Hanna McCarthy got called into the principal's office. The White Station High School freshman had been outed for making a racket that got citywide attention. But she wasn't in trouble.
"I was on Kacky Walton's Checking on the Arts program on WKNO, and I mentioned White Station," said McCarthy, who records under the name Hanna Star. "One of the teachers heard it and was asking other students, 'Who is Hanna Star?' Some of my friends were like, 'Mrs. Poe wants to know who you are.' Apparently she went to the 9th grade principal and asked her."
McCarthy is an accomplished songwriter who just landed her first record deal. But she's not one to brag.
"Hanna's too shy to talk about herself," said her father, filmmaker and illustrator Mike McCarthy.
"Too smart," added Ross Johnson, Hanna's drummer, spiritual advisor, and the link between her and her new single on Spacecase Records.
To those who know Hanna and her dad, this is notable if not exactly surprising. Mike is an indefatigable artist and promoter whose commitment to the creative life is earnest and intractable. Hanna grew up in this environment, and, if her dedication to her craft seems beyond her years, it's not beyond her place.
"I think it was a product of my environment and all of the things that I was exposed to," Hanna said. "Like having creative parents. That's what we did: We went to creative events. I've been singing for as long as I can remember. There are old videos of me making up songs about the trees outside and just what ever I saw. I used to have cassette tapes and make my own radio shows with my own songs. When I was younger, I would draw and do other stuff too, but music was the thing that stuck with me. That was what I was good at."
Through her father, Hanna has worked with some of Memphis' most renowned indie-music players.
"The first time I recorded was at Adam Woodard's studio, which is different from the one he has now. I was 11 years old. He did instruments on it, and his son Alden and my dad did background vocals. It was two songs. 'Butterfly of Mine' and 'Life of a Hero' were the first songs that I got to record in a professional setting. I was really nervous, but it was still fun. He's extremely talented. On the latest songs, he came back and played bass and worked on some of the arrangements."
She worked with Alicja Trout and Paul Taylor on a series of songs at Jeff Powell's much-bereaved Humongous Too studio, which was shuttered to make way for another brewery. Krista Wroten and Jana Misener of the Memphis Dawls added violin and cello parts to those sessions and a video was made for "Deep in the Meadow," a resetting of the lyrics from the Hunger Games series of books. Those recordings were lost in a computer hard-drive mishap.
Late last year, Hanna launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover the costs of some new recordings.
"I was sort of nervous when we were getting close to the end of reaching our goal, wondering: What if we don't make it?" Hanna said. "But we ended up going a little bit over. I was really proud."
The latest recordings have crystallized her talent close to home. Everything was recorded a few blocks from her home at Music + Arts studio with Daniel Lynn and Woodard producing. The new songs feature Johnson on drums, Georgia Coles, Adam Woodard, and Jonathan Kirkscey and Jessie Munson on strings.
"They are just amazing on strings," Hanna said. "We did three new songs. I think we'll have two on the new single and seven on the download."
Working with older musicians does not bother Hanna, and the latest tracks find her working with some of her peers.
"One of my friends who played on my record, Georgia Coles, played piano on three of the songs that I recorded at Music + Arts. She's the same age as me. I'm about to turn 15. I have a lot of friends in school, and I have after-school activities. I'm in choir, and most of my musically inclined friends are in choir with me. I have a lot more friends who are into music now than I did when I was younger."
Hanna's music compliments her schoolwork, which she takes very seriously: "Each thing has to be taken step-by-step. It's frustrating because I'm so busy. I'm still in school and clubs, and there are tons of other things to think about at the same time. But I still want to make time for it. My dream would be to get a choir scholarship to go to music college. My dream college would be Boston Berklee, to meet other musicians who have the same goals as me and use that to get ahead in life."
For someone who first went into the studio at age 11, the development of her songs has paralleled her mental development. Now reaching 15, Hanna can see the increasing complexity in her craft.
"I definitely think it's shown up. There's a transition in the songs. It's a lot to figure out. At this point, I really don't know how to think about it or process it because it's so new to me still. I have been at it for a long time, but my mind hasn't been able to figure out what to think about it. I recently wrote a new song, about three weeks ago. Altogether, I've written 10 songs."
As far as the record deal goes, Hanna has Johnson to thank for the introduction to the label. Johnson had just found Spacecase in Oxnard, California, during last year's Gonerfest. Johnson and Monsieur Jeffrey Evans had searched for a label for five years for the recordings they did with Jim Dickinson at his Zebra Ranch studio in 2008.
"We're pleased to be on a small label that's putting out a lot of Memphis stuff," Johnson said. "They are very happy about this. And we're pleased that Hanna is on the label."
"Ross said you should talk to Ryan in Oxnard," said Mike. "I texted Ryan and he said call me. So literally, while Hanna's final mixes were being done, I was standing in the lobby of Music + Arts negotiating a record deal. He said I know about your movies, and if Ross is playing on it, it sounds like something I'd want to put out."
Hanna is thrilled and loved working with talented, old geezers.
"My friends all have such different tastes in music," she said. "I feel like if we played music, by the time we were done, we wouldn't be friends anymore."
"What I like about playing with Hanna is that she doesn't notice us very much," added Johnson. "She just starts playing and we follow. I want to gossip the whole session. She brings out the teenage girl in me."
Hanna Star will perform at the Memphis Songwriters Showcase on Friday, January 31st, at Jack Magoo's. hannastar.com