They’re a mere 21 years old, but an old-school aura surrounds identical twin sisters Nalani and Sarina Bolton, the singer-songwriter duo billing themselves as Nalani & Sarina.
Growing up in New Jersey’s Hunterdon County, they heard lots of folk and blues around the house, thanks to their parents playing music by the likes of Bob Dylan and Ray Charles, among others. This past spring, Nalani & Sarina met and jammed with one of their favorite singers, soul legend Sam Moore, during a joint appearance on SiriusXM satellite radio, and days later, they performed with Moore and his band at City Winery in New York (and held their own on the Sam & Dave classic “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”).
Then there’s the pay-your-dues approach the Bolton sisters have taken to building an audience: playing one show at a time (on average, a handful of gigs per month) and focusing for now on New Jersey, where they still live, and its bordering states.
The sisters call it “spreading slowly and wisely,” and they credit living relatively close to New York City — where “everybody is always hustling,” Nalani says — as well as their parents for their steady drive and work ethic.
“They’re super-supportive in what we do, but they’re not ‘momager’ and ‘dadager,’ ” Nalani adds with a laugh. “They raised us to always be independent and to try to earn our way through life, instead of just having things handed to us.”
Nalani & Sarina started with classical piano; along the way they learned to play ukulele (from their mother) and guitar (mostly from YouTube). Midway through their tenure at Hunterdon Central Regional High School (late E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici was a student there when it was called Hunterdon Central High School), the Bolton sisters started writing their own songs.
“For a while, we would only write ballads because piano was our core instrument, and whenever you play something on the piano, it always naturally tends to [come out as a ballad],” Nalani says.
“You play something on the piano, and it turns into this horrible breakup song, even though you’re a happy person,” adds Sarina.
The moods and emotions vary on Lessons Learned, their debut album, which was released independently in January. According to Nalani, the original goal was to make an acoustic album, with the Bolton sisters playing all of the instruments. Pleased with the basic tracks, they decided to flesh things out and bring in other musicians.
Through their manager, Sarina says, they connected with bassist Will Lee, best known for playing with the CBS Orchestra on the Late Show With David Letterman and as a member of the Beatles tribute band The Fab Faux. Other musicians on Lessons Learned include guitarist Leni Stern, drummer Joe Bonadio and keyboardist Tommy Mandel. (Lee, Stern and Mandel will be part of a rare full-band Nalani & Sarina show on Sept. 10 in New York.)
Up to now, Sarina says, Moore calling her and Nalani “the Samettes” on the air and onstage has been “the highlight of our lives.” At 21, though, there is still plenty of “spreading” for Nalani & Sarina to do — and “slowly and wisely” remains a big part of their game plan.
— By Chris M. Junior
Nalani & Sarina on tour (schedule subject to change):
* Sept. 10: The Bitter End — New York
* Sept. 13: The Coffee House — Edison, N.J.
* Oct. 11: World Café Live at The Queen — Wilmington, Del.
* Oct. 19: Crafts in the Meadow — Richboro, Pa.
* Oct. 23: The Social Lounge — West Chester, Pa.
* Nov. 14: The Dragonfly — Somerville, N.J.
* Nov. 15: ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks — Bethlehem, Pa.
Photo of Nalani (right) & Sarina by Chris M. Junior