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O.C. POP BEAT : Toni Childs: Captain of Her Own 'Boat'

July 21, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Toni Childs, making music her own way can mean trekking to Africa or India in search of sounds and moods that might inspire her.

It also can mean taking evasive action to shield her ears from widely hailed music that's more readily encountered: the songs of Peter Gabriel.

Call it the anxiety of influence, pop-music division. Gabriel, the respected English rocker, is largely responsible for introducing rhythmic currents from Africa and Asia into pop music on albums dating back to the early 1980s.

Childs has worked similar rhythmic turf since her recording debut in 1988. Although the Los Angeles-based singer admires Gabriel so much that she wrote a song about him for her new album, "The Woman's Boat," she has avoided listening to him.

"I go out of my way not to hear his music," Childs said in a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Minneapolis. That tour also stopped in Hollywood on Tuesday (Review, F2) and brings her to the Coach House on Friday.

"Peter and I are too much in the same area. When you're doing your own thing, you can't go to someone else's well. I've had to go deliberately out of my way, because everywhere I turned (during the making of her latest album), he was in my life."

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The song about Gabriel, "I Met a Man," took shape in August, 1992. Gabriel had invited Childs to come to Real World Recording Week, an annual event in England in which artists signed to his world beat-oriented Real World label gather to record at his studio. At the same time, they play concerts for the Gabriel-led organization WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance).

"We got a chance to work together for the first time," said Childs, who became involved in a collaborative songwriting session with Gabriel and Papa Wemba, a singer from Zaire. She later wrote "I Met a Man," a gently swaying, yearning song about aspiration that makes no specific mention of Gabriel, but includes him as a backup singer.

"It's a song about Peter, watching him and his life. I admire the man, what he's doing with the money he's making and the attention he's getting," Childs said, referring to Gabriel's work for human-rights causes and his efforts to help musicians from around the world find a forum in the West.

"Because the song is about him, it made sense" to have Gabriel sing background vocals, she said.

Childs was born in Orange, Calif., and grew up in a succession of towns in the Midwest and Southwest. She arrived on the Los Angeles rock scene in the late 1970s.

Subsequently, she moved to London, where she started a band with guitarist David Rhodes, a member of Peter Gabriel's band. Returning to Los Angeles in the mid-'80s, she formed a musical (and, for a time, romantic) partnership with David Ricketts, formerly of the duo David + David.

Her signatures on the affirmative "Union," the more troubled "House of Hope" and now "The Woman's Boat" have been lush, gauzy textures, world-beat rhythms and a large, dramatic voice that often seems half-strangled with feeling.

Childs broke with Ricketts after her second album and moved from A&M Records to Geffen, which readily agreed to her idea of recording part of her third album in Nepal and India. The monthlong trip at the end of 1992 was a search for new playing partners and new inspiration, akin to the journey she had taken to Africa while working on her first album.

In India, Childs wrote "Womb," a song sung from the perspective of a child basking comfortably inside its mother's belly, with a dim but apprehensive awareness of the world into which it will be ejected.

Childs said that writing the song gave her the idea of turning the album into a birth-to-death song-cycle. "The Woman's Boat" is largely concerned with questions surrounding birth, the nurturing of new life, and, finally, coming to terms with a parent's death.

Childs says it can be read as a literal account of her ideas on women's mothering role, but she also intends metaphoric meanings that apply to men as well. The songs, she said, can be taken as a comment not only on how children are born and equipped for survival, but also on how ideas or works of art are brought into being.

"The whole record seems to be affecting women very deeply, especially women who are pregnant," Childs said. "A lot have asked me, 'Have you had a baby or are you pregnant?' They could relate to it so strongly.

"I haven't had a child, but that's what I think about," she said. "The supreme sacrifice, we're told, is a man dying on a cross. To me, the supreme sacrifice is parenting. That's what's real in our lives, it's what really happens: giving up your life for another being's life, whether it's (a child) or an idea."

At 37, Childs said, she is still putting off giving birth in the literal sense. "Not right now in my life. I'm not ready for it."

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