She's the Boss

Houston-bred Sara Hickman has never been keen on constraints

A snippet of one of her earliest performances, "Grandma's Featherbed," can be heard on Misfits. Even at such a tender age, Hickman's delivery was amazingly mature, and one of the quirks that has come to characterize her vocals in a more refined form was already in place: a playful East Texas drawl. On that brief 1971 flashback, you also get the sense that Hickman had found her calling, though she may not have realized it yet. "I thought I would be an art director," she laughs. "At first, I just did music because I could."

Hickman's parents recognized her talents and enrolled her at HSPVA. Through high school, she spent her weekends performing at Munchies and other Houston clubs, as well as at private parties and weddings.

"The first thing I did was a Houston Oilers party when I was 14," she says. "I got paid $450 to do an hour. I was this little tiny person walking around singing. And all these football players were going [her voice deepens to a manly grumble], 'I sure like your voice.' It was hilarious."

Hickman left Houston in 1981 for college, eventually earning an art degree from North Texas State University in Denton. After graduation, she moved to Dallas, and it was there that she began to entertain the prospect of playing music full-time. The city's club scene embraced Hickman, and she soon found herself courting local fame as the host of a cable TV show, All About Dinosaurs. In 1988, she released her first CD, the hooky and eccentric Equal Scary People, on the independent Four Dots label, run by her pals in Brave Combo. Critics took notice, and soon Elektra Entertainment came calling, signing her in 1989 and rereleasing Scary People.

Initially, Hickman was happy to indulge the commercial whims of her major-label keepers. Her legitimate Elektra debut, 1990's Shortstop, toned down the wild genre swings somewhat and featured the single, "I Couldn't Help Myself," Hickman's only hit to date (number three on the adult contemporary charts). The singer's infectious personality also earned her a regular slot on VH-1.

But it soon became apparent to the label that Hickman's reputation as a iron-willed musical dabbler might be as much a curse as it was a blessing. What was to be her second Elektra release, Necessary Angels, was shelved for reasons that weren't quite clear to Hickman, though she thinks its lush production and giddy outlook were simply too upbeat for the grunge insurgence of the time.

"The problem with me is that I'm an artist that gets inspired by all kinds of music," Hickman says. "That's an asset for me, because I can sit in with different people and have fun. But it also makes it difficult to label me. In the beginning it seemed like Elektra was excited about me -- this girl from Texas, girl-next-door vibe. But then, there was this sort of Taylor Dayne push. At one point, they wanted me to be naked in this video [for a soundtrack contribution she made to the horror flick Arachnophobia]. They wanted to paint me blue and have all these spiders crawling all over me. And I said, 'Nope.' "

Breaking it off with Elektra, Hickman tried to buy Necessary Angels back from the label. But the initial asking price -- $300,000 -- was more than she could afford. So the singer appealed to her fans, who, by purchasing I.D. bracelets Hickman had individually numbered and engraved with a "Necessary Angels" logo, raised $40,000 for her cause. By that time, the label's asking price had plummeted to $25,000, due in no small part to Hickman's incessant prodding.

The CD's title turned out to be an appropriate one, and when Warner subsidiary Discovery picked up Necessary Angels in 1994, Hickman made sure every one of her winged saviors was listed in its liner notes.

"We had this big party, and people flew in from all over the country. Everyone had their bracelets on," says Hickman. "To this day, when I travel to Georgia or New York or whatever, I'll see a fist raised at a show, and there will be that bracelet."

Almost as soon as it began, however, Hickman's relationship with Discovery started to unravel. The label wanted to push Necessary Angels in a major way. Hickman, meanwhile, was itching to get into the studio to record a new release.

"They wanted me to be Alanis Morissette meets Amy Grant," Hickman says. "So I told my manager, 'That's it, I'm going to start my own label and be happy.' When you're on a major, there's security in a sense. But, on the other hand, they're controlling things; it's whenever they're ready. And if you're writing songs and ready to go, it gets kind of tiresome."

So now it's back to being sole proprietor of her own fate, a condition Hickman obviously enjoys. The New York-based independent, Shanachie -- which released Misfits -- has been all over the singer for first dibs on her upcoming Two Kinds of Laughter, which is just about finished. But while she likes the label's laissez faire style, she's not sure if she's ready to commit. The fewer strings right now, she says, the better.

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