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Toni Childs' The Woman's Boat - it's prog, Jim, but not as we know it

Toni Childs album cover for the woman's boat

Toni Childs’ musical compass has taken her north, south, east and west. Seeking inspiration for her third album, the American singer decamped to Madras, India, with a 24-track digital recording unit. It wasn’t her first field trip though. Childs’ debut, Union (1988), had been partially recorded in Swaziland, where she incorporated African voices into her art pop. (Fun fact: Union also features Marillion’s Steve Hogarth on keyboards.) Working with Indian musicians, Childs demoed four brand new songs in November 1992.

Womb, lyrically about a baby that is apprehensive about leaving its amniotic nest to enter the unknown world, suggested a conceptual direction for the rest of the album.The Woman’s Boat starts with that song of birth and ends with Death. The intervening nine songs trace a lifecycle of womanhood with all its triumphs and tribulations. Heavy stuff. But then Childs had plenty of life experience to draw upon. At 15, she ran away from the religious home she was raised in. Her early music career in Los Angeles foundered when she was briefly imprisoned for smuggling cocaine. A move to London heralded a fresh start. It was there that Childs befriended Peter Gabriel’s guitarist, David Rhodes, who became a key player on her early albums.

The Woman’s Boat was recorded at Gabriel’s Real World studios, which accounts for the album’s credits reading like
a WOMAD festival bill. It features players of non-western instruments such as tamboura, mridangam, moorsing and didgeridoo, plus Pakistani superstar Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Belgian/African group Zap Mama. Producer David Bottrill also enlisted Talk Talk drummer Paul Webb, Trey Gunn on stick and Robert Fripp on guitar. Oh, and Peter Gabriel himself duets with Childs on I Met A Man.

Toni Childs’ utterly distinctive voice — as earthy and celestial as that of a gospel singer — sits atop the album’s verdant textures. On I Just Want Affection, the sultry desire of her vocal breaks through the cool reserves of the ethereal, bowed notes of an Indian sarangi. Her voice darts between the sinister shadows of Fripp’s soundscapes on Predator, and she sings with force-10 gusto over the heavy artillery of programmed beats on Lay Down Your Pain.

Upon release, The Woman’s Boat sunk without a trace. It would be 15 years before Childs released another record. Now living in Australia, she has since released several excellent albums via her website but The Woman’s Boat remains the album in which her musical compass pointed true north.