Conor Donohue is a familiar, respected face and voice in the Charleston music scene, both as an excellent sideman for folks like Lindsay Holler and as a versatile, idiosyncratic bandleader for his own material. But it’s been a few years.
His rich, Tom Waitsian approach of junkyard grooves and electrified folk-rock was well-documented on 2016’s Cayenne, but he’s been through a lot of changes since then, including a move to New Orleans after a decade spent in the Holy City. More importantly, he’s also settled down into a committed relationship, collaborated with new musicians, and found a new sense of spiritual and cosmic balance in the late-night revelry and furious pace of his new home — all of which has led to Let Love Contaminate being his best effort yet.
“I was coming from more of a story standpoint [on Cayenne], trying to find more of a Tom Waits, Rain Dogs-style where I’m trying to create these characters and see where they go and what misadventures they get in,” explains Donohue.
“On this one, there is definitely the heavier hand of my own life in there, whether it’s me making it fiction and then dragging those real feelings in there or just taking little snapshots of my life and throwing them in there, like going out for a night and then being inspired by that or just reflecting on experiencing this whole new place or finding somebody that I really love and starting to try to take care of myself.”
From the opening moments of the new album, Donohue often seems to be talking about or to this new love interest, whether it’s documenting second-line chase scenes on “Lost Weekend” or struggling to get to work on time in “Gasoline.” It’s perhaps most prominent on the lead, title track, which is both a love song and a joyous call to arms that serves as the sonic and thematic credo of the album.
Speaking of sound, Contaminate is a clear progression for Donohue, with a more garage rock, vaguely psychedelic exterior paired with Beatlesque melodies, soul and boogie rave ups, and folksy ruminations. The singer-songwriter credits the change in large part to the new collaborators he met in New Orleans, even as he continues to record with many of his longtime Charleston sidekicks.
“The people that I was playing with [at the time] came from this Kansas, Missouri rock ‘n’ roll scene, and they had just been on tour with Roky Erickson,” Donohue says. “Playing in that bandwidth definitely affected my musical taste. I would just sit in this terribly loud shed that we used as a practice space back when I lived in the Bywater, and just play at all hours.”
That scene is conjured up time and time again on the album, with crackling distortion meeting a diverse, melodic set of songs that tends to shift between the solitary and domestic to late-night revelry and near-spiritual hedonism, a very New Orleans philosophy. It’s a topic Donohue returns to frequently, cognizant of how his music is emblematic of a distinctive worldview that he’s forged in recent years.
“I had a few really rough years, and then I was trying to find my own place and then I found somebody that I really love and starting to try to take care of myself, because I’m in love with somebody else and you don’t want to fuck up your own [stuff],” he says. “So it’s like, how do you work that out? Whether it’s eating a bag of mushrooms and walking the beach for miles and having that self-reflection, or meditating or going to yoga or therapy or whatever, you know, like just that constant working on yourself and trying to have that contaminate your life.”
And if the fervor and barely constrained glee of the title track is any indication, that kind of contamination will do wonders.