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

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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Besides acting as her own manager, Childs said, she has been devoting "every spare, free moment" to shepherding a charitable organization called Dream A Dolphin. Its aim is to promote a therapeutic process in which children who are emotionally troubled, physically handicapped, learning disabled or seriously ill swim in pools with dolphins.

Childs said she encountered dolphin therapy four years ago in Hawaii, when she saw its effects on a boy with cancer. Childs started her foundation two years ago.

Its immediate aim is to develop educational programs that therapists can use with children and their families in the months leading up to the climactic swim. Dream A Dolphin has a five-year plan to establish a center for dolphin therapy on donated beachfront property on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Childs said dolphin therapy now takes place at seven sites in Florida, using animals born in captivity. She says the swim has proven to be "a watershed experience" that can spark progress in troubled or disabled children and change their parents' attitudes as well.

"They learn to see where that child can go, instead of focusing on what is not happening," Childs said.

Scoring a major hit--something that thus far has eluded her--would presumably put Childs in a better financial position to push Dream A Dolphin closer to its goals. But she says she would never let her musical career be affected by the money requirements of her foundation.

"I can't do that," she said. "I've never had the ability (to consciously write commercial music). I'll continue to do things the way I always do."

* Toni Childs plays Friday night at 8 and 10:30 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $21.50. (714) 496-8930.

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ON A DARK NIGHT YOU CAN SEE FOREVER: Barbra Streisand has shown the way to fix The Pond of Anaheim's only flaw as a concert venue. Namely, she has insisted that while she is singing, the house be kept dark.

While most people I've talked to don't seem to care that the luxury boxes ringing the arena typically stay lit during concerts, I think it's a serious lapse in taste and a mark of disrespect to a performer. The darker the house is, the more focused, intense and potentially thrilling a concert experience can be.

Babs, that famous perfectionist, obviously agrees: It has been strictly lights out for her shows at The Pond. Why not do it right for other artists as well?

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NEW OLD SOUNDS: Dramarama may be finished, but soon there will be two newly available Dramarama recordings for the band's legion of Southern California fans to remember it by.

Fullerton-based eggBERT Records, run by Dramarama buddy Greg Dwinnell, has set a Sept. 6 release date for "Looking Through," by the Bent Backed Tulips--an alter-ego Dramarama assumed for a late-'80s album originally issued only in Europe on the French label New Rose.

Dwinnell says the album first came into being when songwriter John Easdale proposed a double-album to the band's label, Chameleon, but was turned down.

Dramarama released "Stuck in Wonderamaland" in 1989 as a single album, and bootlegged 11 other tracks to New Rose for overseas release under a pseudonym taken from the Beatles' song "Glass Onion." The eggBERT version will include the 11 original tracks, plus nine others from the same period.

Also on the way from eggBERT, in late September, is "Senseless Fun," a 19-song Dramarama compilation that will include unreleased studio rarities, live covers of songs by David Bowie, Alice Cooper, T-Rex and the Who, and three new songs that Dramarama recorded last spring.

Easdale said recently that a show Dramarama played earlier this month at the Stone Pony in its home state of New Jersey could turn out to be its last but that the members want to mull things over a while longer before deciding whether they should formally disband.

"They don't have a deal now, and they seem to be going in different directions," said Dwinnell. "But I've seen this happen four or five times before, so I'm not as quick to call it quits as some others."

One Dramarama member who already has moved on to other things is guitarist Mark (Mr. E) Englert, who is playing in a new band called Hatful of Rain. The band, which also includes two Portland-based musicians, singer John Lowery and bassist Fred Nied, makes its Orange County debut with a free show Sunday at 6 p.m. at Tower Records in Costa Mesa. Sharing the bill is the local power-pop band Atomic Boy.

Englert says he began playing with the two Oregonians last year because he wanted a songwriting outlet that Dramarama didn't provide.

But Englert isn't calling Dramarama's apparent split final.

"It's a hiatus period, for everyone to go off and find their own thing, whatever that might be," he said Tuesday from his home in Los Angeles. "I think everyone is going for a period of cooling down."

Dramarama is one of the acts on "Melody Fair," a tribute to the (early, pre-disco) Bee Gees recently issued by eggBERT. Easdale, the group's singer and main songwriter, will headline a free concert in conjunction with the album, Aug. 6 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Tower Alternative at the Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Also performing are fellow Bee Gees tribute-payers Baby Lemonade, the Jigsaw Seen, Kristian Hoffman and Barry Holdship.

Next up for eggBERT is a Hollies tribute album, scheduled for January, that Dwinnell says will include performances by Sugar, the Posies, Material Issue and Steve Wynn, among others.

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