When Chandra Oppenheim’s debut album, “Transportation,” came out in 1980, it was quickly embraced by the tastemakers of the day. She played gigs at CBGB in New York and sold out shows in Berkeley, California, and she was only 12 years old.
Now, she’s helping a group of elementary school kids release an album of original songs, with a show and release party at SPACE Gallery in Portland later this month.
Try to remember where you were when you were 12 years old. Were you being interviewed by Andy Warhol? Appearing on “Captain Kangaroo”? Fronting a post-punk band in New York City and releasing LPs? Oppenheim was.
“I grew up in an environment where my voice as a child had a lot of freedom, and I was given a lot of respect,” she says.
Oppenheim wrote the lyrics and melodies and was lead singer. The songs were arranged and set by a band, a couple friends of her fathers. He was a conceptual artist of some renown in New York City. They helped her develop and perform fully realized songs.
Oppenheim moved on from performance art for a number of years, now lives in Falmouth and has returned to songwriting. But this time, in her late 40s, she’s doing what her father and his friends did all those years ago. She’s helping young kids write and perform songs of their own.
“It’s basically that I come in and work with students individually and facilitate the songwriting, so it’s really their voice and I’m there to help them get it out there,” Oppenheim says.
The project is called the Young Songwriters Project. With the help of local musicians and engineers, she’s producing an album of the kids’ songs as well, completely realized and with a balance of innocence and earnestness. Jethro, 11, is one of the songwriters on the project.
“I’m singing a song called ‘World Of My Dreams,’” he says. “It’s about what I would imagine the future to be. Like half future, half imagination, half completely bizarre crazy stuff.”
The project’s co-producer and musical director is Dan Capaldi, a Portland musician. His job was to bring the musicians together and find a way to play along with the kids while also staying faithful to their composition, in whatever form that might take.
“This music was some of the most complex music I have ever been a part of. I mean, I’ve been in projects that are like, ‘OK, this is like a weird thing and this music is designed to be weird,’ but none of this music that we’re working on now was ever intended to be weird. It just naturally was that way,” he says.
And that’s the honesty that Capaldi says makes the songs compelling. Recorded kids music is often written by adults aiming to satisfy the tastes of their younger audiences. But real kids, says Oppenheim, have so many more shades of gray than they’re given credit for. And it’s not all whiz-bang and silliness.
“There are deep, sort of more mature themes than one might think coming from, say, a 10-year-old. For example, ‘Looking for the sweet spot, sometimes you fall. Looking for the sweet spot, sometimes falling’s best of all.’ Ten-year-old wrote that,” she says.
In these songs there’s joy and mystery, simplicity and contradiction. They’re a combination of dark and delightful that Capaldi says maybe only kids are capable of.
“As you get older and learn to communicate and interact with this world, you learn that there’s an etiquette. And if you want certain things, you have to communicate certain things in certain ways to a point where, you know, you can have arguments over something that will go around in circles and nothing will be said. Nothing will be said,” he says.
Not knowing that etiquette, Capaldi says, is what makes kids’ lyric writing so profound. Without that formalized language to describe their feelings, their imaginations take over.
“Sometimes it seems like these kids are expressing emotions that they can’t even at this point describe in words,” he says.
What do children sing about when trying to make sense of the world around them?
“Chickens,” Oppenheim says. “Loving chickens.”
The album, “World Of My Dreams,” comes out on the Rain Boots Records label this month with a special release party and concert at SPACE Gallery in Portland.