Sara Hickman’s Shine resonates with singular luminosity. High watermarks — “Trouble With Boxes” and the title track immediately come to mind — simply soar. The Austin-based songwriter, who was appointed official state musician of Texas in 2010, spoke to CMT Edge about Shine, her songwriting process and why she recorded in California.
“I had all these lyrics and parts of poems, and I wanted to go back to Los Angeles,” Hickman says. “I have a friend out there named Jim Jacobsen who scores for TV and film, and I started sending him lyrics and concepts.”
CMT Edge: How involved was Jim on Shine?
Hickman: The songs that I had fully finished, I’d send Jim [recordings of] my guitar and me, and he would flesh them out. He would write all the music, then I would fly out there and he would have basic tracks and we would talk about them and he would build from there. This process was also co-writing except that I was just blindly sending things out to someone and he was blindly sending concepts back. It was really fun because he didn’t send any songs back where I thought, “Wow, that music is terrible!” It was a hand-in-glove situation. It flowed really great. We were millions of miles apart, being creative.
What’s your typical writing process?
Normally, I write in three different ways. I sit down and write, or if I go out jogging, I get ideas with the rhythm of my feet on the ground, or I co-write with people. Those have been my ways of doing things, and I’ve always enjoyed it.
Do you take a pen jogging, or do you have to think of the lines over and over until you’re home?
Before I had my iPhone, I would actually run until I had the entire song memorized — lyrics and melody. (laughs) That was actually a good process because it kept me exercising, and I felt like I really knew the song by the time I got back, and I would already have production ideas.
For example, one song I was writing in my head while I was running included a whole choir and it was for the Komen Foundation. [The Susan G. Komen Foundation is the world's largest breast cancer organization.] I had been a co-chair and run in the race, and they asked me to sing the national anthem. While I was up there singing the national anthem, waiting for 10,000 women to run, I thought, “This is a song about war. This is kind of weird. I’m gonna write them a song.” So while I was running in the race, I actually wrote the song in my head. Since it was a 5K, I had plenty of time.
When I crossed the finish line, I ran right over to the women running the race and said, “I have a theme song, and I need to sing it for you right now, and it’s gonna have all this symphony stuff and a choir!” They were like, “What? What?” So I took them over to a parking garage where it was all quiet. The garage was great because of the natural reverb. I sang the song, and they were like, “Oh, my gosh!” I made it happen, and it came out really beautifully. They give it as gifts to breast cancer survivors. It’s called “Just One Race.”
How did the new album’s title track come to you?
I have a young friend named Arvind. He came out of the closet, I guess, when he was 15, and I just thought it was a very compelling story. He shared that information with his father, and his father took it really well. They worked through it all, and he’s really proud of his son, and they have a really close bond. I wanted to celebrate that.
There’s so much bullying, and I have some friends that are transgender, and so many of my friends want to get married, but they can’t because they’re gay. It’s a changing world, and the prevalent thing I want people to understand is that if you have love for yourself, you can love others. That sounds clichéd, but you know how powerful that can be. “Shine” just came from that place of celebrating Arvind. Hopefully, it’ll reach people who need to hear it and know that it’s OK to just be yourself.
Do you think Texas will ever approve gay marriage?
You know, I hadn’t really put my mind to that because I’ve been working so hard against the death penalty in Texas. In the world, we’re the fourth-largest executing place. It’s like Afghanistan, Iraq, China and Texas. Not even the United States. Texas. I’ve been engaged in trying to abolish that in Texas half of my life, but as far as your question, yeah, I think anything is possible. I foresee that there will be no death penalty in Texas, that gay marriage will eventually be just marriage.
The problem I have with the whole thing is that people still have to focus on gay or straight or bi or transgender. Eventually, my vision is that the world will be one that people are in a relationship because they love one another and that’s how the rest of the world will see it, too. People won’t have to explain their sexuality. To me, when you have to explain something, you’re already putting yourself in a box. The fact that there are states that are already legalizing it, yes, I think it will come to Texas. It may be a while, but it’ll definitely happen.
Speaking of a box, tell the story behind the song, “Trouble With Boxes.”
This is the first song I’ve ever written for myself. I’ve always written for other people or about other incidents or causes I believe in. As I was sitting there as this song was coming together magically, I realized that the trouble with boxes is that I never fit in. Kind of like I was just saying about people having to say if they’re gay or straight or bi, I don’t fit in a category in the music industry. I always just thought of myself as a musician.
I remember when I got signed, they were trying to figure out if I was pop or country. That made me laugh. They even made a country music video. I just don’t fit anywhere, and that’s always been a heartache for me.
I just want to make music and share my music with the world like every musician does. So, to me, that’s a tongue-in-cheek song because I actually get in the box because you’re being buried in the box and nobody wants that. … When I’m playing it live, I don’t want it to end because I’m having so much fun. It just feels glorious. I’m so happy that it’s my song — that the idea came to me. It’s like, I love being a songwriter! (laughs)