Indie-rock whistler keeping the art alive

Whistler Molly Lewis released her first EP, The Forgotten Edge, which is part tiki-bar exotica and part spaghetti-Western dreamscape, each track anchored by her theremin-like whistle.
Whistler Molly Lewis released her first EP, The Forgotten Edge, which is part tiki-bar exotica and part spaghetti-Western dreamscape, each track anchored by her theremin-like whistle. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES • Molly Lewis lives at the top of a steep hill in East Los Angeles, where a group of feral peafowl roam idly around, as if they own the place.

Peacocks and peahens do not have much of a birdsong - they emit a sharp "caw" that is "not cute", she said - but other birds have found themselves in conversation with the whistler.

"If I'm out walking in the woods and I hear a bird call, I try to mimic it," she said, lamenting that the chats are a little one-sided. "I've probably got a terrible accent in 'bird'."

Humans tend to be more impressed. By her early 20s, Lewis was a veteran of the niche world of competitive whistling. In 2015, she took first prize in the women's live band division at the Masters of Musical Whistling tournament.

These days, she is more focused on Cafe Molly, her lounge show that has become a trendy affair in Los Angeles nightlife. Led by Lewis and her band, the act usually features special guests. John C. Reilly has stopped by to perform Slim Whitman and indie rocker Mac DeMarco has done some Frank Sinatra.

All the while, Lewis, 31, will stand at the mic, pursing her lips when it is time to play her parts.

The show also helped her get a record contract. Scouts for the label Jagjaguwar reached out after attending a Cafe Molly event. And in lockdown, Lewis learnt to play the guitar, which helped her write formal songs.

Last week, she released her first EP, The Forgotten Edge. The set is part tiki-bar exotica and part spaghetti-Western dreamscape, each track anchored by Lewis' theremin-like whistle. "I always felt like we were making soundtracks for lost films," she said.

The EP was named after the colloquial term for her micro-neighbourhood at the top of the peafowl-ridden hill by Dodger Stadium. "It's officially called Victor Heights," she said.

Lewis was born in Sydney and raised in Los Angeles. She comes from an artistically inclined household: Her mother is a music supervisor and her father, a documentary film-maker.

When Lewis took an interest in whistling as a teenager, her parents showed her the 2005 documentary Pucker Up, which goes behind the scenes at the now-defunct International Whistlers Convention in Louisburg, North Carolina.

Not long after, she was competing in Louisburg herself, winning the Whistler Who Travelled the Greatest Distance award in 2012.

She moved to Los Angeles a year later, where whistling gigs of all types, from touring to session work, eventually took over.

The city "just kind of had a spell on me", she said. "But I also think LA is the only place in the world where I can do what I'm doing. I really don't think this would have happened anywhere else."

She gravitates towards the older establishments in the city - places where the food may not be great, but the ambience is.

When asked where she might like to grab a bite to eat, she suggested the Tam O'Shanter, a storybook-style roadhouse in Atwater Village that dates back to 1922.

Within the Tam O'Shanter's lifetime, whistling was a relatively common act in the music world. Artists such as Elmo Tanner and Muzzy Marcellino made careers for themselves with their lips and, in 1967, the whistling song "I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman" became an international hit.

Is the ever-increasing speed of society replacing life's simple pleasures with more complex ones? "I do think, in some sense, it is a lost art in that way," Lewis said of her vocation. But revivalism is not really her goal. And if she remains the only indie-rock whistler for her entire life, that is fine too.

"I want to play beautiful music that makes people feel something. And it so happens whistling is the only thing I can do that allows me entry into the world of musicians."

Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was one of the first major musicians to see the possibilities. In 2016, the two performed a duet of the gospel song Just A Closer Walk With Thee at a concert.

"I've always thought of the voice as a sort of instrument," Karen O said. "Whistling is this other instrument. It's human breath. I was never witness to someone who can whistle like Molly can. It's really extraordinary."

No one around Lewis seems surprised at her ability to make whistling a career, but sometimes even she can't quite believe it. "It's been working for some crazy reason. I'm going to try to ride it. See how it goes."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2021, with the headline 'Indie-rock whistler keeping the art alive'. Subscribe