From life in a tent to joy in Tinseltown, American Idol hopefuls Ammon and Liahona Olayan are proving that success can happen in an instant with a great song.
Like most siblings, Ammon and Liahona Olayan are capable of butting heads every now and then. But once, their dust-up got so personal and nasty that the two stopped talking to each other for a period of time.
“We weren’t scrapping or nothing like that, but we said some pretty mean words to each other and went our separate ways,” recalls Ammon.
“We were holding grudges,” remembers Liahona.
Unlike most brothers and sisters, however, the Olayans are also capable of turning raw emotions into catchy melodies and hurt feelings into thoughtful lyrics. In fact, they’re so good at making music together that they’ve turned their beef into an apparent hit single with Boom, an original composition that the pair performed on American Idol before celebrity judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie.
Suffice to say, the judges were blown away by the Olayans’ presentation during the televised audition that aired last month — with all three praising the teenagers for their “fresh” sound and considerable songwriting abilities.
In particular, Perry called the siblings “talented beyond belief” and noted they “should be signed right now,” while Bryan uttered the words about the duo that many viewers likely agreed with: “I think the sky’s the limit, and I’m just freaking out!”
And boom, just like that, the Olayans soared into the show’s next round with their winning tickets in hand.
Up next for this talented brother-and-sister team that once called Wahiawā and Pāhoa home, is Hollywood Week, which begins this Sunday, March 21, in Tinseltown. There, the Olayans will be in another type of fight as they go up against scores of other artists hoping to avoid elimination and become the next American Idol.
“I’m super excited about Hollywood Week because everyone will get to see the stories of all these people that are competing, and how much they love music and what we all share in common,” says Liahona, 17.
Although the Olayans previously released an EP titled Life is Good and were featured on a youth album for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, neither of them expected a sudden rise to musical prominence when they tried out for the 19th season of American Idol.
“I think it’s way more than anything I could have imagined — from releasing our own song to being able to sing on American Idol,” says Ammon, 18. “We’ve received so much love and support, so many good comments and so many awesome fans that say that they’re rooting for us and hope we get big.”
Even their social media accounts have been blowing up in recent weeks. Liahona’s Instagram page had 800 followers prior to the duo’s appearance on American Idol, but it’s since ballooned to well over 14,500 followers.
“Hawaiian people definitely know my account, so I’m like ‘mahalo nui loa!’” she giggles.
The exposure has benefited Ammon, too, as his followers have grown by more than 25 times in the past few weeks. Yet it’s little consolation since he still trails his sister.
“I started with 400 followers, and now I have about 11,000 — but Lia is still beating me!” he says in a moment of sibling rivalry.
Truth is, the Olayans are both winning. Already, they have solo projects in the works, as well as a joint album they plan to drop soon. Fans should not only expect soul music with a bit of “pop-hop” fun on their upcoming releases, but material that’s also filled with meaningful and uplifting messages.
“There’s just too much depression and stuff like that in the world, especially among people our age being weighed down so much,” says Liahona.
“So we plan to continue creating music that will give people hope and joy,” Ammon adds.
The average number of people in an American household last year was 3.15, a mere tick over the numerical value of pi. Rudimentary math skills confirm that the people who occupy the Olayans’ home in Vineyard, Utah, far surpasses this figure by more than three times.
For Ammon, the eldest of eight children, he knows all too well what his two younger brothers will soon discover: “We’re outnumbered — by a lot!” he sighs, noting that Baby No. 9 — another girl — is on her way. Still, life in a large family has its own peculiarities beyond the ratio of boys to girls.
“It’s always loud,” says Ammon of his home’s ambiance. “There are always people eating, and there’s always tons of dishes.”
And yet there are benefits to living in a home where the people are plentiful.
“There’s definitely always something to do, for sure,” explains Liahona. “I can go to one of my sisters and be like, ‘Hey, you wanna go shopping?’ And she’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ Or, my brother can say, ‘Hey, you wanna go outside and play soccer?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Bring it on!’”
Like music, sports is one of the primary forces that make the Olayans’ world go ‘round.
“My dad’s side has more of the jocks and they all play sports,” shares Ammon, who counts football, soccer, basketball and volleyball among his favorite pastimes.
“Basically, we love competing and spending time together as a family,” adds Liahona, who thrives in seemingly all sports, including soccer, volleyball and basketball — not to mention lesser-played activities such as pickleball, pool and pingpong.
Turns out that improved family time was exactly what parents Caleb and Temple Olayan — an investor and real estate broker, respectively — had in mind five years ago when they quit their jobs and, with a handful of other souls in tow, relocated to the Big Island. The couple already owned a piece of property in Pāhoa with a fixer-upper on it, and it was there where they chose to plant their roots for the next three years.
At first, the move did not sit well with Liahona, who was just 12 at the time. But soon, she began to understand her parents’ purpose.
“They wanted us to get closer as a family and reconnect with our heritage, our roots and where we come from,” recalls Liahona. “Most importantly, my mom realized that we had to learn to reconnect with the Lord. She realized that the more we got into society, the more we lost ourselves. She said, ‘You need to go back to where it all started. I’m going to show you how important it is to remember where you come from.’”
Since the fixer-upper was in no condition to live in — in part because the house had no running water and electricity — the family spent the first three months living in a tent in the backyard. During this time, they learned to work together, clearing the property of its many trees and bushes, and sharing in the load when it came to raising goats and chickens, or picking papaya at a nearby farm for food. They even found joy in doing some of life’s simplest things, like using buckets of water to wash their clothes and dishes.
And as the family came to rely upon each other more and more, they rediscovered their cultural roots while uncovering some hidden gifts.
“I got to learn so many things and reconnect again, especially with hula,” recalls Liahona. “I hadn’t done that in such a long time, and my mom bringing me back into it made me feel so good.
“But I was also grateful for the experience because it was very humbling,” she continues. “If it weren’t for our time there, I don’t think we would have figured out —.”
“Our love of music,” interrupts Ammon.
“Right,” continues Liahona, “and how much it means to us.”
The siblings knew how musically inclined their mom’s side of the family was, but it wasn’t until their days in Pāhoa that they finally understood they were beneficiaries of this legacy. According to Ammon, this is how their discovery of this hidden gift began:
“It was like a rainy Sunday and I was being super lazy and my dad was like, ‘Brah, get up and do something! How about you go and write a song?’” he recalls. “So, I was like OK, because I thought he was being serious.”
Two hours later, Ammon, then just 13, returned with his first composition — a tribute for Mother’s Day called I’m So Glad You’re My Mommy — and performed it for the family. The moment was like a revelation for Liahona, who immediately started penning her own ditties and teaching herself how to play the piano.
“When I first heard my brother sing his original song, it was super amazing to me,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Dang, this could actually work!’”
Today, thanks to a Boom-ing song that’s being played on seemingly every platform, the possibilities for this brother-and-sister duo appear endless.
Maybe Bryan was right after all about the sky being their limit?
“This is just the beginning,” promises Ammon. “Our dream is really coming to life.”