She's the Boss

"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."

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Hobart Rowland