Born 1957, in southern California. Singer, songwriter, 1974--; founder of group Toni and the Movers, 1979; worked for Island Music in the early 1980s; solo recording artist and concert performer, 1988--. Signed with A & M Records, 1985. Addresses: c/o A & M Records, 1416 N. La Brea, Los Angeles, CA 90028.
Toni Childs "delivers ... evocative, evanescent music that allows you to immerse yourself and drift away," according to Rolling Stone critic Steve Pond. With the release of Union, her 1988 solo debut album, she has been favorably compared to rock and folk artisans such as Van Morrison, Joan Armatrading, and Phoebe Snow. "You notice her voice first," explained Pond. "It's full, deep and flexible ... her album's commanding centerpiece." Childs has been classified by many reviewers as ranking alongside other female folk stars coming into the spotlight in the late 1980s, such as Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman, and with the likes of them is credited with the resurgence in popularity of serious women singer-songwriters. "She makes music," asserted Jay Cocks of Time, "that catches the sweet, scary feelings, all the uncertainty and release, that can come when the sun goes down."
Childs was born in southern California. Her early years, spent there and in small towns in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, were not especially conducive to developing her musical talents--her parents were strict Christian fundamentalists who forbade her to listen to rock or pop music, "or even go to the movies. There was a lot I missed out on," she confided to Cocks. She was also unhappy in school, due to a dyslexic reading disorder that went undiagnosed and caused her to be placed in classes for slow learners. But despite her troubles, Childs's aptitude for music began to show through; she started writing songs when she was fourteen. Because she did not know how to play a musical instrument at the time (later she learned guitar and bass), she tried to write a musical solely for voice; the story concerned a mermaid. "I just locked myself in my bedroom for two weeks," she told a Seventeen interviewer, "and scribbled it out."
When Childs was fifteen, however, she could no longer stand her repressive family environment. There had been other problems as well; when she was twelve, the man she thought was her biological father divorced her mother--before he left he revealed that he had only been stepfather to Childs and her brothers, and that a man who had been introduced as a friend of the family was their real father. Her mother remarried again, and Childs did not get along well with her second stepfather. She told Seventeen that he "didn't have a good grip on who he was. You love your mother, you want to make her life better, but after a point you can't really help, and you have to go." So she left home. She worked odd jobs to live; she served as a nanny, and did chores in a commune that fed her for her work. Childs began listening to rock then, too, and found herself admiring the work of David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd.
One night, at about the same time, Childs was in a southern California roller rink and the band performing there allowed her to see what her voice sounded like through a microphone. "I sounded like somebody who could really sing!" she recalled for Seventeen. A few years later, Childs began singing with rock bands herself, and by 1979 was the leader of Toni and the Movers. As John Milward put it in an article for Mademoiselle, the group "was for [Childs] the living out of a loud, raunchy rock-and-roll fantasy, complete with skunk-drunk performances and plenty of LSD." The band was not very successful, and its leader was arrested on drug charges for her efforts to earn money for the band. Childs spent three months in a federal prison, with fellow inmates like former members of the infamous Charles Manson family, and heiress-turned-brainwashed terrorist Patricia Hearst. The experience reformed her: "It was a very big scare-the-hell-out-of-me situation," she told Cocks.
A short time after this, Childs gave up on Toni and the Movers and went to England, where she worked for Island Music. The company's heavy involvement with African and West Indian rhythms and musical forms deeply influenced Childs, and when she returned to California to sign a recording contract with A & M Records in 1985 she knew that the album she would create for them would incorporate these influences. On the same day that she signed with A & M, however, she moved in with musician David Ricketts, of the duo David and David. He would become Union 's associate producer, and helped Childs write many of the album's songs; further, the ups and downs of Child's sixteen-month love affair with him would serve as the basic theme of the album.
Union took three years to complete, partially because Childs and Ricketts searched in countries such as Zambia and Swaziland to obtain what Marianne Meyer termed in Rolling Stone "the perfect atmospheric washes and ethnic accents." As Meyer reported, A & M "was understandably nervous about their new signing's traveling the globe in search of something she couldn't quite describe," but Childs and Ricketts found two African choirs to use on Union, and the album's critical and popular success have more than made up for the difficulties of its production. Union has launched two hits, "Don't Walk Away," lauded as "electrifying" by Seventeen, and "Stop Your Fussin'," which People described as a "slinky Caribbean samba." Other songs on the album that have drawn praise are "Let the Rain Come Down," in which, according to Pond, "Childs sounds downright triumphant, buoyed by her faith in the renewal that comes with time and distance and a cleansing rain"; and "Walk and Talk Like Angels," which People called "as warm, dry and stirring as a desert breeze." Overall, concluded Pond, " Union is an album about the precarious dynamic between men and women.... And ... the album is suffused with a sense of peace and restfulness." Childs intends to record a second album, this time working with Indian and Indonesian rhythms.
by Elizabeth Thomas
Toni Childs's Career
- Selective Works
- Union (contains "Don't Walk Away," "Walk and Talk Like Angels," "Stop Your Fussin'," "Dreamer," "Let the Rain Come Down," "Zimbabwae," "Hush," "Tin Drum," and "Where's the Ocean"), A & M, 1988.
- Also recorded a single with Toni and the Movers.
- Mademoiselle, September, 1988.
- People, June 27, 1988.
- Rolling Stone, June 2, 1988; January 26, 1989.
- Seventeen, January, 1989.
- Time, June 6, 1988.