and I was mad. I said ‘I want you to look at your desk right now. Do you have pictures on your desk of your children and your wife?’ The guy says ‘yes.’ I said ‘You know what, I don’t have a husband and I don’t have children. These songs are my children. I made a life decision to make music and not have a family. So in essence, you’re keeping me from my family.’ And I hung up the phone on him."
Hickman’s manager called her a few minutes later and delivered some unbelievable news as Hickman apologizing for losing her cool.
"It’s amazing. They just dropped the price to $50,000," she says he told her.
After pondering $100,000, raising the reduced sum seemed possible, and Hickman put her mother’s idea into action. She sold her Dallas home, some guitars, some furniture and her antique salt and pepper shaker collection. In the meantime, Elektra founder Jac Holzman had left the company and started Discovery Records. He wanted Hickman and Necessary Angels. A phone call later, the price was a completely doable $25,000.
All the fans’ good will and sale of Hickman’s personal items more than covered it. A good chunk of what was left went to the lawyers, and Hickman donated the rest to a Romanian children’s charity. When it was all said and done, Hickman threw a party for the angels who had helped rescue her music. They got their names in the CD and cassette tape inserts and on a "thank you" banner Hickman painted by hand.
"Little kids would send in $7.36 and I’d send them stuff," she says. "Trout Fishing in America [sent money]. Michelle Shocked did it. Even people at Elektra were sending me $100. It was really amazing. I sold my house and lived with some friends for seven months.
"The important thing is that nothing should stand between you and your dream," says the grateful singer.
The tough times seemingly behind her, Hickman is enjoying motherhood and family life these days as much as she does performing.
"I love my life," she says, smiling through tears. "I thank God for all the opportunities and the chance to grow and use the knowledge I’ve gleaned from my mistakes to help others, to help my children be better people because I am a better person, to enjoy the depths and fullness of my love with my husband."
You’ve seen me at my worst
It won’t be the last time I’m down there
I want you to know I feel completely at ease
You read me like a book that’s fallen down between your knees
– she sings with and to Shriner in "It’s Only Natural" (by Neil and Tim Finn), from "Faithful Heart"
From the eclectic sounds of Hickman’s early work to the sometimes heady, sometimes light songs of "Faithful Heart" and all the children’s CDs in between, it’s clear that Hickman’s musical musings run the gamut as widely as her favorite causes. Human rights, child safety, homeless advocacy, the Austin Zoo – it’s hard to say where Hickman will shine her light next. But it’s certain that she’ll keep singing from the heart and keep finding lessons in the pain. As she says, in "Two Kinds of Laughter" on the CD of the same name:
The sun just keeps on shining down
whether I swim or whether I drown
I’m laughing either way.
This article originally appeared in austinwoman magazine, November 2003.