Toronto label puts NYC punk icon back in the spotlight
Night clubs are not the most ideal setting for an after school program. Try telling that to Chandra Oppenheim, who in 1980 made a splash as a 12-year old fronting a band made up of adults. Hanging with the best of the best of New York's Lower East Side music scene, she was able to garner the respect of peers twice her age based on the strength of her EP, TRANSPORTATION.
This obscure release has been given new life thanks to TO-based label Cantor Records along with Chandra's own Rain Boots Records imprint, and on Friday October 17, Chandra will make a rare live appearance for the Toronto release show at Double Double Land.
The EP itself shows remarkable poise and considerable understanding of the world around her. Chandra Oppenheim's poignant lyricism seemed penned by someone wise beyond their years.
"I was putting something together, meaning observing my surroundings, relationships, societal constructions and beliefs and I was doing so in a completely free and uncensored way, as a child can," Oppenheim explains. "It was just like breathing. I was just doing it. I couldn't have analyzed it. I couldn't have written what I wrote. I would have censored myself. That's the great beauty of the young mind, a mind before self-censorship sets in. It's very valuable and we only have it for a short time."
For an artist so unknown the story of Chandra has been well documented. It is in fact, the type of story that music journalists and crate-diggers drool over: that record that no one knows about that will change your perception. The mere mention of NYC icons like CBGBs and The Mudd Club in the 80s would invariably invoke the name Blondie; only those in the know would know Chandra.
"I was naturally an outsider because I was a kid, and other than being in a band, had a kid-like life. I was in a safe little bubble and not really aware of the scene that I was a part of because I would be back stage, or on stage, rarely in the club itself," she says. "I remember feeling like people liked what we were doing. Audiences were enthusiastic, press was interested, and we were on the radio. So I'd say the music scene was accepting of me."
The daughter of well-connected conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim, Chandra's obvious musical leanings were embraced and cultivated. It was he who connected her with his close friends from a band called the Dance. They were looking to start a project with a kid as front person and Chandra fit the bill.
Placing her seemingly simple lyrics over crash and burn post punk disco mutations, they were able to create something not only unique sounding but interesting for an audience: there was a matter-of-fact innocence to the proceedings that could not be faked. The fact that the project ran its course in just over a year is beside the point, and the obvious resonance of what was committed to tape can still be felt today.
"Back then I knew I liked what we were doing and I really like the Dance. It wasn't until several years later that I really understood and appreciated the high level of musicianship of these players," says Oppenheim. "The experience itself of writing the songs and playing with these musicians, I remember as being fun. I know we worked hard, but maybe because they were accommodating me in ways I wasn't aware of, it felt effortless. And it was of course incredibly satisfying."
Stand-out track "Kate" shows Oppenheim at her teenage best, filled with envy over the seemingly perfect life of her friend. "You're so weak/You're so sweet/You're too good for us," she jealously sings, though her delivery suggests that her feelings are not overly malicious.
After the project collapsed, Oppenheim formed an even shorter-lived project called The Chandra Dimension. Comprised of players more age appropriate they recorded an EP that was never released. The tracks from that EP will be included with the rerelease.
The release show in Toronto this weekend, where Chandra will take the stage with local weirdess Bile Sister for a performance of songs from Transportation, is an opportunity the singer is very much looking forward to.
"I am so excited! That probably doesn't sound very rock 'n roll, but that's me. If I'm enthusiastic about something, I don't hold back... I think it's going to feel great, cathartic, to sing these songs live with Bile Sister," Oppenheim tells me. "I'm looking forward to meeting everyone who has put this all together, seeing Toronto for the first time, being able to share this with my mother and my daughter, and last but not least, the celebratory beverage."
The TRANSPORTATION reissue release is Friday, October 17 at Double Double Land, 209 Augusta Ave. Advance tickets are available at Rotate This and Soundscapes.
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