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She's the Boss

Houston-bred Sara Hickman has never been keen on constraints

"What I've always heard is: 'You've got really great lips and you've got a really great voice.' But I wanted them to say, 'And you've got really great songs, too.' I want to sing my songs, and I guess that makes me a difficult person to deal with sometimes."

From the sound of it, Sara Hickman must be a handful for her record industry handlers. Further evidence to that effect lies in the Houston-bred singer/songwriter's new CD, Misfits. Much like the artist who assembled it, the release is an emotional and musical conundrum, passionately delivered and charmingly packaged, yet rather confusing. As for its songs, most were written by Hickman and, yes, a few of them could even be called great.

Befitting its title, Misfits is a collection of rejects and leftovers, augmented by the occasional fond reminiscence -- 20 songs, their origins stretching as far back as the singer's childhood years in Sharpstown, bound by sheer force of personality. The disc allows newcomers to sample the range of Hickman's styles and moods, from folk to pop to rock to a bluesy sort of cocktail jazz. They can witness her saucy temperament on "Dumptruck," a spare, tough-as-nails admonition to an abusive mate, then counter that harsh dose of attitude with "Zippity Doo-Dah" and the impromptu Christmas greeting, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," both examples of the singer's daffy sense of humor, and finally switch gears with the bone-chillingly serious "Romania," part of the artist's one-woman relief effort for the orphans of that blighted country. And while they're at it, listeners can enjoy the Southwestern flavored "Strong Woman," the synth-soaked lullaby "Everyone's Gone to the Moon," the not-nearly-awful-enough TV-show jingle "Rosie's Theme" and the infectious, accordion-spiked collaboration with Brave Combo, "Radiation Man," on which Hickman, in her flirtiest little-girl voice, urges "everyone out there" to "take your clothes off and mingle!"

Careerwise, Hickman has mingled a good deal more than many in her hometown may realize, performing with, among others, the aforementioned Brave Combo, Adrian Belew and Dixie Chicks alum Robin Macy (in the three-part harmony combo Domestic Science Club). She's also had a hit single, directed her own music videos, been wined, dined and signed (only to be abandoned later) by two national labels and shared the studio with a virtual who's who of Texas session aces. She's even sung her way onto television commercials and movie soundtracks. Appropriately, Misfits is meant to be a casual crapshoot of guffaws, gaiety and gaffes. It isn't supposed to be definitive. In fact, it barely scrapes the surface of Hickman's fidgety muse.

"That's only some of it," says Hickman. "I sat around last summer and listened to about 2,000 hours worth of music. Music is like my third arm. It's something I don't even really think about."

The 34-year-old singer/songwriter is calling from a Hill Country recording studio, where she's working on a batch of TV jingles for Wal-Mart, which has hired her as a spokesvoice. Hickman currently resides in Austin, where she shares a home with her eight-month-old daughter, Lily Blessing.

Hickman landed the Wal-Mart gig through the same informal channels that have become her route to just about everything work-related these days. In short, the job pretty much fell in her lap. "Somebody told the advertising agency that they thought I'd be good for this," she says. "I think they thought my voice was sort of virginal or sweet or something."

The whole art-versus-commerce debate is a fairly simple issue for Hickman. "It's still making music," she says. "It will help put Lily through college. And besides, it's fun, and I can still put my heart and soul into it."

Sara Hickman comes from artist's stock. Her father, David Hickman, is a professor of painting at the University of Houston, and her mother, Anita, formerly taught at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and is no slouch on the piano. She also had a grandfather who toured the country playing saxophone in a swing band and a grandmother who had her own radio show.

Hickman first picked up a guitar at age seven, and by age eight she was making crude homemade recordings at a prolific rate. "I have tapes and tapes of me singing all these songs," Hickman recalls. "I had this little Sears tape recorder, and I would sit in the corner of a room in the house and be all serious with my guitar and my baseball cap. I'd pretend I was Carol Burnett and make up little commercials on my guitar. I really thought I would grow up to have a variety show. I always laugh now, because when I'm on-stage and I'm talking, I still feel like that eight-year-old tomboy. And then when I sing, I feel like an ageless woman."

Hickman's mom, Anita, also recalls Hickman's fondness for another classic entertainer. "She used to say that when she grew up, she wanted to marry George Burns," remembers Anita. "We used to have plays in the back yard, and she would write all the scripts and sing the songs. We would serve lemonade and sit under the trees, and she would kind of direct all these kids from the neighborhood."

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.

"One day, I had somebody ask me, 'What do you think it's going to be like when you're really successful?' And I said that I was already successful," Hickman notes. "I get to do what I love, I have a really loyal following, I make really good money and I don't have people ripping at my clothes and bothering me. I'm right where I want to be."

Sara Hickman performs at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, May 3, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $12. For info, call 528-5999.

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