Sara Hickman shows her dark side on Motherlode

Aug. 23, 2006
Houston Chronicle

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Sara Hickman says she has a dark side.

The creator of whimsical children’s albums and sunny pop-folk ballads is out to prove her edge with a new, stylistically diverse double album, Motherlode.

One disc is solemn (depression, insomnia, addiction and spousal abuse); the other celebrates a woman’s soul as manifested in birdsong, motherhood and longings for love.

"People think I’m too positive or too happy," Hickman said. "I don’t know why there’s a problem with that. With this album, I’ve tried to release some of the darker sides of me. But my music’s pretty much at the core stayed the same — it’s about finding the hope in these small scenarios."

Hickman, 43, grew up in Houston, graduating from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Her mother is a fiber artist, her father an art professor at the University of Houston. It’s natural she is a painter as well as a songwriter.

"My dad was always, always, always painting, and my mom was always, always weaving," she said. "God forbid you ever said you were bored. They would hand you clay or paint and say, ‘Make something.’ "

She graduated from the University of North Texas in Denton with a bachelor’s degree in fine art and pursued a singing career, first in Dallas, later in Austin.

She released her first album, Equal Scary People, on her own, which led to a record deal with Elektra. Shortstop was released in 1990, but Elektra shelved her next project, Necessary Angels. Hickman and her fans raised $50,000 to buy the songs back, and she released it herself. Subsequent albums were released on her own label, Sleeveless.

For the past five years, continuing to show an independent streak, she’s been writing and performing music for children — even newborns — as she has settled into family life with her husband, Lance Schriner, and two daughters, now 6 and 11.

"Never be afraid to make music with children, because you’re passing on a great gift," she says. She released three albums — Newborn, Toddler and Big Kid.

The children’s music has become so popular that sometimes, when she plays at bars, confused families show up expecting something altogether different — Remember Your Name and Address, for example, from Toddler. She has to make it clear she’ll be playing "adult" music, even if that description makes it sound risqué.

Last year, when she resumed writing for adults, the concept for Motherlode, as well as its title, came to her as if magically, in a dream. "It was a complete joy to make this record," she said.

Her favorite song on the album is The Song of You, about her great-great-great-grand-parents, Abigail and President John Adams (G-pop-4, as she calls him), and how they stayed in touch during long separations. "They wrote all these prolific love letters to each other," she said.

Other ideas for Motherlode came from being a mother and from social issues. Twenty Years to Life is about a woman convicted of the murder of her abusive husband.

"I wanted to make an album that talks about my feelings as a musician and a mom," she said. "People assume that women who become moms don’t read or talk about politics anymore, but moms are some of the most educated, interesting people to know."

Guest vocalists on the album include Kelly Willis, Shawn Colvin, Ruthie Foster and Jimmy LaFave. The style meanders through a diverse musical landscape of funk, pop, country, folk-rock and soulful jazz.

Motherlode’s two moods are tied together both by Hickman’s sweet, clear voice and by the theme of womanhood that pervades the work. The musically upbeat Stupid Love is about the ups and downs of a long-term relationship.

Another standout on the "happy" disc is the lilting love song Learn You Like a Book by Colin Boyd and Tricia Mitchell.

Hickman explains her bipolar strategy: "Usually I’m euphoric and happy. I love nesting and being with my family and friends. I enjoy my husband and our sex life, but then there’s this other side of me which seems like a kind of universal woe — where I get very affected by what I read in the paper, by homelessness and child abuse and neglect. I feel like one voice in this sea of humanity, in a world that can be depressing and hard and confusing and sometimes terrifying."

Concern for the world has also led Hickman to donate her time to Safe Place, Habitat for Humanity, House the Homeless, the SPCA, the Race for the Cure and other animal- and human-rights organizations.

But sometimes she’s just struggling with personal demons. She wrote the song To a Maddening Ghost about her insomnia. "I decided if I personified it, maybe it would go away," she said, "but it just wants more songs."

Twelve of the 20 songs are covers, including a spaced-out version of the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper, about addiction. "I can’t believe that’s never been recorded by a woman," she said. "It seems so natural."

Despite the edge, Hickman still has fun. She encourages live audiences to whistle along on Amy Rigby’s blunt, quirky Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again? — a song from the sunnier side of Motherlode.

Hickman feels that she’s come into her own in her 40s.

"I feel more comfortable in my skin," she said. "I used to feel like I was outside looking in, which is the only way I can describe it. Now I feel like I’m part of the party; I opened the door and let myself in."

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