Two of Austin’s most revered singer-songwriters deliver new albums this month. Sara Hickman’s Shine came out yesterday, while Darden Smith’s Love Calling sees the light of day next week. I got the two longtime veterans of the local scene together to talk about their music, where they’ve been, and what they’re doing now.
Hickman brings the pop with a sound that’s adventurous and songs that radiate her queen-size personality. Smith’s disc came about from his frequent trips to Nashville to co-write with like-minded folks including Radney Foster, which resulted in a set of acoustic love songs that cut to the quick.
We scheduled 30 minutes, but the conversation could have gone on for hours. They’d listened to each other’s new albums beforehand.
Darden Smith: If someone asks you what do you do, what do you tell them?
Sara Hickman: If someone asks, I like to tell them I’m a musician. I don’t want to tell them I’m a folk singer-songwriter or I’m a pop person. I don’t like being put in a box.
DS: There’s a song on the new record called “Trouble with Boxes.”
SH: Yes there is and it’s the only song I’ve written for myself. I like to think of myself as a mom, musician, humanitarian, teacher.
DS: Was it always that way? When was the shift away from being a singer-songwriter to this other thing?
SH: That’s a good question. When I first started at around 7, I wanted to be John Denver. I liked how he made people feel. He was one of the first concerts I saw and everybody sang along and there was so much love among 15,000 people. I couldn’t believe that someone onstage could make people feel so much. Then when I was 14, I started working with people in the hospital who were in emotional pain and I saw music soothe them. Between that and Billy Bragg I realized that I wanted to make songs that made a difference.
DS: Billy Bragg. What was that about?
SH: He and I were on Elektra Records together and we went on tour together. I was blown away by not just the passion in his songs, but the versatility of styles he did and the way he talked to the audience about politics. He really opened my eyes to the idea that I could do that. I wanted to educate and reach people about what was important in the world.
DS: So did you see your songs as a vehicle that you could put other things into without just writing about relationships?
SH: Yeah, I didn’t want to write love songs. I have some, but I really wanted to write about things like when I wrote “Last Man in the Water” about Arland Williams. He was in a plane crash and he swam around saving people and ended up drowning. I wanted to write from his point of view. What would that be like?
Or when I wrote a song after the Virginia Tech shooting. I wrote from the gunman Cho’s mother’s point of view. There was devastation on the victim’s side, of course, but there was also devastation on his side. They were, I think, Korean, so there was all these different layers of shame, sorrow, and guilt, and they were kind of isolated because people were mad at them. I thought about what I would feel like if I was that mother. No one’s going to come to his funeral. I guess I try to find the other side of the story.
DS: So you see your songs as causes. Do you ever write a song just to write a song?
SH: That’s what I did with this album. This was the first album where I’m just going to go play. I’m going to write songs and have fun and not feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. That was kind of hard for me.
DS: To have fun?
SH: No, to write pop songs and not worry about anything. I wanted to work with one person, someone who would push me in a new direction. I worked with Jim Jacobsen. That was really satisfying. I was isolated away from my family and friends in L.A. I just got to work. This was only the second time I recorded in L.A. and it’s a totally different vibe. I wanted to challenge myself and I wanted to give up control.
So tell me about your history of making music. We sort of have a similar path.
DS: I put out my own record and then got signed with CBS/Sony. It was fantastic. I had a blast and I loved it. Then I did an indie record and then I almost quit around 1998, ‘99.
SH: Why was that?
DS: My daughter was just born. It was just too hard and it wasn’t working. Coming down to an indie deal from a major label deal wasn’t working. So I was really thinking of doing other things. Then I got hip to the idea of having fun. Just writing and recording and working only with people that I liked.
SH: Is that when you started working with Boo?
DS: No, I met Boo Hewerdine in ‘88. We had fun, but that was a major label deal. So the last 15 years or so that’s been the guiding principle of recording. That’s right around the same time I was getting bored with being a singer-songwriter and recording and doing gigs. I felt I had done it and I had been very lucky to experience these amazing things, but still I was wondering what’s next.
Oddly enough, I got interested in teaching, using my experience as a musician, an unschooled musician as a kid. I got very interested in talking to kids about following their vision and opening up to their innate creativity. That’s when I began going into schools. I started doing that a lot. Started in Austin and I’ve done it in different states and in Europe.
That has led me on this amazing journey of bizarre situations doing conflict resolution work, and all kinds of different work using songs as this medium to get people to open up to creativity and collaboration. Get them seeing the possibilities of connections with other people. So not only was that creatively fascinating to me, it stabilized my income to where I could afford to be a songwriter.
Plus, it made touring very different. I played shows and did teaching gigs all in the same tour. It took the pressure off of doing the shows and that became a lot more fun. I stopped looking at myself as a singer-songwriter, with quotation marks, and started looking at myself as a musician who uses songwriting as part of what I do.
SH: I would do the same kind of thing. I’d do a kids show during the day and then a regular gig at night. Or when I was working with Half-Price Books, I’d go into a library and play some songs during the day. I think that you and I discovered that creativity is a way of living, of choosing how to spend your time instead of waiting for that lightning bolt to strike.
DS: It’s a way of life and the more emphasis you put on it the more you have. Musicians can be self limiting especially as you get older. Sometimes you can be the smartest person in the room. You’re a street hustler and you can go all kinds of different places.
SH: Tell me about the making of the new record. What was the cornerstone or the kick-off for it? It’s very – I don’t want to say melancholy – but let’s say mellow, and the last song–
DS: “Baltimore,” that may be the darkest song I’ve ever written.
SH: There’s three very different things about the record. I was curious about the graphic on the cover, the title of the album, and then listening to it. Could you explain that?
DS: The record was started because I’ve been going up to Nashville since about ‘94. I go up there three, four, five times a year. So I had all these songs, but I had no place to put them. They didn’t really fit on any other records. There’s a guy up there, Jon Randall Stewart. He’s a songwriter, a great player, and a producer. I wanted to make a record in Nashville; I had never made one there. I could never get anyone to listen to them there, so I decided to make the record there with players from there. We started this process about five years ago, waiting ‘til I had enough songs that fit.
SH: Yeah there’s total continuity on it.
DS: So there was no rush. The song “Love Calling” wasn’t going to be on the record in the beginning. But I went up to Sirius Radio and did a little concert there and did “Love Calling” about a year and a half ago. It started getting a ton of airplay on Sirius. When I told Jon that, he said we had to put it on the record, so that changed the whole vibe. So it’s mostly love songs or I-used-to-love songs.
SH: I love “I Smell Smoke” and the line, “When I say his name, you laugh it off as if it’s some kind of joke, but baby I smell smoke.”
DS: I’m not responsible for that line, but I’ll call Jay Clementi and tell him you liked it. But that was kind of the idea. I wanted to make an acoustic record and I wanted to use the Nashville acoustic player thing that’s there. It’s bluegrass-based and I’m not a part of that, but that’s why I went to Jon, because he’s a part of that world. I also used Gary Paczosa, who did all those Alison Kraus records [and works with Austin’s Sarah Jarosz]. I wanted to make something simple to see if I could pull it off.
The cover art was brought to me by the guys at Pentagram thinking that I’d say no and I said it was all right. It’s an old etching of a Catherine Wheel. It’s a tarot card, I guess. Plus I thought it would make a darn good poster.
Austin Chronicle: http://www.austinchronicle.com/blogs/music/2013-07-24/sara-hickman-and-darden-smith/