New Orleans-based singer-songwriter Conor Donohue spent nearly a decade in the Charleston music scene, something eminently apparent on his new solo album Cayenne.
“We recorded the whole album before I moved down here,” he says. “It’s been kind of a long process, and it turned out there was still some stuff that needed to be filled in here and there.”
The album, which Donohue began recording in May 2014 in jazz musician Tyler Ross’ Faces for Radio studio on James Island, feels in many ways to be a culmination of the singer’s years in the Holy City. Donohue arrived from Long Island, N.Y. as a student at the College of Charleston in 2006 and quickly found himself immersed in the city’s rich music scene.
“I was studying jazz for the first couple of years, but I loved songwriters, too,” Donohue says of his early days at CofC, citing Tom Waits, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Costello, and Sam Cooke as formative influences. Charleston-area songwriters, too, made an impact.
“Listening to Shovels & Rope and Michael Flynn and Joel Hamilton and Bill Carson — when I got to this city I found all of these amazing songwriters were here,” Donohue explains. “So I tried to learn everything I could from that and move beyond it. Charleston itself has had a huge influence on my writing and the way I hear music.”
This is evident both in the liner notes, which read almost like a who’s who in the close-knit Shrimp Records collective, as well as in the music itself, which often takes the city as its muse.
“I spent a lot of time on my nights off of work just walking around,” explains Donohue. “I lived downtown, and especially in the middle of the week, the city’s a bit quieter. You get to reflect on it and bring in that imagery.”
“Elevators,” a haunting duet with Lindsay Holler that appears midway through the album, is an excellent case-in-point. Working from a plaintive Rhodes riff, Donohue and Holler trade snapshot scenes of early romance, hard times, and weary, resilient love. While in some sense universal, the song also name-checks King Street and seems imbued with the hot, humid air of a Southern summer night. And Holler’s rasp almost feels part and parcel of Charleston itself given her role as a singer with so many of the city’s acts.
Despite the relatively austere nature of the track, it gains much of its atmosphere due to tasteful brushes of percussion and an aching trumpet part, both of which offer only a hint of their impact elsewhere on the album.
“I’ll start with a skeleton, just a melody or chord progression I have written down, and it’s just about how I expand on that,” says Donohue of the arrangements, giving much credit to collaborators.
“That Matadero band sound with George [Baerreis] and Ron [Wiltrout] and Lindsay [Holler] was very influential in the arrangements. They would figure out what to do with very little guidelines.”
Despite the roots-driven nature of much of the material, these arrangements rarely settle into well-worn structures or grooves.
“Often I’ll bring a song in and say, ‘Let’s try a Cuban rhythm,’ or, ‘This is more of a blues thing, but let’s try not to make it traditional,’ like something you’d hear at a blues festival. ‘New York City’ is a good example of that,” Donohue says.
“New York City” is an interesting tune. Built on a slow-wading groove and cooing background vocals that are neither gospel, soul, nor blues, despite borrowing from each, it proceeds with stately indifference as a trumpet solo wanders into the bridge. Elsewhere, things take more tumultuous turns. On “Homeless,” a peppy would-be power-pop number gets prominent horn flourishes that seem to split the difference between mariachi and ska.
“It was really just, bring pop guys, jazz guys, whatever, really talented people together to help arrange stuff,” says Donohue.
Throughout the conversation, it’s clear that Charleston still holds a firm grip on the songwriter, even as he’s settled nicely in the Big Easy.
“I’m working on new songs right now, and there’s still a lot of Charleston imagery, because you end up reflecting on that. It’s a special city, and I lived there for nine years. I call it home, even more so than where I actually grew up,” he admits.
“It’s where I’ll end up eventually,” he confesses. “When you love something so much, sometimes you gotta get away for a few years.”