Twinergetic folk ‘n’ funk soul-pop duo Nalani & Sarina have kicked off their first national tour with local stops coming up at ROCK New Brunswick, The Bitter End, Asbury Lanes, Raritan Valley Community College and Asbury Park Yacht Club.
Central Jersey twinergetic folk ‘n’ funk soul-pop duo Nalani & Sarina will be among the many performers at Hub City Sounds: ROCK New Brunswick on Sept. 8 in Boyd Park, but they’re also rocking the world with their own independent label, Telepathy Records, and its debut album, The Circle.
The Millennial-themed collection is a generational rallying cry in terms of college debt in the face of unemployment and under-employment (“Young & Inexperienced”), college-age alcohol abuse (“Pretty Lies”), growing up (“Tomorrow and Yesterday”), work (“Welcome to the Rest of Your Life”), relationships (“Deep End”), compassion (“The Circle”) and family (“Never Let Go of Your Hand”).
Nalani and Sarina Bolton have been touring regionally, out to the West Coast and up to Canada, as well as garnering national airplay in support of The Circle, which is distributed internationally through London-based Kobalt Music and released in part by its AWAL (Artists with a Label) Records. But right now, the dynamic duo are on their first extensive national tour, which will bring them throughout the East Coast, Midwest and South. The tour will mix acoustic duo sets with full band gigs featuring bassist Mike Klemash, guitarist Ryan Swing and drummer Sunny Dee. Several radio appearances also are on the itinerary.
In addition to ROCK New Brunswick, which also will feature Hub City Stompers, Doc Hopper, Pleased Youth, Sharief Hobley, Silent Knight, Experiment 34, Professor Caveman, SusBus, Hong Kong Graffiti and more, area dates include Sept. 20 at The Bitter End in New York City; Oct. 6 at Asbury Lanes for the “Power of Females” show with Pepperwine and Taylor Tote Band, and Oct. 8 at Raritan Valley Community College, Branchburg. There, they’ll participate in the college’s annual interactive concert and speak about female artists who have influenced them and how they are forging an independent path as young women in the music business.
Nalani & Sarina have strong connections to Bruce Springsteen — who has seen them perform — through their manager Greg Drew and his friend, Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, who’ll feature the duo on his SiriusXM show, “Kick Out the Jams,” on The Spectrum (Channel 28) at 10 a.m. on Sept. 23. Given those connections, the duo are building their Asbury Park following so it is as strong as those in New York City, Philadelphia, Delaware and their native Central Jersey. In addition to the empowering Lanes show, Nalani & Sarina also will play Asbury Park Yacht Club, Nov. 17 at the second annual Makin Waves Hunger Benefit for Food for Thought with Chris Rockwell and Experiment 34.
The following is a chat with Nalani & Sarina conducted at the Starbucks in downtown Somerville. They shared their tour plans, the impact of their songs and videos, their desire to empower other women musicians, folk music roots, admiration for Springsteen, joy of their new touring band, relationship with AWAL/Kobalt, the twinergy of Telepathy Records and much more. Enjoy!
Q: So what’s up?! You’re like a national act now! I’m glad to see that you’ve been able to continue to grow coast-to-coast in support of the latest album, The Circle.
Sarina: We’re planning our tour right now, and it’s exciting because I’ve never been to this place, and I’ve never been to that place. So we’re really going to get to see America.
Nalani: We’ve been all around the coasts, but we’ve only been exposed to the Atlantic and the Pacific. We’ve done a couple of things in Ohio once or twice, but this will be the first time we’ll actually spend some time in places other than the coasts, like the Midwest.
It’s a mix of radio stuff, acoustic gigs, full band gigs. It’s a sprinkle of all of the forms of Nalani & Sarina.
Sarina: It goes with how we’re branding it as The Circle Tour, so it’s a full-circle for us, circling around the U.S., which is super fun.
Nalani: It kicks off in Knoxville on Sept. 4. I’m really psyched for Nashville.
Sarina: Nashville and Chicago.
Q: Tell me about the Oct. 8 show at RVCC.
A: We were approached by one of the teachers at RVCC to be featured performers at their annual interactive concert in which musicians play, speak, and answer questions related to historical/social themes that involve music. It’s an interesting and engaging way to inspire students and get them involved. We will be talking about female songwriters who have inspired us and drastically changed the history of music through their writing, as well as showing the importance of social awareness through music. It is a free event open to the public held onstage in RVCC’s beautiful theater from 1 to 2:20 p.m. (Here’s a link to the show:
Q: I thought The Circle showed great maturation in your songwriting. Comment on that. Do you feel you took your songwriting to another level with this record?
Nalani: I think there is a huge amount of growth and maturity just because we got older as people and that will obviously fuse into your music as well.
Sarina: I think it’s more observing different things. It’s the same type of writing style as (2015’s) Scattered World, which was more observant, but we tried to open our eyes even more.
Nalani: Every single time we do an album, as artists who take very seriously their songwriting, you want to mature or at least give something different than the last one. If you just put out album after album after album that sounds the same, it doesn’t make it interesting. You want to make music interesting.
Q: You had almost a journalistic approach with some of the songs, especially from the standpoint of your generation.
Nalani: We didn’t realize until after the fact, which is cool when you find a common theme for an album. “Young & Inexperienced,” in particular, I remember after we wrote that song, I remember thinking back to Bob Dylan saying how he was writing songs so that when people listened to them, they knew what happened at that specific time period. I remember thinking after we wrote “Young & Inexperienced,” we were like, “This is our song for this time period,” but the interesting thing is that as we played the song out more and more, we realized that, it’s not just an issue that’s been going on recently. It’s been going on for many, many years, but there just hasn’t been a song about it. And that’s the same exact thing when you listen to Bob Dylan’s stuff, it still applies today. We thought we were writing for our time, yet it’s cool that music can cross over in that way.
We were raised on folk music, like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Our mom’s a therapist. It was so instilled with us to be observant, aware of your surroundings. There’s life beyond your own and issues that need to be addressed, so after listening and getting that education with folk music and seeing Bruce Springsteen … that’s someone who’s the voice for the working man. In his audio book, he says “I’m the greatest con man because I didn’t do any of this,” but he has that compassion. It’s important that music be more than just love songs and your own life. It’s been cool to see older people saying, “I know someone who went through that” or “I am personally going through that right now” …
Sarina: When we wrote it about people our age.
Nalani: I remember MarketWatch did an article on “Young & Inexperienced” when we released it as a single: There was a comments section at the bottom where you could tell it was an older generation that was stubborn and maybe didn’t read the entire article, but they were very quick to judge and say, “The younger generation is just lazy. They’re not working hard.” All these crazy comments, and it almost made it sound like that was why, when we wrote the song purely from an observational standpoint and wanted to spark a conversation and shine a little light on the people who are working their asses off and trying to make their dream a reality and find work, but it’s just not available in today’s economy. So that was interesting to see that side. It was very insightful to see that other side and see that it was stirring up a little bit of debate.
Sarina: But we’ve also gone the other side with people our age saying, “Hey, I’m feeling exactly like this, and it’s so cool that you’re talking about this.”
“Pretty Lies” is another observational song where it came more from our standpoint, but it addressed something that we noticed. It’s cool seeing that there’s other people who think like you.
Nalani: And that song again came from a very specific thing of observing people at a bar or just getting loaded, but we intentionally tried to — in the choruses and the bridge — make it a little more universal and have it apply to other things besides that specific social scenario.
There was a guy in Philly who related it to his workplace. You would think it was a girlie song, but it applies across the board, which was, again, cool to see that that panned out that way.
Sarina: “Tomorrow and Yesterday,” which is the last track on the album, a guy who lives in Chicago heard it on SiriusXM. He wanted to give it as a gift to his daughter for her wedding. He put an entire video presentation together with the lyrics of the song underneath as a sendoff for his daughter. It was so beautiful seeing that that’s how he took that song and who he thought of was his daughter and his wife. Yet, when we wrote it, it was so specific to our lives. It was cool seeing how it translated. It was adorable.
Nalani: And he lined it up with pictures from her childhood, like very specific ones that related to our lyrics. It was touching to see.
Q: I’m also glad to see that you’re playing more in Asbury Park … comment on your Springsteen connections and what seems like an aim to grow your Asbury audience.
Sarina: It’s had such a comeback. It never went away, but the way that it’s growing right now is just unbelievable. There are so many people going down there.
Nalani: We’re trying to capitalize not just on Asbury’s music scene but bringing the power of female musicians. The way we’re branding the show at Asbury Lanes is “Power of Females,” so it’s going to be an all-female lineup. We think that’s what would be really cool to bring to Asbury Park.
There are so many female musicians who we’ve come across all up and down the East Coast, who are from New Jersey and are female. We’re thinking, “Why hasn’t there been a show revolved around this?” So we’ve reached out to some of our female friends, Pepperwine and Taylor Tote.
Sarina: Whenever we go out and play other states, we say we’re from New Jersey. Jersey doesn’t always get the best rep. We were born and raised and have written most of our songs in New Jersey. We want to capitalize on our home state and be fuckin’ proud of it, and that’s why Asbury Park is so important.
Nalani: We want to make Jersey proud. We have all those connections through our manager and Dave Marsh. We’ve gotten so many great opportunities to meet Bruce and be inspired by him and then be associated with him, we want to do him proud for all the good and inspiration that he’s brought to us. We want to do him proud, being from the same state. What he did for his state, we want to do the same thing.
Q: So even if New York City and Nashville have more opportunity for you, you’ll stay Jersey Girls?
Nalani and Sarina (simultaneously): You can take the girl outta Jersey, but you can’t the Jersey outta the girl (laughs).
Q: You’re also loved in New Brunswick, having been asked to play Hub City Sounds: ROCK New Brunswick on Sept. 8 for the second year in a row despite not being from there or playing in New Brunswick in between those gigs. Given that, do you think you’ll try to boost your New Brunswick following, too?
Sarina: We hope so. We’ve always been like, “Let’s play New York, let’s play Philly,” but lately we’ve been playing new towns in New Jersey that we’ve never played before. We never played Trenton before.
New Jersey really is thriving as a music state. It’s slowly getting recognition. I think it’s important to make note of that.
Nalani: The thing I’ve found in common with all the places we’ve played in Jersey is that there is an overall community feel or an effort to try to bring people together. We were born in Trenton, so when we played there for the first time a few weeks ago at the Levitt/AMP series opening for Adaawe, a California-based African-style all-female group, it was the first time we had been back there since we were born. We were introduced as Trentonians.
Q: Tell me about the upcoming show at The Bitter End. Why is that going to be special and why do you love to play there so much, nearly at the exclusion of other Manhattan and Brooklyn venues?
Sarina: If you look on the walls, you see the history that’s there.
Nalani: There are these amazing photos of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt. Seeing all those photos on the wall is just so inspiring … to even be in that space, because there are so many venues in New York City that got shut down just because they either sold out or couldn’t make the rent. But The Bitter End has that character and was able to survive all those years just from putting out good music.
Sarina: It just feels like our home base in New York because we’ve played there for so long. We play Rockwood (Music Hall), but it doesn’t have the same homey feel.
Q: Did you play The Bitter End before the late owner Kenny Gorka died in 2015? If so, did you get to know him, and did he provide any feedback about your music and performance?
Sarina: Sometimes he didn’t need to say anything. It felt like we were his long-lost little sisters.
Nalani: He always had that uncle vibe.
Sarina: He felt very protective of our sound and wanted to make sure that we sounded good after soundcheck.
Nalani: He was really for the music, which was something we always appreciated.
Q: Why is this particular Bitter End show on Sept. 20 going to be special?
Nalani: This is our first show there after our CD release. We do a new cover each time at The Bitter End, so we may add that in. But we’re performing with our touring band, so it’s going to be a different bass player and guitar player this time. We feel like we’ve really adapted to where we feel like this is our band, and that’s something we want to bring to The Bitter End stage, showcasing our band. It feels so cohesive. We’re able to really create the Nalani & Sarina sound with them.
They have this excitement to play and tour, whereas some of the veteran musicians who played on our record (bassist Will Lee, guitarist Oscar Rodriguez, keyboardist Tommy Mandell) don’t have the time to go on the road with us. We’re thinking ahead, big picture. We eventually want to tour across the country and the world, so us as business owners, we have to look ahead and say, “Who are the people we’re going to actually be able to bring out and will do it with all the passion and commitment that is required of that job?” We’ve spent the past year vetting different musicians in the area to see who is committed and fits the part. We feel we’ve found two really great guys to do that.
Sarina: Mike Klemash is on bass, who’s from Philly but lives in South Jersey. Ryan Swing is on guitar. He’s from Chicago but lives in Philly. The other reason why the Bitter End show is going to be important is it’s going to be our last show there with Jim Hines on the drums.
Nalani: This entire summer we’ve been training our new drummer, Sunny Dee, who’s from Philly.
Sarina: She’s a chick drummer.
Nalani: Tommy Mandell will be at The Bitter End, too. He’s taught us everything we know about playing keys. We’ve played with him for about five years. He played on the record with Will, Jim and Oscar, who’s touring the rest of the year with A Great Big World.
Q: Your “Pretty Lies” video partially was shot at The Bitter End. I think it’s very well made, especially the noisy pause near the end when you hear a bunch of traffic and subway sounds, as you walk in slow motion down a city street. It seems like you had fun making that clip. What did you love most about making it and the results?
Nalani: The thing we love about that videographer, Alex Kouvatsos, is that his style in terms of filming is very spontaneous. The last video we did for “Get Away” was a very spontaneous shoot. We kind of had an idea what we wanted to film, but a lot of it unfolded right then and there the day of the shoot, which, to us, felt more natural and exciting.
Sarina: We wanted to make sure what came across was the live aspect, so he came out to our show at The Vault (in Berlin, N.J.) for the live footage. That’s at The Vault, not The Bitter End, but we taped a lot of footage of us in the back room and walking into The Bitter End, but none of the singing parts were at The Bitter End.
Nalani: When we were brainstorming ideas for the shoot, we said The Bitter End has to be one because of the posters on the walls.
Sarina: We wanted to have live footage at The Bitter End, but logistically we couldn’t do it because of the tables. So we wanted to have something from Jersey in it — a show from Jersey — and the live aspect, the feel, having it come across with a full band. So we matched that look and vibe, and you validated it. You thought we shot (the live footage) at The Bitter End. That’s what we wanted: to have it all go together.
Nalani: But we definitely saw it visually being in New York just because there’s so much going on there with people and in general, and it’s such a condensed population with so many different types of people. And we wanted to incorporate some of the bar scene.
We’ve never been fans of doing music videos because they can be tricky, especially being twin females making a video. Usually, videographers, directors see it in a different way than how the artists see it, so it was always very important for us to be very hands-on and to put in our vision of what we see in our heads coming across properly, which is why we wanted it to start with the live footage first and then go from there.
Q: Will there be another video from The Circle? If so, which song will it be, when will you start production and when do you expect it to drop?
Nalani: Our main focus right now is the just the tour and the traveling. We may put out another lyric video or music video, but we’re still on the high from the music video. We’re still doing promotion for that. We haven’t thought ahead about what the next video would be.
Sarina: But I think it would be cool doing something that relates to us being on tour.
Nalani: Something like that would be ideal.
Q: How have you liked working with AWAL/Kobalt and why, and how have they helped you distribute and promote The Circle and develop your own Telepathy Records?
Nalani: What love about Kobalt and AWAL is that they’re all about the artists, and they’re all empowering artists to release music on their own without being infected by the toxic music industry, where they don’t allow you to have your rights and steal all your percentages. AWAL is Artists Without a Label, so they empower the artists who want to have their own creative freedom and put out their music. So they’ve been really, really helpful in that way where we can put out creatively what we want.
Sarina: And what’s cool with them is they assign you a specific liaison, like your own personal middle man to the company. They work for the company, but they make sure that they are on the same page with you, have meetings with you, put together ideas and promotions and how to capitalize on certain avenues you want to go into, like Spotify, different promotions with Apple Music, so they’re really supportive and hands-on in matching what you want to do.
They had an AWAL/Kobalt party where they had all day in Brooklyn different seminars, speakers from YouTube, from Spotify, different artists that had really great experiences and blew up being associated with them. The owner and creator of Kobalt (Willard Ahdritz) spoke, and he said, “I felt it was so important that artists weren’t taken advantage of.” You could see the passion in him wanting to restore faith in the music business. As artists watching him make a company devoted to that, I thought was so cool of him to give hope to independent artists.
It’s hard. You have to do everything yourself if you’re an independent artist, but there is hope, and they are a big part of that.
Nalani: You can submit online. On a professional level, it’s helped us have that appearance to some business people who only respond to a record label.
Sarina: And the cool thing with Kobalt is that you can grow within the company. If you want to experiment in publishing, if you prove yourself enough in one aspect, they’ll take notice of you and expand you as an artist. They are all about growth.
Nalani: It’s almost like a development deal. There isn’t too much of that nowadays. People don’t have the time.
Kobalt started when a lot of established artists were not happy with their labels. They would get out of the contract but still wanted a platform that was still able to distribute their music across the world but wanted to keep a lot of their creative freedom. They started with them, and then they branched off.
Sarina: Lenny Kravitz was one of those. They broadened for new artists who wanted to put things out on their own, which is when they created AWAL.
Q: Telepathy Records is a reference to your twin factor. Tell me how else that plays you’re your music and lives?
Sarina: In regard to Telepathy Records, our team started with two of us, Greg Drew and (producer) Julian Herzfeld. We call that “the core four.” We’ve been working with each other for a while. There’s been so many times when situations would come up, and we’d say the exact same thing, the four of us.
Nalani: Or have the same approach.
Sarina: So it’s not just telepathy with us as twins, but whenever we have somebody who’s part of our team who has that same telepathy moment, that’s why we called it Telepathy Records.
Nalani: We always joke, “Oh, you’re getting in on the telepathy.” It just seemed perfect for us.
Sarina: People always think, “Oh, you’re with your sister, you must fight all the time,” and blah, blah, blah, but it makes the songwriting and the business easier. We actually like each other.
Nalani: You see so many people go out on the road, they’re almost lost when they come home. Or they adopt a certain lifestyle on the road, and it’s hard to adjust when they come back. Whereas for us, we have a form of family on the road that keeps us grounded, I like to think.
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.