Chandra Oppenheim was just twelve years old when her debut album, Transportation, was released. Until recently, I wasn’t familiar with Chandra, but when I did hear Transportation for the first time, I was immediately taken with it. The music is great, for sure, but what’s truly astonishing is the depth of talent displayed by the young singer/lyricist.
Chandra was a highly creative young person; encouraged by her father, artist Dennis Oppenheim, she was writing songs by age nine. In the late 1970s, members of the New York band Model Citizens were looking to start another group and approached Chandra’s father—who they knew through the art community—to ask if his daughter could join them. Rehearsals began when Chandra was just ten. In addition to singing, she was writing the lyrics and melodies for the group’s catchy songs. Four of their tunes would make up the Chandra band’s Transportation EP, released via the group’s own label, ON / GO GO Records.
Chandra proves herself to be a charismatic vocalist and a compelling lyricist on Transportation. Over a danceable post-punk/no wave backing, Chandra sings with confidence, her lyrics exhibiting a sophistication that is striking.
Writing for the group was like journaling for Chandra, a way to work through her thoughts. One song was about a classmate named Kate, who she had complicated relationship with. “We were kind of friends, but distant. I was envious of her, obviously,” Chandra told me recently. But she had sympathy for Kate, too, recognizing “the burden of getting that kind of attention (for being pretty).” Chandra’s empathy isn’t solely for her, but “for all of us (girls).” There are lyrically twists in “Kate” that would be impressive coming from any songwriter, but it’s also quite something that Chandra could express these complex feelings at such a young age.
The Chandra band began performing in clubs around this time, and it wouldn’t be long before the now twelve-year-old was well-known in the underground New York scene.
When asked what it was like, being immersed in such an adult environment, she says that, having already spent years in her father’s art world, it all felt “very natural.”
A touring unit, consisting of teenagers, was eventually assembled and dubbed the Chandra Dimension. The group made a high-profile appearance on the beloved kids’ TV show, Captain Kangaroo, in which Chandra was interviewed and performed a couple of songs with her band.
In 1982, Chandra made the decision to focus on school, and the Chandra Dimension broke-up. She still worked on music with the members of Model Citizens (now called the Dance), though that collaboration would also soon come to an end.
Chandra never stopped creating over the ensuing years. She was in bands and worked on solo projects, too.
In 2008, Cantor Records reissued Transportation, exposing a new audience to Chandra’s music. As a bonus, previously unreleased 1982 studio cuts by the Chandra Dimension were included. Had it come out back in the day, a standalone record of these four songs would’ve made for a strong follow-up EP to her debut. If I had to pick just one highlight, it’s hard not to go with “Get It Out of Your System,” an infectious number that seemingly dares you not to get up and move.
In 2014, a Chandra tribute concert in Toronto was planned, but when Chandra herself got wind of the gig, she wanted to participate. Though she didn’t have any expectations, the club was packed the night of the show. During the performance, she was surprised to see the audience singing along, many of whom were born after Transportation was released. In looking back on the event, she calls it “dream-like.”
The following year, Chandra’s first collection of new material since Transportation appeared. A concept album she had been developing for over a decade, A Slightly Better Idea is also a multimedia performance art work. It’s been executed publicly just once, to coincide with the CD release.
A renewed interest in Chandra came in 2016, when the Transportation track “Subways” was sampled prominently by the Australian group, the Avalanches, for their song of the same name. The Avalanches’ “Subways” was included on their long-awaited second album, Wildflower, and was released as a single. Chandra, who gave her permission for the group to use the sample, was thrilled by its use, telling VICE, “I was really excited to get the news. Anytime anyone is interested in that record, I feel very happy and grateful. And because it was the Avalanches, too, it was really cool.”
The most recent release she played a part in—and it was a major one, at that—is the Young Songwriters Project. A few years back, the alternative school her daughter, Issa, attends was looking for parent volunteers, and Chandra ended up teaching a course on songwriting. As she interacted with her students, she found herself working with them much in the same way her former bandmates did with her younger self. The finished compositions were recorded, and the results can be heard on World of My Dreams (2017). The two-CD set is comprised of the songs sung by the young writers on disc one, with covers of those tunes by adult performers—including Chandra—on the second disc. For Chandra, the entire experience was like coming full circle.
Chandra and her co-producer on the Young Songwriters Project, Dan Capaldi.
During a 2014 interview, she talked about her regrets in walking away from it all, decades prior:
I loved doing what I was doing, and didn’t know that I was kind of giving away something. There was an opportunity to continue with music if I had stuck on that road instead of being drawn to my Latin homework [laughs]. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I realized I already had something and had given it away.
Really, being up on the stage is my favorite place to be, and it seems like ever since then, I’ve been trying to get back there.
Chandra’s played live several times since 2014, her current band being a collective of Toronto musicians. She’s also joined the Avalanches on stage on a few times, including one occasion last June, when she and Issa, now ten years old, sang “Subways” with the group during a Brooklyn concert.
Both A Slightly Better Idea and World of My Dreams were put out via Chandra’s own label, Rain Boots Records. She’s currently in the process of overhauling her website, but encourages anyone interested in purchasing those discs to drop her a line.
There are plans in the works to release more archival Chandra material, including the Captain Kangaroo footage (not currently on YouTube nor anywhere else on the web), as well as unreleased demos from 1983. As for Transportation, it was reissued again to coincide with her 2014 return to the stage, but has since gone out of print. Though there isn’t a release date as of yet, Chandra says it will be made available again on vinyl. For now, you can buy a digital copy of the 8-song version by way of iTunes.
Chandra, Phyllis Jalbert (Chandra’s mother), and Kate (the subject of “Kate”) at the Hot Club in Philadelphia, 1980.