There’s something quintessentially Charleston about the music of Conor Donohue, even when he’s writing and rabble-rousing in the Big Easy.
The singer/songwriter and guitarist, who originally hails from Long Island, spent nine years in the South Carolina music scene that birthed the roots-rock success story Shovels & Rope and features a constellation of likeminded musicians who combined rootsy songcraft with a garage-indebted DIY sensibility. The communal connection comes through in the ragged elegance of Donohue’s tunes, which bounce from barebones soul rave-ups to Tom Waits junkyard grooves with a kind of willful impetuousness that belies his background as a jazz studies major at the College of Charleston.
But for all of the Holy City halo that hangs over the musical aspects of Donohue’s approach, his new album Let Love Contaminate is undeniably rooted in his move to New Orleans. The opening title track and first single sets the stage with shambolic precision, charging through the giddy nights of early romance and late-night hedonism that defined his early days in the city.
“These morning are lazy with you by my side/ no work until the evening, and you had me up until five,” Donohue sings in the opening couplet, underneath a guitar riff that is equal parts garage rock ramble and soulful pocket playing. The tension of the music and lyric match each other, caught between the bliss of tranquil domesticity and the fervor of revelry as much as it is between rock degradation and soul transcendence. It makes sense, then, that in the feverish chorus Donohue shouts with barely tempered restraint, “let love, let love…contaminate.” The swirl of that peaceful contradiction defines the album.
“It was a lot about me moving down to New Orleans and navigating life after living in Charleston for nine years and making that home—a mixed bag of reckoning with depression, falling in love me, starting to experiment with psychedelics again,” Donohue says of the writing process. “I'm living the New Orleans life, which is completely celebratory and debaucherous at times. But I find a lot of joy and a lot of struggle with that as well. It does take a toll on you.”
And while the record is imbued with hard-partying reputation of the city, what makes the writing so engaging is how thoughtfully Donohue is in chronicling how he finds a balance alongside his romantic partner. “Let Love Contaminate” slides into the jaunty Beatles-indebted “Getting Better” where he and his girlfriend lean on each other for support, whether that’s making tea when he’s under the weather or taking hallucinogenics as a path to self-realization. Again, there’s the pull-and-tug of pop warmth and Phil Spector excess paired with punkish garage-rock thrall, as if the music is caught in the same kind of maelstrom as Donohue recounts in the lyrics.
The notion of taking care of one another permeates much of the record. Even on something like “Lost Weekend,” another song featuring lovely Beatles-esque backing vocals as Donohue chronicles chasing a Second Line parade fueled by alcohol and pills where they still “squeeze fresh juice for the vitamins” even as they accidentally leave the door unlocked. Later, on the boisterous, surfy “Gasoline,” he chronicles a desperate rush to get his girlfriend to work on time.
Elsewhere, of course, Donohue continues to prove his troubadour bonafides, tackling depression and drug use on the skeletal “The Garden,” a tune which finds him in Scott H. Biram mode as master solo practitioner of bluesy country-folk romp darkness, setting aside some of the pop sensibilities that define the record in other moments. H delivers some similarly haunting reveries on “Hedonist Glow” and on the closing “Terrified Moon,” moments which serve as contemplative respites among the more immediate rock-forward material.
And while the album is lyrically preoccupied with his New Orleans adventures, the musicians who support Donohue’s vision are Charleston to the core. The songwriter again works with producer and multi-instrumentalist Andy Dixon and gets major assists from long-time musical partner-in-crime Joel T. Hamilton as well the rhythm section of drummer Ron Wiltrout and bassist George Baerreis. Guitarist Tyler Ross add some additional lead and pedal steel, while Lindsay Holler and Jordan Igoe color in the rich vocal arrangements and provide the appropriate foil for Donohue’s rough-hewn singing style.
“Charleston will always be home, especially musically because it’s where I can tap into this creative pool of all these beautiful musicians,” Donohue says of his compatriots. “Some of my closest friends in the world are on this record. They're family to me.”