There isn't much agreement among critics on where Toni Childs is coming from: To one, she's "as real as freshly tilled soil"; to another, she's a "distaff clone" created to coast on the wakes of Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega. In discussing her voice--overwhelming to some, overbearing to others--and music, they make an incredible splay of comparisons--from Chapman and Vega to Phoebe Snow, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Joan Armatrading, Grace Slick and Annie Lennox to Tom Waits (!) and a howitzer.
If the writers aren't too sure of whence springs Childs' muse, they aren't alone. The 33-year-old singer says that most of her songs come to her in a trancelike state that sometimes leaves her wondering whether she's writing or just taking dictation.
Childs talked about her music last week by phone from a San Fernando Valley rehearsal studio where she and her band were preparing for a Coach House show tonight and for an Australian tour that will begin afterward. "When I say 'trance-thing' or 'getting in,' it sounds like I have no brains in between my ears and I definitely come from California. But it's not that weird. The best way I can describe it is, it's like comedians who make you wonder, 'Where is this stuff coming from so quick?' Robin Williams is somebody who has that incredible gift. He just starts spewing, and that's kind of the same thing I do, only I'm singing.
"It's a matter of getting in on your own inside track, where really special, magic things happen. Certainly there's something there that you can't describe. I've been able to do it all my life. I can just let words come out, and more often than not those words are just so perfect, I go, 'Oh wow.' It's the subconscious speaking, and you find you're looking at your life."
Childs never sets out to write on a particular subject as such, she said. Rather, she just deals with whatever emerges. Of her current "House of Hope" album, she said, "There wasn't too much decision-making, except for me deciding to be honest with myself." She added that some of what she found herself "spewing" wasn't always welcome, as it would raise matters that she might have preferred not to face.
"I've Got to Go Now," the album's first single, deals with surviving an abusive, alcoholic marriage. The narrator of "Next to You" tries to cope with having one's trust damaged through love. The title song decries the wounded world we're leaving to our children:
They're the ones who will survive.
Will they know what we've sold?
Nature's gift we've turned for gold.
I don't like what I see now.
The chilling center point of the album is "Daddy's Song," in which an incest victim who feels pinned like "a butterfly display" retreats to an inviolable place in her thoughts:
While you're standing there,
I'm standing in a field in my mind.
You can't take that away.
Daddy comes to me
In darkness not in light.
Why, I gave you all my love
And you showed no mercy.
That, said Childs, "was really the only song that I shied away from," because it is from her own experience. "I really don't feel comfortable talking about it. Maybe by being on a record, it might seem that it's less personal to me now, but it isn't."
Childs doesn't see "House of Hope" as a dark chronicle. Rather, she thinks it is a way of getting past the darkness.
"Certainly I think all of us have experiences out of our childhood or growing through different parts of life--some less severe, some more--that (we) have to come to terms with, that created something (we) would have to pass through to grow as a human being. I'm trying to stress that for me, this album is a healing. This stuff is coming from a healing place.
"This is my art coming out of me. This is my way of moving and growing beyond things that have affected my life."
One thing affecting her life was still happening as she recorded "House of Hope." She and co-writer and producer David Ricketts (formerly of the duo David + David) were ex-lovers who had remained friends and gone on to collaborate on her well-received debut album, "Union" (1988). The empathy that was between them drained away during the "House of Hope" sessions, though, and Childs finished the album without him. They cited professional differences at the time of the split, but Childs now says, "I think it was really emotional stuff, stuff that took two years before we finally dealt with it. I don't know if we'll do another record together or not. We'll see."
She feels that "House of Hope" reflects a coming-to-terms that people face in their 30s. "I'm assuming that everybody as they get older goes through a process where they start to look back on their lives and where they came from. I think writing, music or having some outlet you love can be an important tool then. It helps to make sense of it all."