For a band like Donora, that makes feel-good indie-pop music, it’s only fitting that the group has a similarly smile-inducing story of how it came to be. It’s the tale of Casey and Jake Hanner, siblings brought together with the goal of making music.
Casey described herself as the pesky little sister to her big brother Jake growing up – she wanted to do the things he did, and like the things he liked. The pair came from a musical household. Their father, Dave Hanner, a music producer and half of the country act Corbin/Hanner, kept a studio in the basement of their Pittsburgh home.
Both siblings discovered performing music independently when they were older, Jake playing drums and Casey as a guitarist and singer-songwriter. Their father said his children, since they were both music-makers, should come together on a joint project – a suggestion that was met at first with uncertainty from both siblings, Casey said. From the first practice, though, the project picked up steam, with the two later writing songs and recording tracks together.
“Playing music together, as corny and cheesy as it sounds, it really did make our relationship a lot closer,” Casey said.
Both have made their mark on Donora’s music. Casey grew up listening to the boy bands of the 2000s, like ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, while Jake enjoyed acts like Nirvana, Green Day and the Beastie Boys. His tastes became more experimental, and she was making singer-songwriter-style music when they came together for their musical project.
“It just naturally progressed into the style that it is now,” Casey said. “I think the poppy, happiness of it definitely comes from me, and I think the more intricate sound and melodies comes from my brother.”
The pair rounded out their lineup with bassist Jake Churton. He had been recording with another band in their father’s studio, and expressed interest in the siblings’ project. For a short while in its early days, the band was a four-piece outfit with a keyboard player, but when the keyboardist couldn’t make it to practice, Churton showed that he could play the melodies on his bass, and now the group uses his skills more as a lead guitarist than as a traditional bassist.
The Calling All Bands contest in 2006, sponsored by MySpace and Verizon Wireless, gave the band some early recognition, as their song “She’s Just a Girl” earned them a semifinalist spot in the competition, but the use of their song “Shhh” in PostSecret’s 2008 Valentine’s Day video, Casey said, was “when we realized [the band] was something that was definitely special and something that we wanted to really pursue.” The art project, which collects post cards bearing secrets mailed in from across the globe, displayed a selection of the cards to the Donora song in a YouTube video. In just a week, the video had more than one million hits, and garnered an international audience clamoring for an album that wasn’t quite ready yet.
“We were so unprepared for that, we didn’t even have anything to sell,” Casey said. “That was really neat, just getting people from all around the world who knew of our band just from that video, just overnight.”
Unexpected, too, Casey said, was the interest that came from Rostrum Records. The group met executives from Rostrum when they came to see a show and expressed their interest, but the band wasn’t even thinking of finding a label at the time.
“Our main focus was just finishing the album,” Casey said. “We hadn’t really been thinking much beyond that, so it was definitely sort of a surprise.”
The band was signed on by Rostrum Records, having nearly a full album in the can, and released its self-titled debut in 2008. Their follow-up album, Boyfriends, Girlfriends, came out last fall. And in recording, as with the band’s inception, they had a little help from Dad.
“Before we were even really a band, we were recording material,” Casey said. “That was definitely a unique situation in that way, because we had access to a studio and somebody who really knew what they were doing in the studio.”
The group will be playing the Black Cat Monday with folk singer-songwriter Cheyenne Marie Mize, having kicked off a tour this week of East Coast and Midwest dates.
• For more information about Donora, visit donoramusic.com.