At an Austin club last October, Sara Hickman hosted a pajama party. Everyone was invited to show up in their pj's. Hickman, in pigtails, appeared on stage with a friend and her husband -- all three in jammies. Some audience members showed up in robes, carrying big teddy bears. Hickman and her band began the evening by singing the theme to Three's Company. "Everyone that knew me was totally cracking up, because it was just insane," Hickman says. "I definitely need to do one at the Mucky Duck."
A typical Sara Hickman concert isn't just a girl with a guitar. Often wearing glitter, Hickman delivers a performance that includes lively banter with the crowd. She tells stories and jokes around. She takes requests, something not many artists with a top five adult-contemporary hit do outside of A&E's Live By Request. Hickman also gets the audience to participate in sing-alongs ("I Wear the Crown") or participation numbers ("Radiation Man," a funny song about global warming). "Her live act is a lot of fun," says guitarist/producer Adrian Belew, a frequent Hickman collaborator who's best known for his work with prog-rock giants King Crimson. "She's a live wire."
Yet not everyone quite understands Hickman's rapport with audiences. "I've actually had major record labels come out and say, 'We love you as a musician, but could you talk less and we'd be happy to sign you to our major label,' " says Hickman, a onetime Houstonian and HSPVA alum. She begins laughing. "I'm like, 'Well, I don't think it's going to happen.' It would be really weird. I'm like, 'Don't you get it?' "
Major labels, at least, have never "got" Hickman. After years of industry turmoil, she eventually joined indie force Shanachie. Her latest recording for the label is Spiritual Appliances, released last month. She describes the record as 13 songs about emotions, each representing a different feeling, from love to lust to happiness to sadness. Like her other albums, Spiritual Appliances doesn't fit neatly into any category.
Though her playing isn't the guitar-hero variety, Hickman was influenced by a wide range of axmen, from Antonio Carlos Jobim to Leo Kottke to Frank Zappa to Steve Howe. Yet her main vocal inspiration came from another direction: She wanted to sing like Carly Simon. On Spiritual Appliances, there is a bit of that '70s vibe throughout; endings are milked, and production value is lush. Some of the tunes could easily find a home on an album-adult-alternative radio station (too bad Houston has none), and some even sound a little like children's songs. Appliances also benefits from nostalgia. Hickman, who produced the session herself, says she gave the record a vinyl sound quality by overcompensating bass frequencies.
"A lot of times [my recordings were] just kind of Sara Hickman with a band," she says. "The way I approached Spiritual Appliances was more like a series of paintings and my voice was the last layer of paint. It's more like whole illustration of a scene instead of girl singer with a band set up behind her. It was much more an emotional landscape. I use people who I've played with in the last ten years, people who know me really well, who have done shows with me, who've seen how I interact with the people that come to my shows and know how important it is to approach music spiritually and not just [as] a business thing."
Says Belew: "She's a really good writer, a really good singer. She knows what she wants, and she's always got great material." Belew has played on three of Hickman's albums and produced her 1998 recording, Two Kinds of Laughter. "I really enjoyed working with her because she has her own ideas. What she wanted me to do on [Two Kinds of Laughter] was try and render the tracks differently from one another, which is a little different than most people. Most people want you to get something that sounds the same throughout."
To date, Hickman has released three albums on Shanachie and has enjoyed the label's hands-off approach. "They didn't come to one of the sessions at all," Hickman says of Shanachie suits. "They're like, 'Just do your thing. Here's a check, go make your records, send them to us when you're done.' I'm like, 'Wooo-hooo!' That's the way it's supposed to be."
In 1989 Hickman signed with Elektra/ Asylum (a Warner Bros. subsidiary) and scored a top five adult-contemporary radio hit in 1990 with "I Couldn't Help Myself" from her second record, Shortstop. Her association with Elektra also landed her some guest spots on VH-1, but her WB affiliation ended acrimoniously when Hickman delivered her next album, Necessary Angels. Despite the fact that Shortstop had sold 100,000 copies, Elektra had no faith in Necessary Angels and refused to release it or let Hickman record the songs for another label. Hickman sought to buy back the masters, but Elektra wanted $300,000. In a story that demonstrates just how much Hickman means to people, fans donated money for the purchase, which eventually dropped to $25,000. In 1994 Necessary Angels, now owned by Hickman, was released on Discovery, ironically another Warner Bros. subsidiary.
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But her association with Discovery would also be short-lived. The label tried to change Hickman's image and style, failing to realize that people love her because of her personality and eclecticism, not in spite of it. Soured on majors, Hickman signed with Shanachie.
Hickman has also started her own record label, with Shanachie's blessing, called Sleeveless. The first release was Newborn, a Hickman-produced collection of lullabies, which was funded by one of her fans. Proceeds from the release go to the Mautner Project, which supports lesbians with cancer, and to the Hill Country Youth Ranch in Ingram, Texas, which aids abused and neglected children. Since its release last August Newborn has raised more than $25,000 for these charities. The Hill Country Youth Ranch created the Sara Hickman Children's Fund in her honor. Newborn is the first of a series that Hickman plans to release on Sleeveless. Next up will be Toddler, followed by Big Kids. She also plans to cut a record for teenagers called Hey, Get Out of Here.
Hickman says she also wants to direct more independent films. Her six-minute movie, Joy, won first place in a film festival a few years back. She sells videos of Joy at her concerts, with proceeds going to Habitat for Humanity. "I have to say I've been really miraculously blessed," she says. "I'm not famous, but for some reason I keep getting to do these amazing things."
Sara Hickman performs Saturday, March 4, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. For more information, call (713)528-5999.