Two Kinds of Laughter
By BILL BRUZY
Bill Bruzy: You have quite an expressive range. I listened to your latest CD, Two Kinds of Laughter, and read reviews of your work. You stretch an edge of style, from being soft, caring, spunky, haunting, and even "Sara Van Halen-ish" at times. Where does your range come from?
Sara Hickman: I think it’s that I’m such a curious creature. I’ve always been fortunate to be around creative and expressive people. I’ve not only been exposed to a lot of art, I’ve been exposed to a lot of ideas.
I’ve always been open to different styles of music. I don’t think there is any one right way. Especially, it seems in Western Culture, we try to pigeon-hole people. I’ve never thought of myself as "Sara Hickman the folk artist" or "Sara Hickman the pop artist."
BB: You indicate that you’ve been influenced by a lot of musical styles and creative people, but you mentioned that ideas and visual arts also influenced you. How?
SH: I grew up with two visual artists for parents. They were both painters and my mother was also a weaver. I grew up around a lot of textures, color, design elements. I certainly think lyrically that kind of visual poetry absorbs into who you are.
If I went into my mom’s room when I was little, when she was weaving, I could listen to the sound "Shoop… shoop…" There were paddles on the floor and her feet would hit the paddles and make another sound.
When I’d sound bored, she’d say, "Oh go write a play. Here is some paint. Create something." She didn’t say, "Oh you’re bored, go outside and play." She basically asked me what I could do with my mind.
My parents always pushed me. My parents didn’t really help me, they showed me what could be done. That kind of freeing of the imagination as a child let me know I could do anything I wanted to. That went into my songwriting. I was the only one in the family that wanted to make music.
Coming home from school, instead of making art, I’d run to my room and get my guitar, sit down and have these conversations with my guitar. But a lot of that visual element, instead of going on paper, started seeping into my mind and coming out in words and music.
BB: You grew up in an environment where the aesthetic concern was everywhere.
SH: in a bow towards what my parents had, my whole house is full of color. Their house was full of color and paintings and sculptures. We always went over to other people’s houses that had paintings and sculptures. They were always talking about paintings and sculptures. We’d go to museums.
I thought all people grew up this way. I didn’t really understand, probably until college, that I was really fortunate that my parents cared so much about the arts. But it always made me feel like a bit of an outsider because I didn’t understand why other people weren’t sitting around drawing pictures. When my sister and I would go to birthday parties, we’d always take presents of colored pens and paper and all, everyone else would be giving frilly dresses, socks, toys, whatever. We were just geared towards having artistic lifestyles. My sister is a jeweler now.
BB: That’s a wonderful way to grow up. Just listening to you, I get this sculptural sense and see how it’s impacted on your music.
SH: We were just up in Chicago and I stayed in a Mies van der Rohe building on Lake Shore Drive. The fact that I knew it was a Mies van der Rohe building was exciting, to me. It was fun to be actually staying in that building. I can appreciate what he did. There were sculptures there. I would walk around with Lily (her daughter) and I would take her hand and run them across the sculptures.
I’d say, "This is smooth, or rough, " or ask what she thought a shape meant. Even though she’s really young, I’ve wanted her to feel textures because – no matter what you do when you grow up, even if she’s a banker someday – the feel of things is so important. It tells you a story. I’m so grateful to my parents because I feel like my five senses were on overload the whole time I was growing up.
BB: How do you maintain your creativity? You write your material and generate a lot of creative stuff. How do you keep the Muse alive in your life?
SH: Well, I certainly have an awkward dance with the Muse. I feel like I’m the Ginger Rogers and the Muse is Fred Astaire. There are times I’m dancing pretty good with it and then there are times I am going backwards and I’m on heels. But, I just find every opportunity I can to be creative.
BB: You’re doing it right now.
SH: Thank you. Now that I have Lily I can do it all the time every day. Instead of saying there’s nothing in the refrigerator, I can sing (to an improvised melody) "Oh there’s nothing in the refrigerator, let’s go to the store, and then we’ll fill the Fridgerator up with more."
Every moment I find is an opportunity to make a song. That’s what I want for Lily. Because – I find when I’m on stage and some heckler goes "make up a song ’bout motorcycles" – I go "Okay!" I’m not intimidated. Ever since I had a cheap Sears tape recorder when I was little, making up songs and commercials, I thought, "Why do we have to express ourselves by just talking? You’re making up something when you talk, anyway. You might as well make up a song with it!
BB: In the song "Look At It This Way" your lyrics talk about untying ourselves from the railroad tracks where we’re just waiting to get run over by the train. You have untied yourself in some way. You have a number of causes you support. You do a lot of community work. You have a heart.
SH: When I first got out of college I was really depressed. I was really lonely after going through a relationship that was borderline abusive. So I moved to Dallas, didn’t have any friends there and I was really lonely. I felt really ostracized. I came out of that by volunteering with a group called Arts For People.
I’ve been with them for 12 years. I went to them because I felt I needed an outlet to express myself and I didn’t feel happy. So I started writing programs for people in therapeutic services, hospitals, and pediatric wards. I’d do therapeutic music performances and it started making me realize we are all connected. We’re all in pain, we’re all in joy. The more I did it, the more I loved it. I saw how taking a few minutes out of my day to sing for somebody gave them hope.
BB: That changed you.
SH: It drove me on. I wanted to constantly give back because I’m really thankful that I survived a really sad time in my life. Not only that, but I realized it’s not my money and it’s not my talent, it’s really God’s. I’m just kind of this… channel in a way. So I have a very strong commitment to tithing, and part of my tithing is actually physically going out in the community and working with these organizations. Although now that I have Lily, it’s easier to just do a show and give the money and let them do all the physical stuff.
BB: In your life now, what’s really important to communicate?
SH: I went to a baby shower yesterday. It was all women and that was moving to me. It’s nice being in the community of women. But I was looking around the room and I thought how low women’s self-esteem is. We constantly carry around the fear that we are not adequate enough. I can just see it now in other women’s faces. Some men have this, too, but I really wish there were some way I could just say, "It’s okay. You’re doing the best you can. You’re fine just the way you are."
So many women come up to me at my shows and they say something like, "Oh, I’m just a receptionist, but I always had a dream that someday I’d be an opera singer." I just want to say, "You can be an opera singer. Don’t let this ridiculous vision in our society, that you can’t be successful unless you’re winning Grammys, stop you." Success has nothing to do with that, and I’m so angry because success is living your life truthfully and being successful in your own way. It has nothing to do with all that other stuff.
At least once a week someone says to me, "What are you going to do when you’re famous? What are you going to do when you when a Grammy? How will it feel when you’re successful?" I laugh and say, "I am successful."
BB: You have a new daughter, 20-month old Lily Blessing. I’m curious. How did you come up with the name? It’s beautiful.
SH: I was driving around in my car one night and heard the name Lily. I liked it. I realized later it could be a cool acronym for itself, which is "Lily, I Love You." The next night, I was driving around in my car and the word "blessing" came into my mind. I thought, "How about Lily Blessing?"
Bill Bruzy is owner/director of the Austin Men’s Center and a writer.
Originally printed in New Texas Magazine, May 1998. Used with permission.