July 5, 2023
Culture & Music
Isabelle Truman Remihana
Isabelle Truman Remihana
Molly Lewis’ music transports you to decades past. Serene and ethereal, the sound she makes through her pursed lips has entranced those in the music industry and beyond. After years of pushing away from her talent, Molly is embracing it, seeing where whistling can take her.
Molly Lewis wakes up in a parking lot in North Carolina. Robe on, she walks the small distance to the gas station for her morning coffee. She’s been sleeping deeply, her dreams vivid and performance-based. Her subconscious pulling her to the stage as she’s transported by bus across state lines toward the next venue. Touring North America like this is Almost Famous levels of “rock star glamorous”, Molly admits. But she doesn’t gloss over the logistics, either. “You’re sleeping in bunk beds, three on top of each other. They’re so small and coffin-like. You literally can’t sit up… perhaps it’s preparation for the Big Sleep.”
These interludes between shows, where Molly can survey her surroundings through the window as she passes through cities and countryside, have allowed her time to reflect. The past few years have been full of surreal moments – opening for the likes of Weyes Blood and Caroline Polachek, working with classical composers, performing on stage with Harry Dean Stanton, La Femme, John C. Reilly, and even doing a session with Dr. Dre. And Molly has an unlikely talent to thank them all: whistling. Lips pursed, arms poised in the air, Molly dressed in a feather-trimmed evening gown with a black-tie band behind her, hitting each note of a song with perfect pitch and octave control. “What’s beautiful about whistling is, in a way, it transcends all genres.”
Sydney-born and Los Angeles- raised, Molly vividly remembers the first time she made a sound from her lips as a child. “I had this fascination with it and a big desire to be able to do it. But I just couldn’t. For a long time. And then one day, I made a sound.” She’s multitasking as she speaks, applying her makeup in front of a Hollywood-style vanity mirror, bordered with blinding bright light bulbs in the backstage area of tonight’s show venue. “Look, it’s even a proper dressing room,” she says, pivoting the camera around so I can see the professional set-up.
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Once Molly figured out the basics, she was a natural, and, spurred on by her musical surroundings – her mother is a pianist, who worked as a musical supervisor with a keen ear for music and a huge library of it – she would listen to songs and whistle the tune almost instantly. Molly took classical piano lessons as a child but never learnt how to read music because her ear for deciphering notes was so good. To her dismay today, the lessons didn’t last long, either. “I wasn’t a very good student.”
While she was still just as captivated with whistling as a teenager as she was as a child, her parents showed her the 2005 documentary Pucker Up about a competitive whistling competition – the now-defunct International Whistlers Convention – in Louisburg, N.C. Despite her family living in Australia at the time, Molly made her dad promise that if she ever got in, he’d take her. In 2012, she got her chance, winning an award for her efforts, before, three years later, and much more fine-tuning, Molly took first prize in the women’s live-band division at the Masters of Musical Whistling tournament.
While working in film in Los Angeles, Molly began posting her talents on Instagram where Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs slid into her DMs, asking her to perform with her at a Harry Dean Stanton tribute show. There, the likes of Stanton himself, Father John Misty and John C. Reilly were enamoured with her sound. “One thing would lead to another in a way where, I guess because it’s rare, and people don’t encounter it often, I would get calls from people who needed whistling. I kept discovering ways that I could utilise it.”
Back in LA, Molly launched her lounge night, Café Molly, as a means to marry whistling with music. There, she’d perform Bossa Nova jazz classics with a band in a candlelit room, wearing two-piece white suits and sparkling dresses. Bringing the jazz club vibe found on every New York City corner to her city. Every so often, musicians would pop in and take to the stage – Natalie from Weyes Blood did a rendition of The Look of Love, Mac DeMarco performed a Sinatra song and Reilly sang and played the guitar to Slim Whitman.
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Whistling wasn’t always such an unknown musical form. In the 20s, Elmo Tanner and Muzzy Marcellino made careers out of it, and Ron McCroby came later. In 1967, the whistling song by Whistling Jack Smith, I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman became an international hit. Women whistlers in history are harder to come by, but on her website, Molly highlights the likes of Alice J. Shaw, who went on tour whistling in the 1880s, and Marion Darlington, who whistled on five Disney films, most notably as the voice of the bird in Cinderella.
It was DeMarco who helped push Molly toward making music of her own, “opening up a whole new world” by gifting her one of his old guitars that she figured she’d sell on eBay if she proved as undisciplined learning the instrument as she had been with piano. “But I ended up playing it. And I really loved learning. The guitar is a great counterpoint to the whistle,” she explains. “I started learning chords and every now and then with certain chord combinations, I would find that a melody would come into my head.”
When the world locked down during Covid-19, Molly spent the downtime making music, spurred on by her record deal, signed after indie label, Jagjaguwar, attended a Café Molly show. “For a long time, I was like, ‘Okay, cool. I have this circus freak ability’. But now making my own music and composing things makes me feel more like a musician. Whistle is the main instrument and the reason for giving me this opportunity to pursue music, which is really special.” Molly released her debut EP, The Forgotten Edge, in 2021 with six original songs and a Molly Lewis-branded lip balm.
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