Getting to know Nalani & Sarina, the area’s most musical twins

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Nalani & Sarina play World Cafe Live on Thursday. (Photo by Sandrine Lee)

Nalani and Sarina have an advantage that other songwriters don’t: There are two of them. That in and of itself doesn’t have so much significance until you realize — which doesn’t take long after looking at them — that they’re twins. “In terms of writing, it’s basically the best thing in the world, having your co-writer being someone who basically has your same brain,” said Nalani Bolton, one half of the twin-sister powerhouse, playing upstairs at Philadelphia’s World Café Live on Thursday, Oct. 23.

They enjoy the perks of having an outsider’s perspective on an intimate moment, but with someone who shares her DNA. “For writing especially, it’s honestly convenient. We’ve been around each other since we were born — and being around someone who knows you so well, it makes songwriting and the general business of it so easy,” echoes Sarina Bolton.

For the Northern New Jersey natives, songwriting came rather early. Born into a musical household, the sisters were immediately surrounded by music. From putting on living room performances as toddlers, to classical training in piano during early childhood, to the introduction of opera vocal stylings in adolescence, the transition to writing their own material in their teens came naturally. 

Now 21, Nalani and Sarina have a full-length record out — "Lessons Learned" — that’s, from front to back, packed with big, soulful vocals (from, admittedly very tiny girls, “I think they’re just surprised with how little we are in general,” said Nalani), colorful imagery, and sweet storytelling. They got some help from an all-star cast: Will Lee (bassist, best known for his work on the Late Show with David Letterman) and Tommy Mandel (keys, having worked with Bryan Adams) and others contributed to the debut and will perform with the girls at their Nov. 19 show at New York City’s The Bitter End.

Though don’t count on a backing band to help add to the magic Nalani and Sarina have to offer. Armed with guitars, a keyboard and ukuleles, the multi-instrumentalist sisters command a crowd all on their own, having taken residency at The Bitter End this summer.

Besides the venue’s history — Etta James, Billy Joel and Taylor Swift all performed there — the need to keep the performances fresh kept them on their toes. “For doing residencies, we also find it really fun, but also a challenge,” claimed Sarina. “So when you come the next month, we feel like we have something to prove.”

It’s not just New York that’s getting all the love: The City of Brotherly (and in this case, Sisterly) Love is quickly rising in rank as one of Nalani and Sarina’s prime performance locales. “New York has been always a home base, but recently Philly has been becoming our second home,” said Sarina.

“You get more of a sense of artistry in Philly, I feel,” Nalani continued. “New York is always … everyone is super active and have so much energy and a lot of hustling. In Philly, everyone’s really sweet — it’s like New York, but there’s more … artistic integrity there.”

Their own mastery of their craft still continues. Despite "Lessons Learned" dropping less than a year ago, a follow-up five-song EP — with all the same players featured on the album — is currently in the works, aimed for an early 2015 release. 

“We’re going to do the same sort of approach [as "Lessons Learned"] with the old-school recording,” said Nalani. “Basically get a band recording instead of machines.”

Not altogether pop, not quite the soul of yesteryear, and not quite the typical singer-songwriter archetype, it’s difficult to place the sisters in any one genre, but that’s what makes them so listenable: There’s a little something for everyone.

Whether it be the heartfelt ballad of “Balloons” or the slight country twang in “Start All Over” or the Sam-and-Dave-inspired “Raw Sugar,” the sisters Bolton know how to reach a wider audience. Besides their talent (it’s natural and abundant), stage presence (dynamic) and personality (bubbly and welcoming), it’s largely due to their influences.

“From when we started to now, we’ve always been huge fans of music that comes from the soul and really good music where people had a lot to say,” said Sarina. “So whether it’s Sam and Dave — soul — or Tom Petty, people who have something to say and it comes from them, that’s always been a constant for us.”

Another constant, though not explicitly verbalized, is the unwavering dedication Nalani and Sarina have to their art. “It’s really the hardier you work, the luckier you get,” Sarina expressed.

Nalani shared the sentiment: “We’ve found over the years, things come naturally to you when you don’t try to aim for little rewards. It’s so much better to focus on what you love and the reasons why you started music in the first place.”

Perhaps the moral of their story, which can be said for artists everywhere, is the power of passion. Nalani perhaps hit the nail on the head, bringing her and her sister’s musical narrative full circle. “You do it for the love of doing it and things will come to you.”

Tickets to Nalani and Sarina’s Thursday, Oct. 23 show at World Café Live are available here.