COURTESY CITIZENS OF THE PLANET
Toni Childs is great fun to talk to … if you can catch her. She’s passionate and funny and laughs a lot. But when I try to call her at the appointed time, there’s no response. Two hours later, she calls with an apology. She’d misplaced her phone.
We chat for about 10 minutes before she remembers she’s late for a radio interview. Later that night she sends me a handful of texts apologising that she didn’t ring back.
I don’t take this slipperiness personally. Talking to Childs, you get the impression of someone whose mind is always running on ahead of the rest of us. Sentences go unfinished in a rush to chase a train of thought.
Of course, Childs has a lot on her mind. When we (finally) speak, she’s about to embark on an Australian tour in support of her recent record. But she’s already thinking about her next album, Citizens of the Planet, which will form the basis of a production quite unlike anything else she’s done.
The production certainly sounds ambitious. Even Childs has trouble explaining it. There’s talk of a giant compass, thoughts firing synapses and looking at the universe through a telescope. I want to get down to basics – will she still be singing?
“It’s all music-generated,” she says. “There’ll be a lot of visuals and some talking points.”
Childs says she’s keen to engage the audience with some big questions. “There are things I’m distressed about. When do we get that it’s a crime to sell guns to a man who’s going to put them in the hands of children? Why do we need to subjugate each other? We have to figure these things out.”
Part of the inspiration for this change in tack comes from the rapport Childs has built with her listeners. The Citizens of the Planet album was funded by her fans, through Facebook and her website. She says this support gave her the courage to go ahead and move outside her comfort zone.
“I was able to say, ‘This is what I’m doing; if you want to help me make it, you can pre-buy’.”
She seems to be enjoying this closer connection with her audience. “It gives me an opportunity to actually have a relationship with them. The thing about fame is it can be like a prison. I’ve had that experience, where you’re alone, behind this mythic wall.”
There’s certainly no shortage of fans in Australia. Childs’ records have always sold well here. In fact, she recently relocated from Hawaii to Myocum, a small town in rural New South Wales. When I ask why, she says something about being lured here by a white whale that traverses the Pacific. Again, I get a sense of someone chasing threads that remain invisible to the rest of us.
Another deciding factor was her marrying an Australian in January. It isn’t hard to spot some divine intervention. The pair met on a plane grounded by a bolt of lightning.
“We made a real connection on that flight. I was sitting in his seat, because they’d changed mine at the last minute. He looked like he played something, so I asked him what, and that kind of opened the door.”
She pauses. “Plus he had a really great ass.”
Childs’ life story has always had a sense of the mythic. She was raised in an ultra-religious family, cut off from popular culture, then ran away at 15 to become a blues musician. She had already discovered her incredible voice, which seemed to arrive fully formed, like a gift from the gods.
“I wanted it to be mine and nobody else’s. It was the one thing that I could own, that nobody could take away from me. I remember the reaction was so strong from people. I was 15, a young peanut, and they said I sounded like a 90-year-old black woman.”
Childs’ 1988 album Union was a smash hit, kicking off an award-winning, chart-conquering career. But in 1997, a Graves’ disease diagnosis saw her disappear from the pop world for more than a decade. It’s only in the past few years that she has again ventured out on the road. As usual, Childs is polishing the silver lining. “It allowed me to refuel. I had the time to reflect so (Citizens of the Planet) could be born. There’s so many things that start to feel fated; you feel like the wind is with you when you’re creating. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy. I want to live my life with elegance and ease, and that means planning; it means having the right people around you.”
Citizens of the Planet will take to the stage next year. In the meantime, Childs is looking forward to getting back on the road with her band.
“I love it. When I finish a tour, I feel like I could just keep going. You let go of everything else.”
Toni Childs plays Doncaster Shoppingtown Hotel onAugust 31 and Thornbury Theatre on September 1.