A Conversation with Post-Punk Prodigy Chandra Oppenheim
In the early 1980s, Chandra Oppenheim used the New York City avant-garde music circuit as her diary. Since, her precocious middle-schooler lyrics have continued to make waves with a cult-like following. Pink Things got the chance to catch Chandra on tour with the reissuing of her 1980 album Transportation and find out more about her story.
Pink Things: What is the origin story of your career? How does an 11-year-old come to front a post-punk band?
Chandra Oppenheim: Well, my father was an artist and became friends with other creatives from Columbia. They were in a couple of bands at the time and looking for an additional member for their newest project. At the time, I had been doing some performance art and started writing songs. I’m not exactly sure how the initial conversation went, but my father and his friends noticed this and invited me to come and experiment with them at their rehearsal space. It immediately gelled. That’s how the first version of the Chandra band happened.
PT: Did you feel equal to the other band members despite your age difference?
CO: Oh, absolutely. The other members co-wrote the music with me and were my mentors. They gave me guidance on how to improvise and be creative. I felt that they were helping me voice what I needed to say, which is exactly what they wanted to do! In a sense, that was the only way that I knew music: everything was done for me. All I had to do was say what I wanted to say, and do what I wanted to do. Now that I work with younger song writers, I know how to stay out of the way and not impose myself on their work because of my time working with the Chandra band.
PT: All the songs that you’ve been performing on your recent tours are from the EP Transportation that you wrote when you were about 11/12 years old with the Chandra band. What kind of emotional energy are you putting into these songs now? Do any their original meanings still resonate with you?
CO: Oh yes, very much so. It varies night to night. But recently I’ve been tuning into the feelings I had when I wrote the songs… Feelings of frustration and powerlessness, wanting to rail against the people in charge of my life. As time goes on, I feel that I’m connecting to these songs more than ever before, and bringing that on stage.
PT: What kinds of messages were you putting out at that time and who were they directed at? Has that changed at all?
CO: I don’t know if they’ve really changed actually! In some cases, I was addressing more so the archetypes of things rather than the people in my life specifically. For example, the idea of how young people could be frustrated by their parents because they aren’t respecting their views. I was thinking about the general restrictedness of that situation at the time, even though I personally didn’t feel that way growing up. I felt the opposite, but I was trying to tap into that more universal idea of authority figures telling us what to do—when we ask ourselves, “When do we get to be in charge?”
PT: From what I’ve read, you’ve recently been sharing the stage with your daughter, who is around the same age you were when you started performing. Do you feel that any of your songs are relatable to her?
CO: So much so that there is one song called Tish Le Dire , which means “children say,” or “children speak” in Latin. I feel like it would be cathartic for her to sing this song because it is essentially a whole list of things to kind of speak up against, and begs, “Why won’t you listen to me and what I have to say?” I feel like she is bursting to be able to say that to her teachers for example. At the end of the song I originally sang “What about suicide? Don’t you think we’d try?” I won’t let her sing that song because of that line. I think that’s interesting because I wrote and performed it at her age, but there is something blocking me. I feel like [it’s] because it came from me, but I don’t want her singing my words. If they were hers it would be fine. It sounds unhealthy for her to take on my voice.
PT: How do you two manage sharing your creative space in light of situations like that?
CO: We talked about it and she said, “I don’t want to be mini-Chandra”. And I agree, she shouldn’t be a mini-me. I told her that she is welcome to perform with me any time she wants, and she could do her own thing. And that was that. We’ve learned to share our common love of performing and have fun with it. For example, she performed with us when I did a show with the Avalanches. It was hilarious because I was so nervous. It was the biggest audience I had ever played for, and she was totally fearless, as kids can be. Totally relaxed.
PT: What are you most excited about now that you’re touring Transportation after its re-release?
CO: This mini tour is the first of several. I’m excited because things I didn’t think were possible, now are! I’m looking forward to playing with a band and settling in, getting some stage time, and having the ability to explore the connection with the younger me who wrote these songs, and seeing how that plays out on stage. And of course I am excited about the re-issue of the album. We are being propelled even more because the record has had a life of its own with a cult following for almost three decades! I have mixed feelings about the album being more accessible, but I’m allowing for it to happen because I’m excited for people to connect with something that I created.
PT: As we always ask at the magazine, what does the colour pink mean to you?
CO: From my vantage point as a child I wasn’t able to see that our culture arbitrarily ascribes meanings and qualities to different colours. So, I initially chose to reject the colour pink because I didn’t like what my culture’s associations were with this colour. It signified to me that there were limits to what I could do, what I could be. I hated those limits, I didn’t believe in those limits. Eventually, I figured out that I didn’t need to buy into these arbitrary associations and reclaimed the colour pink. It was good to have it back.
My father was a conceptual artist. I feel that my sense of colour, my appreciation for specific colour combinations was passed down from him. His mother was a visual artist as well, though with less opportunity to pursue her art. Instead she did things later on. For example, at age of 80, [she] graffitied the living room wall of her condo. She shared with me that her mother was a dressmaker who would come up with the most unusual colour parings she had ever seen. This would have been back in the early 1900s. She said that her mother made a dress that was pink and red, and that it was shocking; that no one they knew would have put those two colours together. So, when I see pink and red together I think of this connection to my great grandmother and I am grateful that this deep appreciation of colour was passed down to me.
Pink Things would like to thank Chandra for being gracious with her time. This interview was conducted in person and over email and has been condensed and edited.