PLAYING DETROIT: Chandra Brings ‘Transportation’ EP to Third Man Records

photo by Kate Young

Chandra Oppenheim was a one-of-a-kind type of child sensation. Unlike today’s child stars that come to fame because of their popularity among their peers (think Justin Bieber or JoJo), Oppenheim was revered in New York’s 1970s underground post-punk scene. As the daughter of famed American artist Dennis Oppenheim, she was influenced more by her father’s contemporaries than her own. At the age of twelve, Chandra released an EP with bandmates Eugenie Diserio and Steve Alexander (of Model Citizens fame), sold out a show at Berklee College, and opened for avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson. The 1980 EP, Transportation, is a snapshot of the new wave/post-punk/noise movement, as told through the unfiltered eyes of a middle-school girl. But instead of sounding juvenile, Oppenheim’s forthright lyricism offers an innocent and universal perspective on everyday life.

In “Kate,” Chandra delivers Talking Heads-esque lyrics depicting the intricacies of young female friendship, societal beauty standards, and the male gaze. It’s a song that’s as brazenly relevant today as it was thirty years ago – a fact that is as astounding as it is unnerving. “Subways” paints a disorienting picture of getting lost underground –  a song as anxiety-inducing as any adult could have written. It seems that Chandra, before the age of thirteen, accomplished a level of artistry that most musicians strive for. But then what?

Now 50, Oppenheim has reissued Transportation for the second time along with a few unearthed recordings from band practice during that time. After teaming up with her Toronto-based band, she’s been performing the songs of her childhood in various venues across North America – including Detroit’s Third Man Records this Friday, February 1st.

The multi-disciplinary artist opened up to Audiofemme about her life between Transportation and now, and how we’re pretty much all just middle school girls at heart.

AF: What do you remember about the time when you recorded Transportation?

CO: The first set of studio recordings… came out in 1980. I was 10 or 11 when we were recording those songs, that first set. I was probably about twelve when we did the second set.

They do feel like two separate things because, I guess at that age, time passes slowly and there are so many things going on. For Transportation – because the other four songs weren’t released until the reissue in 2009 – I think it was what had to come out and it came out in the form of song. Whatever frustrations I had, fears, just trying to figure life out from that ten-year-old perspective. [It had to do] with what was going on around me too, because my dad [was] a big influence in my life and seeing his work and his thought process and these characters that he hung out with that were a part of my life – that was probably the number one influence. That, combined with being at school, and what my life was with my friends or people I had friction with.

AF: How did you feel recording and performing with these adult musicians? Did it feel different or just another part of your life?

CO: It was very natural. My father would pretty regularly have his kids as part of his art pieces. I grew up doing that and this seemed like a natural extension. It was just now me doing my art. In fact, if I hadn’t been doing that, I think something might have felt strange to me.

AF: After you released Transportation and went on tour – was there a point in time where it dropped off or you changed paths?

CO: What I remember is that the demands of school began to interfere with our band practice. There was this fork in the road – either I have all my focus and energy available for school, or I need to kind of let that go a little bit so I can focus on the band. And I chose the school route, thinking that at any moment that I wanted to have that back in my life, I could. And I didn’t realize that that’s very difficult to achieve, whatever the recipe is of whatever you’re creating and connecting it with people. I went to high school and went to college and maybe did a little bit of music during that time. I was probably always writing but I wasn’t in bands or anything like that. And then, after that, basically began decades of doing music because that’s what I did and that’s what I wanted to do, but nothing ever – it didn’t catch. The cogs of the machine did not sync up.

AF: What was the music you wrote in adulthood like? Was it along those punk lines?

CO: Yes, definitely. Especially I would say, lyrically. There was always this – which I share with my father’s aesthetic – this dark humor. Always questioning – the idea was that as a listener, you might not know – is this supposed to be funny? Because it’s really weird and scary but you can’t help but laugh… that’s kind of what I was going for but again I wasn’t trying to for that, it’s just that’s how it came out.

AF: Do you have any recordings from that time?

CO: I do and it is my big next life project to go through my archives and release some music because nothing was ever officially released. I mean there was one band I had where we actually did the whole thing – I think we have 12 songs on that record. We went into a really nice studio and the board was the same one that was used for one of Bowie’s albums. We did it on tape. It was in the ’90s and mixed and mastered, did the whole thing. But then we didn’t really put it out. And then I had this alternative rock boss nova band. We did an EP, we mixed it, didn’t master it so there it sits. That’s just two of the things. I also did stuff solo and I just have my own little recordings of that. They’re probably good quality enough too. If I get them spruced up I can out them out.

AF: Why do you think none of it was ever released?

CO: I wonder as we’re talking about this if there has to be some – I don’t know, there are millions of reasons. For myself, I’m wondering if there just wasn’t that magnetic pull of an audience asking for it that would’ve brought it over that edge to actually complete it.

I did this because I wanted to make it. But If I pressed it back then to CD or – it’s funny because everyone is listening to cassette everything now, and the ’90s band I was in where we mixed and mastered, I do have cassettes of that. So, like, I go to the extent of pressing this to some format, but then what? Who am I gonna give them to or sell them to? But the other thing for me, which I’m learning over time, is that I’m so into the process, that once I have the result, that’s where it ends. Its almost as if I don’t need the outcome. It’s just the process that I’m interested in.

AF: That makes sense. What do you think prompted this resurgence of the Transportation recordings?

CO: So, the history of that is Cantor Records in Canada.  It was a new label and this was the first record they wanted to put out – it was Aaron Levin’s record label. He contacted me out of the blue. Somehow, he tracked me down. I’m not on Facebook, so no one would be able to find me anyway, but it was long before that. So, he found me somehow through my father. That was 2009 – we reissued Transportation, plus the four tracks we unearthed in 1992 were released. Then from there, that’s how I met my current Toronto-based band. It was time to re-press that reissue because it was sold out and that’s when Telephone Explosion contacted us and asked about this deluxe reissue and asked if there were any other tracks and that’s when we brought out those demo tracks.

AF: What’s it like performing these songs you wrote as a pre-teen as an adult?

CO: It’s funny because I was just thinking about that. When I first started playing with the band in 2013-14, I really was in disbelief. The music was live. I had not heard live musicians playing this music in three decades. It was really hard for my brain to believe it. At first, I had to re-learn the songs and I probably hadn’t been singing all that much at that point in my life so I had to get back singing. So, it was challenging and the keys were high so there was that bumpiness to kind of get through. And now we’ve been playing a lot so it feels really comfortable and things are gelling really nicely so now I can relax into it and completely enjoy it and not trying to be remembering lyrics and everything. Really, for all of the songs, I’m able to immediately connect with myself at that time and the feeling of it. It doesn’t feel like someone else wrote them, other than that I wouldn’t be able to write lyrics like that now. I wouldn’t be able to access that strong connection to whatever that creative force is. In my way I do, but it’s years of all this stuff that bogs down the creative process. But other than that, it almost feels like there isn’t a passage of time. In a way, that is me and that’s how I still feel today about things. If not, more so, I mean some of the lyrics feel like premonitions of what we’re currently dealing with.

AF: Have you been writing any new material?

CO: The odd thing is that after writing songs almost every day for my entire life, over the past couple of years it hasn’t been there. Talk about missing something – it’s very strange not to have that. In a way, I don’t have my bearings. Recently, it’s started to come back. There’s a drip and a drop – a little something starting to come out now.

AF: What do you think led to that period of not really writing?

CO: Well, I worked on a performance art piece for ten years. I was still working on music, just not that particular piece. Anyway, that undertaking kind of did me in creatively. It drained me in a way. Normally, I’m fed by creative output but in this case, I guess I needed some time to recuperate. I had to actively end it because it was not serving me. I do have a recording of that – that one did get released actually. But there’s no way to find it. I make these things but then they’re not available. If someone wanted one and asked me for it I’d give it to them but, otherwise, they’re not available.

AF: Will you play any of the music that you wrote in your adult life on this tour?

CO: No, and that’s very intentional. I feel like people who like Chandra and Transportation – I want to keep that as its own thing. So, I will only play things from that time period or things we unearth from then.

Order Chandra’s Transportation EP here and keep an eye out for more tour dates.