Filed under: Interviews | Tags: cantor records, chandra oppenheim, transportation
When people sing “Love Me Do” to themselves on their way to a date ten years on the other side of their second divorce, it’s a sign that a young songwriter has got to a universal truth. This kind of precocious wisdom is embedded in the work of songwriters like Hank Williams, Prince, Elvis Costello, and Randy Newman. People who aren’t old enough to have lived the songs they’ve written nevertheless know how the song embodying that life should go. – Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker
It should exist, but it shouldn’t be this good. A Delta 5-meets-Jackson 5 adolescent post-punk EP with paranoid undertones, large doses of Farfisa organ and occasional melodica solos? Sounds like a dollar record. Actually, it sounds like the best dollar record ever. Transportation, the EP recorded by then-12-year-old Chandra Oppenheim and her cast of collaborators, is a brilliant artifact of the early-80’s New York club scene and a fascinating listen, full of propulsive rhythms and mildly obscure yet insistent phrasing. I usually use the term “teenage girl poetry” as an offhand diss when artists unwisely delve into confessional mode, but Chandra’s lyrical acumen just might salvage an entire genre of verse.
As the daughter of conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim, the precocious and self-assured Chandra was in the right place at the right time. Her father’s acquaintances Eugenie Diserio and Steven Alexander, already active in the downtown scene as The Dance, were looking for a child to front an experimental rock band, and the rest is history. After recording the 4 songs on the exceedingly rare original Transportation EP, the group toured the Northeast, debuting at the Mudd Club in 1980. Sometime thereafter, Diserio and Alexander took more of an advisory role, and Chandra recorded a second EP with an all-kid band as The Chandra Dimension. Those songs, stronger than those on the original EP, have finally seen the light of day thanks to Cantor Records’ recent release of both EPs on a single piece of wax, accompanied by a beautiful booklet. Moved by what we heard, we decided to speak with Chandra and dig a little deeper into her story.
When did you get involved in music in the first place?
Well, I was about 10 and I would write little songs and stuff. Like, my best friend from school was getting teased and I would write her a song and make her happy to chear her up—things like that. I was always in plays and stuff too. So Eugenie and Steve were friends of my dad and wanted to do a project with a kid. And they knew that I had done theater and wrote songs and stuff, so that’s how everything started.
What did you do the years right after finishing both those EPs?
We all continued working together and recorded a few more songs on a 4-track. But then I was in a private school that was very demanding. I also thought it was very easy to get back into music, thinking I could just leave it and come back to it while I focus on school, but I was wrong [laughs].
The second EP is great too. Why was it shelved for so long?
It got shelved because the band was fizzling out and my interests were changing. I remember school being rough and I would bring my homework to band practice. So it ended up being a conflict, so it was over before it was released.
It’s definitely reflective of the time and area you came from. How was it growing up when post-punk was fresh and exploding?
I was just a kid so it wasn’t anything too special. I was more influenced by the kids around me. I had a crush on a boy who liked the Doors, so I liked the Doors. I liked The Kinks a lot too. Then it got into these ‘80s pop stuff, the Go-Gos and other one-hit wonders of the ‘80s [laughs]. I remained interested in ‘60s and ‘70s rock; Talking Heads and other stuff my dad hip me out to in the beginning.
What about hip-hop? How was living in ‘80s Brooklyn when hip-hop was a baby? Did you dig it; did you ever get involved?
The only thing I knew about hip-hop was that Eugenie, from the band, showed me some rap music to help my songwriting sometimes [laughs]. The only other thing rap-related I remember listening to a lot when it was out Blondie’s “Rapture”. It wasn’t until I was in college that I was into Public Enemy and KRS.
“Get It Out of Your System” by Chandra
How artistically influenced were you by your parents would you say?
So I was very influenced by my parents and what they listened to. On one hand, my mother listened to Janis Joplin, The Stones, and Dylan, and a little soul music thrown in. My dad was more into the cutting edge stuff, Patti Smith, B-52s, Blondie, Lou Reed, and of course Talking Heads. My mom lived in Brooklyn and my dad lived in Manhattan so I lived in between those two areas and was exposed to a lot of stuff.
How do you think growing up surrounded by creative types affect you?
Well for one thing, it made me feel like the sky’s the limit. I saw my father do what he wanted to do without a care of what people thought. I felt that this was the best way to operate in the world. In terms of being around these people, I felt like I was an adult when I was a kid. Other kids lived with more rules, and I was around adults and got to see scary movies and go to parties.
The downside of that was that I was around adult that probably didn’t’ think of me as a kid either. I was a kid of a well-known conceptual artist so I was used to being around crazy people in crazy situations all the time. I was exposed to behavior that wasn’t the best for a child’s development; like drug-use for example. But again, because it was around all the time, it wasn’t interesting or enticing or anything either.
How was working with musicians that were older than you? Did they just do whatever you wanted? Did you feel like they projected their own aspirations on you?
Not at all—they were great. They definitely guided me and I think they were really successful at that. They guided me but also let me lead the way. Now that I’m a mother I can see how kids can be so explosively creative on their own. They let me lead the way so that we could go further. And when I got off track, they would get me back on it.The stuff we did together is great and a lot of that has to do with the music. I mean, they were already a band and had already played together, so it wasn’t like starting from scratch. It wasn’t like we were all strangers working together.
Where were your parents during this process? Were they protective of you and your talents?
The protectiveness mainly came from me being a pre-teen and being totally naïve of sexual things and how I looked on stage. Eugenie was 27 and was wearing these sexy outfits she made herself. When I saw these, I wasn’t thinking that it was sexy– I was thinking that it was cool that she made something for herself. I wanted to learn how to make clothes for myself too. So I just made what she made, and my dad didn’t think those clothes were right for me. I went back to wearing what I wore everyday, which was jeans and t-shirts. After all, I was just a kid fronting a rock band.
How was playing New York’s famous MUDD club? What do you remember about that night? Was it crowded? What was the reaction to a pre-teen singer of an experimental band?
I was nervous [laughs]. I remember listening to the Jackson Five’s ABC song they were playing as an interlude of sorts, and that we were going to go on right after. I remember hearing that song and being nervous as it ended. It was crowded that evening too, but I remember people being really, really into it. After being on stage for a few minutes, it was my favorite place to be in the world [laughs].
You toured DC and Philly and even made it to Berkeley. We’re based in the Bay Area; what do you remember about that tour stop?
You are? I love the area. I actually have family there, so what I remember mostly about that Berkeley trip was hanging out with family. It was a long time ago [laughs].
During the tour, did you feel the buzz or the attention you were getting?
I didn’t feel like a celebrity ever, but I do remember a buzz. There was a lot of local press and a lot of radio-play so I definitely felt it.
At this point you weren’t working with the older musicians and were joined by an all-teenage band. How was the switch?
My best friend was in the band too, which made it more fun. But I remember before we even worked together and thinking about the potential of all of us being friends and that got me excited.
How would you describe your song writing process then?
Back then, I wrote the music and melodies. Usually, if not every time, I would come in with lyrics and melodies and start singing. The band would usually just come in with the music. Sometimes I would play the keyboard and mess around and I would write some riffs and stuff.
So how does a 12-year-old write songs that deal with weird and serious topics like you did? You hadn’t experienced what you wrote about right?
You’re right, I didn’t. Mainly, I was just in the moment and writing about things that struck me as odd or scary. Sometimes it was just stuff I wanted to express what I was thinking and what I thought my friends were thinking.
After hearing the re-issue and reading the booklet, we were left wondering what happened to you. What have you done all these years?
I am still involved with music. Up until a couple years ago, I was in and out of bands. The last thing I was working on was an improvisational project. We would come into the studio, and the producer would bring in his computer and I withmy notebook, and I’d sing and make noise over these tracks. I hope to release that soon. I was in and out of all sorts of bands after recording Transportation.
I kept writing throughout the years. I would say between ten and thirty-eight, I wrote pretty consistently. I was working on a Portishead- bossa-nova sounding project, which I was proud of, but nothing came of it either due to band personalities and stuff [laughs].
Do you have any of these recordings? Anything ever come of them?
I do have recordings of the various things I’ve done since, but some of it makes me cringe. The record that you heard is basically my favorite thing of mine I’ve done in my career. It’s funny that it happened at the very beginning of my life and sometimes I wish I could do something as good as that.
Most people don’t even record one good song in their lifetime, let alone a bunch of them, and especially not when they’re 12.
We’ll thank you for saying that. I guess you’re right [laughs].
Foreword by Nate LeBlanc, Interview by David Ma. All photos courtesy of Cantor.
NERDTORIOUS would like to thank Chandra for being so gracious with her time (this was her first interview in almost 30-years!) and Aaron Levin, owner of Cantor, for arranging the interview.
Chandra’s lone album, Transportation, has been given the deluxe re-issue treatment by Cantor Records. It is currently available from Wax Poetics’ storefront and other various online sites. Pick it up while you still can.
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