From Living In A Tent To ‘American Idol’ And Beyond: Ammon Olayan Opens Up About His Incredible Story

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

When Ammon Olayan was 12 years old, his parents decided they wanted him and his five siblings to grow up surrounded by nature and their cultural heritage. So, the family did something pretty spectacular: they packed up their stuff, moved to their native home in Hawaii and lived in a tent. 

While the atmosphere of the islands might sound like an idyllic backdrop for an upbringing, Olayan reveals that it wasn’t quite as dreamlike as you might expect. In fact, the now-18-year-old singer-songwriter admits that he struggled with boredom a fair bit… until one day, the young Olayan’s father told him to go “write a song or something.” Well, that’s exactly what Olayan did.

And after he wrote his first song, he wrote another… then another… and then another, followed by a whole lot more. Eventually, his younger sister, Liahona, caught on too and it didn’t take long before the two started collaborating, working up a series of infectiously positive and irresistibly catchy pop tunes. Then, everything kicked into high gear when the Olayan siblings did a Zoom audition for the producers of American Idol. Enthralled with their effortless charm and wholesome message, American Idol not only gave the siblings a path to Hollywood, but a path to making all of their dreams come true. Now, Olayan is finally releasing his first solo music to date—on March 18, he put out his debut single, “Into Your Hands.”

“In our lives, we always try to control everything,” Olayan told American Songwriter, alluding to the inspiration for this single. “We always want everything to go our way. I’ve had that feeling—I’m the oldest kid, so I’ve always felt like I had to do everything right and perfectly. But, that’ll never happen—we’re going to mess up, things are going to be hard. Even though it might slip through our hands, God is right there to catch it and lift us back up.”

See, that’s another big part of who Olayan is and what his art represents—deeply religious, his connection with music came hand-in-hand with his connection to faith. “When my family moved back to Hawaii and lived in a tent, I think that’s when I got my own testimony and conviction—that’s when I learned how important God is in my life and how much I needed him,” he explained. “I just wanted to share that with people. It’s this element of my life that’s helped me so much, so I wanted to share it.”

That’s certainly a part of what was on Olayan’s mind when his father told him to go write a song all of those years ago. Raised in a musical family, Olayan taught himself how to play ukulele and guitar at a young age, long before he wrote that first song even. “I have a lot of uncles and aunties—in Hawaiian culture especially, whenever we get together, we sing and dance,” he said. “So, music has always been a part of my life.” Thus, when Olayan went off that fateful day to begin his journey with songwriting, an uplifting message inspired by his faith and his family is what came to mind.

“The very first song I wrote was for my mom, but I wanted to save that for Mother’s Day, so I waited to share that with my family until then,” he explained. “I was just thinking about life—a lot of times, you might have relationships with people and they go away. Life can be hard, but through it all, your mom is always there to comfort you and give you support. That’s what I was feeling then, so I decided to write about it. After my family heard it and really loved it, I thought ‘Oh wow, I could really do this.’”

And when Liahona started writing too, the excitement and possibilities only doubled. That’s especially the case considering how complementary the Olayan siblings’ writing styles are—Ammon specializes in big picture, topline writing whereas Liahona is fast becoming an expert in the nitty-gritty of songcraft.

“I usually come up with a lot of tunes and save them on my phone,” Olayan said, talking about his and his sister’s process. “I come up with tunes every day. If I hear a beat, I’ll start beatboxing and record that. Then, once I get a bigger idea, I’ll go back through those tunes and listen to them to see which ones fit. I don’t really know how to organize things as well as Liahona does, so I’ll just throw out a bunch of ideas. Then, she’s the one who organizes it all into an actual format.”

One of the siblings’ most successful collaborations to date is Liahona’s debut single, “Boom,” which dropped this past February. A lively pop tune with a primed-for-radio hook, it makes sense why the duo was such a hit on American Idol when they performed the song for judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie. 

“Just from watching it on TV, I thought the room was going to be smaller,” Olayan said. “It looks so much smaller on TV. But when you walk in there through the big double doors, it’s this big, massive room with electric stuff and cameras and you’re right in the middle of it all. Then, the celebrity judges sit on chairs higher off the ground than you are, so they look like thrones. It was super intimidating, but I was glad I had my sister and we had a lot of fun.”

For Olayan, this moment was years in the making. “I’ve watched American Idol before, like back in the Simon Cowell days,” he said. “But, my mom saw online that they were scheduling Zoom interviews. She was like ‘Let’s sign you both up!’ That’s pretty much how it started. I didn’t think much of it at the time, I was like ‘Oh okay, yeah, that’s fine.’ But then they heard us sing our song ‘Boom’—they said ‘We want you guys.’ I was like ‘What?’ It totally shocked me! I didn’t think it would happen at all. It was a huge surprise.”

But to Olayan, this is all a part of the journey—as surreal as this thrust onto the national stage has been, he remains connected to his humble origins. “Sometimes I think ‘Man, how did this all happen?’” he said. “I never thought any of this would ever happen—I thought I’d go play sports or just go to college or something like that. Just to see the impact my music has had on people… I’ve gotten so many compliments 0n how it has helped others and given them strength. That’s the most important thing. Sure, you might get notoriety or you might get a lot of money, but the most important thing is helping others and creating something that could make them happy.”

And with new music on the horizon—including a joint release from the siblings and solo records from each—Olayan is excited to keep on doing what he’s doing. 

“I really wanted to focus my music on spreading good, spreading joy,” he said. “Especially for my generation—I think we suffer from a lot of depression and anxiety, especially after the last year with all of this COVID-19 stuff. So, I just want to make music with a good message and hope for other people. Music can really touch you in a way that words can’t, not through speaking alone at least. When I’m going through a hard time, connecting with music can help me feel something completely different. It’s hard to explain, but yeah, it’s super fun, it brings me a lot of joy and I just feel really good when I can share that message of happiness.”


Ammon Olayan’s debut single “Into Your Hands” came out on March 18 and is available everywhere. Listen to it below: 

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