INTERVIEW / One woman's window on the world: Toni Childs has always been prepared to go a long way to make a decent album. This time she went as far as Madras. Mark Cooper stopped her on her way through London

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The opening credits have just rolled and Thelma and Louise have temporarily waved goodbye to bad jobs and domestic nightmares, thrown an awful lot of suitcases in the back of a convertible and headed down the road. Most of Ridley Scott's soundtrack is Western-leaning but as the women make their initial getaway, a loping reggae groove works its way in under their banter and a voice that sounds as if it's coming from the side of a cigar-chewing, blues mama's mouth gradually swims to the top of the mix and sweeps Thelma and Louise off on their epic journey.

That big voice belongs, in fact, to the now 37-year-old Toni Childs, a still relatively unknown Californian singer-songwiter whose spiritual, cinematic music is shot through with such exhilarating, widescreen moments. Like Thelma and Louise, Childs herself is much given to quests and rites of passage. She recorded some of her 1988 debut, Union, in Africa and commenced her latest collection, The Woman's Boat, by heading off to Southern India on a 'field trip'. But it is that grainy voice - think of Phoebe Snow minus her habit of singing up towards her nose - which sets Childs apart.

'I never liked wee, twee voices, probably because I always had a huge, thick thing,' she admits, loosely trouser-suited in the bar of a London hotel, looking more like a handsome but sensible schoolteacher than the sometimes exotic diva of her publicity shots. 'It was already huge when I was 10. I remember being in the choir at elementary school and doing a duet with the choir supporting in front of the PTA. I'm standing next to this little girl from France and she goes: 'Toni, whatever you do, don't sing with that voice - sing like the rest of us.' I often felt that disapproval as a child but it made me sing even louder and more obnoxious.'

Much of The Woman's Boat documents the struggle in Childs' own life between the wild and the proper, the forthright and the polite, the female and the merely feminine. The results are often portentous, sometimes pretentious, but nearly always rooted in experience.

'I had a fundamentalist, over-the-top upbringing,' she sighs, lighting yet another cigarette. 'Both my grandparents were missionaries of the Assemblies of God, a Protestant offshoot that's a little more rumbunctious than most - they believe in speaking in tongues and dancing in the aisles. I grew up in a household where my mother tried to insist that everything was light; but my family didn't walk their talk. In that kind of Christianity and most Western religion, you're born a sinner. Excuse me, I'll take the pagan road anyday . . .'

Movies and rock'n'roll were banned in the parental home. Childs ran away at 15 and wandered up and down California, drifting from a hippy community in the North to the gay village of San Francisco's Polk Gulch. A 1972 Pink Floyd concert convinced her that she wanted to be a singer, a resolve stiffened after she was busted for dealing drugs and, at the tender age of 20, spent a few months in a federal penitentiary alongside Patty Hearst and a couple of the Manson girls. During the late 1970s, she drifted through the LA music scene, briefly fronting the group Berlin, later singing in her own new wave outfit, Toni and the Movers. She loved Elvis Costello's songwriting and she came to London where she signed a publishing deal in 1981 with Island Music. Here she hooked up with various future members of World Party and David Rhodes of Peter Gabriel's band, fell in love with all kinds of crosscurrents of what is now called 'World Music' and even recorded a single, unsurprisingly titled 'Africa'.

In the mid-1980s, she returned to LA, signed to A & M and started writing with David Ricketts, then of David and David. Their year-long liaison provided the emotional heart of Childs' 1988 debut but the grooves and musical settings relied heavily on a field trip to Swaziland amd Zambia. 'I remember meeting David Tickle, who produced Union, and saying: 'What are the chances of going to Africa?' He choked on his drink and said: 'It's your first record - you're kidding]' ' A few months later, Tickle found himself in Swaziland, renting a mobile unit in order to record the passionate harmony singing of a group of mill workers in Bhunya.

Amazingly, the pair produced the album to budget and Childs promptly found herself feted by the critics, opening for Bob Dylan and nominated for two Grammies. Despite Thelma and Louise, 1991's House of Hope received slightly less attention, perhaps partly because Childs gave up a planned field trip to Indonesia, mostly because the personnel at A & M had completely changed in the meantime.

Childs is now signed to Geffen who funded the recording trip to Madras which launched The Woman's Boat and provided her with a recording mobile to boot. The dollars 40,000 24-track and the 5-star hotels made her feel less of a traveller than on her African sojourn, but the music she found was equally inspirational. 'Indian music has a different point of departure; it's liquid, flowing.'

Childs arrived in India with tapes she'd already made of Yoruba and Cuban drummers and promptly set about recording Northern and Southern Indian percussionists, then cutting and pasting the rhythms together to create new loops. In the past, she and Ricketts had built their base rhythms with drum machines; this time Childs and new producer David Bottrill reversed the process adding machine parts, chords and melodies to the grooves they'd recorded on location. The album was completed over three months at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios and features contributions from three members of the Belgian / African a cappella group Zap Mama alongside much relatively exotic instrumentation including tablas, didgeridoos and tamboura.

'To me, it's almost like cheating if you don't go somewhere to make a record,' she says, shrugging. 'You don't know what you're looking for but you just got to go.'