Leave it to a band like Donora to have an origin story as charming as its music. When the band's future drummer met the future lead guitarist/singer, he cried because she wasn't a boy. Granted, Jake Hanner was 5, and his sister Casey was only a few hours old. But still, who would have guessed that one day, they would end up writing insanely catchy pop songs together?
By now, though, this bit of familial history is a piece of Pittsburgh music lore. And Donora -- with its rapidly growing fan base and opening spots with touring bands like the Ting Tings and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah -- seems poised to blow up the niche it's carved out in the local music scene.
The Hanners were always a musical family: Jake now runs a recording studio, Play On Recording, with their dad, country songwriter Dave Hanner. But for Jake, at least, those musical roots stayed almost buried until recently. "I think Casey played snare drum in the school band, but that's about it," Jake recalls. "I really didn't play music when I was younger. There were always instruments around, but I really wasn't that interested until I got older."
It was their dad who encouraged Casey and Jake to start writing songs together, and they began performing as Donora with the addition of bassist Jake Churton, who crossed paths with the Hanners while recording with other bands at Play On.
The trio released its self-titled full-length in December 2008 on Rostrum Records, a mostly hip-hop label whose roster includes Wiz Khalifa and Nitty. From the frantic opener, "Shout," to the shimmery finale, "London," the record is brimming with sonic confections. Donora's garage-y dance-pop sound and Casey's sweetly refined vocals bring to mind groups like Metric and The Sounds. But there's a precision to Casey's phrasing and inflection that gives Donora's songs a rare emotional weight. And not everyone would be able draw out the word "Bu-Bu-Buffalo" with Casey's ecstatic conviction, as she does in "Saturday Night," a hip-shaking ode to touring.
Despite their rocky first meeting, Jake and Casey's sibling bond has served the band well. Prior to Donora, Jake had limited experience playing with other musicians. But, he says, "I've sat in with some different people and realized how lucky Casey and I are. We're constantly finishing each other's thoughts when we're working, and every time we try something out, we look at each other and we know if it worked." By comparison, working with other musicians can be something of an ordeal, he says: "You go through everyone's ideas and then it's kind of a battle about who's right. [Casey and I] just always seem to be on the same page, and we're really actually spoiled by that."
As for whether Churton feels left out, Hanner says, "We always joke that we feel bad for him because he's not a Hanner." But then again, Hanner describes Churton -- whose bass lines often carry the melody -- as the best bassist he's ever played with. From a listener's perspective, Churton joins in with the Hanners like a long-lost brother.
Donora has found support in Pittsburgh nearly everywhere, from venue owners and other bands, to radio station WYEP, where its music is in frequent rotation. Since the songs are designed to stick in your head, it's no surprise that all that radio play has won Donora new fans of all ages.
"We've played some outside shows like the Regatta and the Arts Fest and a lot of families will come down and bring their kids," Jake says. "It's always fun to play when kids are dancing in the front."