Sara Hickman didn't set out to be a crusading-mommy musician and ever-smiling feminist icon. That's just how the cards have fallen over the course of her career. In addition to being a devoted wife and the mother of two young girls, Hickman has her own record label, Sleeveless, and manages to devote large chunks of time to humanitarian efforts such as the Mothers' Milk Bank in Austin, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and Race for the Cure, as well as serving as national ambassador for literacy for Half-Price Books, a Texas-based chain.
Hinky as it sounds, Hickman seems to be fueled by love, which is reflected not only in her new album, Faithful Heart, but also in what she gives to her community and to the world. There was a time in her life, however, when she thought she'd be doing well to simply have a roof over her head.
Born to artistic parents -- Dad was a painter and professor, Mom a sculptor and weaver -- Hickman grew up in Houston, graduated from the High School for Performing Arts (Houston's own version of the institution in Fame!) and went on to earn a degree in painting from the University of North Texas in Denton, a bedroom community near Dallas. Music pulled at her most strongly, though, and it was in Dallas that Hickman embarked on her current path, one that was marked early on with drama of the major-label sort.
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At the beginning of her career, Hickman gigged quietly around Dallas, quickly rising to the forefront of the scene with her fun, quirky folk pop. She self-released her debut record, Equal Scary People, which was picked up in 1989 by Elektra (more often referred to in the biz as "Neglektra"). Shortstop followed in 1990. Soon after, Hickman began work on her third album, which was co-produced by Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks) and Paul Fox. But when the recording was finished, Elektra shelved it and dropped her. She was told that if she wanted to purchase the masters from the suits, it would cost her a cool $100,000.
Broke and label-less, Hickman took charge of the situation, organizing a fundraiser she dubbed "Necessary Angels." Donors who gave $100 got a copy of the CD, a mention in the liner notes and a numbered bracelet. Fans responded exuberantly and generously. Meanwhile, Hickman's life was beginning to resemble a garage sale as she unloaded her house, car and antique salt-and-pepper-shaker collection in an effort to finance the recording. All told, she raised $40,000, which was still light-years away from Elektra's asking price.
In a fortunate twist, Hickman was approached by Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra, who had defected and formed a new label, Discovery Records. When he signed Hickman, the price of the masters dropped to $25,000, and Necessary Angels saw a joyous release in 1994. She went on to put out three more records -- Misfits, Two Kinds of Laughter and Spiritual Appliances -- on Shanachie, tour with Nanci Griffith and work on a side project called the Domestic Science Club. Things were definitely looking up, and Hickman felt it was time to start giving back. Having produced Spiritual Appliances herself, she was ready to expand her empire and re-enter the studio as both an engineer and an artist. In 1999 she released Newborn, a collection of not-too-sweet ditties -- including "Goop's in It," a charmer about eye boogers -- for parents to sing to their wee ones.
"Newborn was basically this fun idea I had because a lot of parents around me were saying, 'I wish I could sing to my child,'" says Hickman. "I made it really, really simple. Most of it's just me and a guitar to encourage people to sing along with me -- and then, once they got confident enough, to turn me off and either mimic what I was doing or come up with their own inspirational songs." Hickman donated the album's proceeds -- $50,000 -- to the Hill Country Youth Ranch, a home for abused and neglected children, and to the Mautner Project, an assistance program for lesbians with cancer.
Next came Toddler, a collection of 31 short songs, stories and poems that featured tracks in Hawaiian, Dutch, Hebrew, English, Spanish and French, as well as guest appearances from Tish Hinojosa and acclaimed Austin hip-hop artist MC Overlord. The content was designed to complement the average two-year-old's developmental stage without sickening the adults who had to listen to it, too. This summer, Hickman starts work on Big Kid, an album for children between the ages of four and six; Big Kid will feature artwork by her own five-year-old daughter, Lily.
Although Hickman's musical endeavors are ongoing and exhaustive, Lily, baby Iolana and husband Lance are her primary focus.
"People are fascinated, like, 'How do you balance being a mommy and being a singer? How do you find time to do these things?'" Hickman says, laughing. "I grew up with this naive vision that everyone came home from school and drew with their parents or put on plays. I'm just starting to see that what I have created for myself is very unique; I'm learning that I'm kind of a blue rose in a field of red ones, and I'm really starting to embrace that."
Now in her late thirties, Hickman embodies Milan Kundera's sentiment in Laughable Loves: "Man passes through the present with his eyes blindfolded. Only later when the cloth is untied can he glance at the past and find out what he has experienced and what meaning it has had."
And so it goes with Hickman, who speaks plainly: "I've had a lot of mishaps along the way; I've made some choices that were not the same choices I'd make now. But those choices led me to where I am today, so I'm grateful for those mistakes."
Indeed, the mistakes of the past tend to shape our lives in the most positive ways imaginable. Hickman has exchanged the uncertainty of major-label suits controlling her career (and her bank account) to the controlled chaos of a home that bustles with activity, and where she is the breadwinner -- truly a feminist coup.
"I've created a job for myself in that I call the shots. And I have to say that I've chosen a very great partner, for the first time in my life," she explains. "I've always had boyfriends or lovers that started out good, but it became almost a chore to be in a relationship with them. This is the first time I've had a real, equal partnership, where my husband is a stay-at-home dad. He does all the cooking and cleaning and laundry and shopping, and I take care of bringing home the bacon."
Could this be an antidote to the kind of feminism espoused by some grrrl musicians, whose idea of activism may be more about bitching than actually doing something?
"That is just immaturity. It's like someone sitting in a corner saying, 'Waa, waa, waa,'" Hickman says. "To me, a real feminist is someone who takes power and takes charge and is enjoying life. I have a full plate, and I'm enjoying everything on it. And if I don't like it, then I go put it down the drain or give it to someone who needs it."
It's this positive attitude that drives Hickman in her personal life and in the latest addition to her resumé: motivational speaking for women's groups. "I don't want my daughters to be brought up [with a negative view of life]. I tell the women that I speak to, 'You've gotta get it: You are so amazing. There's no one else like you, and if you don't embrace yourself, when you're dead, you're gone, and there's no one else ever like you.' I want my girls to grow up thinking, 'I'm fantastic, and my skin is beautiful, and my inside is beautiful, and I just love myself.'
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"I carry this sort of universal grief I have about how cruel people are to each other. The only way I can take charge of that sadness is to stay involved in the community, and that helps me stay positive," she adds. "There are small steps I take, and if everyone takes just a small step.... It sounds so cliched, but it's like John Lennon said: 'War is over if you want it.'"
One of the "small steps" Hickman has made recently is to release Faithful Heart, a collection of songs -- some covers and some originals -- designed to spread love within the home in hopes that it will radiate outward and infect the world with warm fuzzies. "I wanted to promote healthy love through music; I want that so bad for people. I want -- not just my music, but music in general that's healthy -- to touch people and bring them back to being a whole person."
In this new age of media saturation, when images of war and death and destruction pummel us on a second-by-second basis, Hickman thinks we could all use a little love, and that if we really soak in it, the good feelings can be contagious. "I think people aren't aware of what they're being hit with every day. There's junk everywhere. People are filling their heads with junk, and if you're doing that, you're going to treat your partner with junk and give your children junk, and you're...a junk collector. Why would you want to have junk in your head when you can eat fresh strawberries and pick sweet-smelling flowers and lay in your yard and look at the amazing clouds in the sky and touch your partner with kindness?"
It's an atypical feminist whose platform is "What the world needs now is love, sweet love." You won't hear Hickman beating her chest in a barbaric feminist howl; her actions speak louder than a hundred burning bras. She is woman, hear her purr.