Lumping Toni Childs in with other confessional singer-songwriters is too simple — and an injustice. Childs brings an international tableau of sounds and experiences to her three albums. The Southern California native has lived all over the western United States and in England; her early musical experiences including playing with future members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Bangles, World Party, Shriekback and Peter Gabriel’s band, as well as fronting the first incarnation of Berlin. By the time she got around to recording on her own, the husky-voiced singer was homing in on a distinctive musical vision.
Union is stirring and captivating, a collection of mostly joyful emotions dressed up in world music tones, including backing vocals from African troupes in Zambia and Swaziland. Collaborating with David Ricketts (of David + David) and producer David Tickle, Childs alternates wide-angle messages — such as a plea for world peace, “Zimbabwae” — with more personal ruminations on self-realization (“Tin Drum”) and the value of relationships (“Where’s the Ocean”). There’s a hypnotic, ambient quality to the music that nicely complements Childs’ passionate, emotive vocals.
House of Hope is a darker record; as it begins, Childs is struggling with a decision to leave her mate in “I’ve Got to Go Now” (“Must be addicted to all this pain/’Cause I keep coming back for the shame”). “Daddy’s Song” hints at dark, buried secrets of the past, and many of the other tracks (“Where’s the Light,” “Put This Fire Out,” the title song) trace an unrequited yearning for inner peace. The album raises more provocative questions than Union, but it misses that album’s celebratory quality.
On The Woman’s Boat, Childs goes for the whole kaboodle — life itself. Recorded mostly at Gabriel’s Real World Studio in England, her third album starts with “Womb” and ends with “Death,” mulling over virtually every other life experience during the nine songs in between. Inspired partially by a trip to Nepal, The Woman’s Boat is filled with winding, rhythmic and moody songs that show both Indian and African influences. Members of the vocal group Zap Mama provide the uplifting background chorales, while a ringer’s list of musicians includes Pakistani great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Robert Fripp and Trey Gunn. Childs employs an exotic restraint for much of the album, though she cuts loose on the clanging “Predator,” the bouncy title track and the driving “Lay Down Your Pain.” This time, as the song cycle nears its end with “Long Time Coming” and “Death,” Childs announces a sense of peace — a fulfilling resolution that one hopes won’t preclude her making more music in the future.