Jake and Casey of ‘Donora’ and their dad, Dave, talk about raising passionate, creative children in the music industry.
Jake Hanner met the future lead singer of his band a few hours after she was born. He was disappointed she was a girl and cried. Eighteen years later, Jake got over it, and he and sister Casey decided to start a band. “We didn’t grow up listening to a lot of the same music,” explains Casey, “but when we started writing together, we realized that we approached creating music in the same way.” The brother sister duo also quickly realized that their shared upbringing could translate to solid pop tunes.
Pennsylvania based Indie-Pop siblings Jake and Casey Hanner of Donora are the second generation of musicians from the North Hills of Pittsburg, a creative center for artists and musicians. Having grown up in a world where Dads all stayed home and made music, and kids were free to explore and develop their creativity at will, it would appear a foregone conclusion that such children would grow up to be bold lights in the entertainment industry. We had the opportunity to sit down with the trio of musicians to talk about the delicate balance whereby the children of entertainers are encouraged and nurtured to explore and develop their talents, carefully guiding without pressure.
Dave Hanner, father of Jake and Casey, has a significant catalogue as a performer, songwriter, and producer of his own. With Bob Corbin, first as Country Rock Band Gravel and later Country Music groups Corbin-Hanner Band and Corbin/Hanner, Dave has released 9 albums with eleven Billboard charting singles (5 singles in the Top 30 Country Chart) from 1973 to just this past August, when they played their farewell show in Pittsburg, PA. Between recording and performing, Hanner was constantly writing music, penning The Oakridge Boys #1 hit “Beautiful You” among others. From his home studio, Hanner produced several artists along with national commercial jingles for Pepsi, Diet Sprit, Doritos, and other clients.
Corbin/Hanner – “The Work Song”
Working from home, Dave’s children were exposed to the studio at an early age:
“They were always either in there with me or within ear shot. Even as infants, if their mom was doing something, they’d be in the studio with me, sitting in one of those bouncy chairs looking at me. And later on they’d wander in and out of the studio asking if we could go outside, yet. I’d say ‘just a little bit longer’ until they couldn’t take it anymore” – Dave
Just as most musicians don’t become major stars, most musicians also aren’t uninvolved butterflies flitting in and out of their children’s lives. Studies show that children’s early childhood socialization often molds the type of adults they will be, which is borne out in the case of Jake and Casey.
“I remember spending a lot of time in the studio. It was in our basement. My dad was always home, working in there. So whenever I wanted to see him (and when you’re a little girl, you always want to see your dad) I could just go in there and watch him work. He also let us record ourselves singing silly songs and goofing off…. I do have a very specific memory of being in the studio with my dad, watching him work. I remember him explaining to me what he was doing when he was splicing tape together on his reel to reel setup. I must have been very young — 5 or 6 maybe. I also remember that he had a box of razor blades that he used to splice the tape. I was always very interested in those because I wasn’t allowed to touch them and they were kept high up on a shelf! ” – Casey
Despite being more interested in sports, Jake also recalls spending time in the studio, first to talk and spend time with his father, later to also experiment as he became interested in playing drums.
“I was allowed in my dad’s studio whenever I wanted. He never said no, or I’m too busy when I had a question about anything…I had a little space with a stereo setup in the basement. My dad had a huge old dryer cardboard box that was just filled with cassettes. Old demos, commercial jingles, clients’ demos…just all kinds of stuff. Every day I would grab one of those tapes out of the box without even looking at what it was and just hit play. I’d play the drums to it and then I’d either start it over and work on it some more or throw it back into the box and dig for another one” – Jake
Dad being at home, writing and performing music, touring, and even making TV appearances was simply a part of family life:
“I have a bunch of small flashes from when I was two maybe? I actually went on tour with my dad and mom when I was really young. My dad bought a camper and him and my mom would take turns driving while they followed the band’s tour bus. I have a flash of being in a hotel room while watching him present an award on the CMA’s. I can picture the TV, carpeting, and remember my dad’s tux. Haha. » – Jake
“The father of my best friend growing up was also a musician and a good friend of my dad’s. So whenever I would go over to her house, her dad was also always working on music. He even had a small studio of his own. So it all seemed very normal to me — that’s just what dads did.” – Casey
While music was encouraged in the home, and all creative and athletic efforts were equally promoted as well, there was never the overwhelming pressure that we hear so much about in the entertainment industry. As a child, Jake initially gravitated to sports, though he tried saxophone, later, made an initial adolescent foray into drums, ultimately being most interested in the production side of things.
“I never once felt any outside pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but that was mostly with sports. I didn’t really take many lessons. I played the saxophone up through middle school in band, and was in the jazz band, but I didn’t really care for it much. When I wanted to quit in eighth grade my parents were fine with it…towards the end of my playing days, my parents would make me practice my saxophone, and I hated it. So I would make a recording of me practicing at the beginning of the week, then just play that recording while I played Tecmo Super Bowl. Haha. That’s terrible, but really ironic, because that’s my favorite thing to do with music now…record and listen back. ” – Jake
Casey was more musically inclined at a younger age, but also was allowed the freedom to explore music in a creative and individual manner:
“I took Suzuki method piano lessons when I was young. With Suzuki, you learn to play the songs by ear. My teacher would record herself playing the songs over and over again on a cassette tape and I would listen to that as I went to sleep. At my first recital (when I was maybe 7), my teacher let me play a special introduction that I had made up for the song I was supposed to play. So I guess I’ve always been more into writing my own music than learning other peoples. And I always hated practicing out of a music book. I remember my parents saying to me that if I didn’t like practicing, maybe I didn’t really like the piano. So it was right around that time that I decided I didn’t want to take lessons anymore. It was always my decision, not my parents.
I took voice lessons for a short time when I was in high school and again, that was my decision. I asked my parents if I could take those lessons. And when I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, my dad (who is an amazing guitarist) bought me a guitar chord book and said, here learn! It was always my own interest in music that drove me. In fact I think my parents may have been trying to deter me! Haha” – Casey
Remarkably, both children were actively musical without their parent’s knowledge, surprising both with the range of skills they had developed on their own, Casey with her songwriting and Jake with his recordings.
“It was quite a while before I realized how much it was actually sinking in with them. Here Casey had a special spot out in the tree in the back yard where she’d sit and fill up note books full of song lyrics. We didn’t even know she was writing! And one year for Christmas we had bought Jake a $39 toy Casio keyboard with a second and a half of sampling built into it. And here he had tapes and tapes of loops he created using that, again, without us realizing. That little keyboard is still one of his main tools.” – Dave
And as soon as Dave became aware, he was immediately interested in their art, but not simply because it was music.
“My dad would be happy with any choice I make in my life as long as I’m happy and healthy. When I first started learning how to play the guitar, I was too impatient to learn songs, so I would just make up my own instead with the few chords that I knew. One time my dad came into my room while I was playing one of those songs and said, “So that’s what you’ve been doing in here… writing songs. Play me some more.” If I had been sitting in there knitting a sweater, he would have asked to see what I was working on. That’s just the kind of dad he is.” – Casey
Jake initially pursued formal recording training in Nashville but ultimately returned to Pittsburg, set up a studio next to his Dad’s, and learned everything he could.
“I went for three years and the best thing I learned was how to wrap a mic cable… so 20k later and not seeing anyone that was graduating getting an actual job in the music industry I quit and came home. My dad let me set up a space in his house. He had a studio in a building adjacent to the house.
I could work back and forth between the two spaces pretty much whenever I wanted. In fact his bedroom was right next to my space. I would work all hours of the night and he never once asked me to turn it down.
He was always there to listen and offer advice, but only when I would ask. He really let me grow and figure things out on my own.
I would learn something new every day. But It was mainly because I was a little more mature and a lot more motivated. When I was at school I didn’t take advantage of the situation as much as I should have. That was the biggest difference…I was just more motivated when I came home. I had just dropped out of college and I needed to prove to myself that I could do this. “ – Jake
Casey took a slightly less direct route, studying chemistry and obtaining her Masters, even working as an engineer for several years. But she always had a passion for music, and knew that that would be a part of her future.
“There was a tree in our back yard that was my song-writing tree. I’d climb up there with a notebook and write songs about nature and my family. Haha. I just happened to be interested in science and physics and math as well as I got older. And so when it came time to go to college, I thought (well my mom thought) that engineering would be a good fall back plan. But even in college, I was always working on music and going to open mic nights and getting gigs of my own. And in the summers my brother and I would work on music together. There was a point where I thought about dropping out of college to pursue music full time, but I’m glad I didn’t…I’ve considered getting a PhD and was even accepted into a few programs a while back. But in the end, music is where my heart is right now. I’ll keep pursuing it until my heart is someplace else. And maybe 20 years from now I’ll go back and get a PhD, who knows!” – Casey
Jake’s production skills continued to improve while Casey continued to write until, one day, Dave suggested that he try teaming Jake’s production and drums with Casey’s songwriting skills:
“At the time, Casey was writing more middle of the road type songs on acoustic guitar. I thought that Jake would mainly just add his drum parts to that. And at the time when they first started playing out, I would go out with them and add a bit of keyboards to what they did.”
Dave continued to support, help out, make suggestions, and donate gear, but he’s generally remained in the background, content to watch his children shine.
“… I said to Casey “I think maybe I have just the right guitar for you for this situation”. She looked a little skeptical until I opened up the case to a sixties Dan Electro Silvertone (the kind that looks like it came from Leave it to Beaver’s kitchen). We strung that electric guitar up like you would an acoustic guitar and she loved it. The way Jake played drums along with the way Casey played that guitar became their sound. They’ve always been able to lay down a really strong groove together. Pretty soon Jake started adding his Casio samples to the mix.
At that point, as I always put it, that’s when they fired me and went disco (laughs).
Jake Churton joined the band on bass- he’s such an excellent musician-and they’ve been growing together on their own ever since.
I just get to sit back and enjoy seeing what they come up with. If they ask my opinion, I give it. But they usually know where they’re headed. I just get to sit back and enjoy seeing what they come up with. ” – Dave
Donora – “Boyfriends Girlfriends”
When asked his reaction when his children chose careers in music, he said,
“Yes I was surprised. And thrilled that they were being creative and expressing themselves. I think that most parents (hopefully),if they see their child become really enthused about anything, breathe a sigh of relief. A person who has a passion for something is gonna be alright.”
That nurturing has influenced both Casey and Jake, artistically and, in Jake’s case, in parenting as well. With two small sons, and a third on the way, Jake has learned to make his musical passion an integral part of his children’s lives, proving that having love for your child in no way diminishes your art, and you pass onto them a passion and love that they can then carry to others, as Donora are known to do for their fans, and Jake his own sons:
“I have a studio at my house and my oldest is allowed to hang out with me at night when I’m not too busy and he asks…he’ll sit and draw pictures on this one dedicated wall while I work. Sometimes he’ll ask to play the guitar or sing and he knows which amp, mic, and guitar he can use and he’ll just set it all up.
My favorite thing, though, is watching my 2 and 4 year old argue about music stuff I don’t think I knew till I was 14. I set up a little studio in our house with a PA speaker, mic, mismatched drums, broken guitars…it doubles as my storage for my studio…haha. But one day I overhead my four year old yell ‘don’t put that mic there it’s gonna feedback!’ and the two year old said with a very smug tone ‘it’s not gonna feedback.’ Haha.
My four year old loves The Ramones and seems really interested in the bass. He discovered an album on his own by randomly picking from my wife’s huge cd collection. He also discovered that on one of their albums he can turn the guitar off by panning the album hard left…he loves listening to the album like that. I told him whenever he wants to learn to play the bass parts I can teach him. But I’ll absolutely NEVER pressure him to do something like that.” – Jake