In 1980, NYC-bred Chandra Oppenheim had her biggest artistic hit when she was 12, writing, recording and releasing an album, Transportation as the mononymous Chandra. Her music’s jittery post-punk, recorded with adults Model Citizens and The Dance as a backing band, makes you realize that the childlike energy of punk makes a lot of sense when actually done by a child. And so, while we can all safely hide embarrassing relics of our childhood, Chandra's youth is her legacy, especially now that Transportation (as well as some later demos), have been reissued and her young face and voice is a staple in cool record stores and on cool radio stations. Download an unreleased demo she recorded at 13 and her single “Kate” below, pick up the record, which comes with a thick book of old photos and clippings and check Alex Frank’s interview with the now very grown up (and with a child of her own) Chandra.
Download: Chandra, unreleased demo
Download: Chandra, "Kate"
How does it feel to see your twelve-year-old self in record stores?
Just hearing about it makes me happy. Just knowing that people are liking it and are enthusiastic about it feels really good after all these years, because I’ve been doing music all along, and it’s really taking off so at least there’s that.
When I see things that I did when I was twelve, I’m usually pretty embarrassed about them. What does this album sound like to you?
I mean in my case I felt like it was the best thing I’ve ever done and I kind of felt like I could never kind of live up to it. Because I was a kid, naturally I got more attention, and that was kind of built in. And I thought that it would always be like that. So when I made the decision to stop doing music and focus on school, I thought, “Oh, well after school I can go right back to it.” I didn’t realize what we had, you know.
It sounds almost like you have regret…
I don’t regret making it, I regret stopping. It’s hard to say, because you never know, if it had taken off, being so young I could’ve come into some difficulties into drugs. I avoided all that, got my college diploma, but I still do regret it a bit. I thought it would be easy to pick things back up. I underestimated how hard it was to get back, to break, to get back in it. I had a window.
Have you ever tried to now to write and sing like a twelve year old then?
I haven’t, I haven’t really ever done that.
What were you listening to at that age?
I was listening to stuff mainly influenced by my parents. My dad [sculptor Dennis Oppenheim] was into more contemporary stuff at the time like Blondie, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, B-52s, and Devo. The numero uno would have been Talking Heads, and specifically 77 which he had on an eight-track tape in his Thunderbird Pontiac.
So it was like coolness by osmosis.
Yep. The Soho News did a story on me, and there was a picture of me and Dad, and the caption was “Born to Be Wild”
Were you aware that the music you were making was part of sound going on at the moment?
I was in a little bit of a bubble because I was too young to go out and listen to anything live. I don’t know if I saw the connection back then. I was just doing what I was doing, and listening to Talking Heads on the eight-track.
Where did your inspiration for the songs come?
It was an outlet for me to express stuff, difficult stuff that I was going through. So with “Kate”, I’m talking about a girl who I actually did go to school with and I knew she was going to hear the song and then I put her picture on the back of the record with me. The song is about being jealous of her so I was just saying “Well, I’m jealous of you and um, you know, I like you, I just wish I were more like you,” you know. She was excited about being in a song and on a record, so after that we became friends.
So maybe she thought you were cool for doing the record.
I don’t know, maybe. But she still got the boyfriends.
You must’ve been around adults all the time.
Oh yeah. I had to go back later and retrace my steps and become an adult later, after I was physically an adult, I needed to kind of catch up because things were sort of flipped, very adult when I was a kid, and sort of a kid when I was an adult.
The record’s also really serious to me. Did you take it seriously?
I did. My parents took everything seriously, and me very much as an artist from the very beginning. Even when I was seven or so, I was doing performance art in regular venues.
How old is your daughter?
So she’s not recording an album yet.
Nope, not yet.