Human theremin

Inside Café Molly: Molly Lewis whistles ethereal soundscape odysseys (and John C. Reilly on sax)
By Clementine Zawadzki | Music | 20 July 2021
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Photography by Alexandra Cabral

“My parents showed me a documentary called Pucker Up [Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling – 2005] about the International Whistling Competition and then I found other whistlers online who were professionals and were whistling in a musical capacity – that’s when I realised it was a thing and I could do it.”

Initial fascination piqued, in 2012, Australian-born, LA-based professional whistler Molly Lewis found herself competing at the Competition in Louisburg, North Carolina, taking home the ‘Whistler Who Traveled the Greatest Distance’ award. Since then, she’s honed her craft to progressive levels, crafting otherworldly melodies that float from the musician’s travelling, curated lounge show, Café Molly, where she, accompanied by friends and fans including John C. Reilly, Karen O, Mac DeMarco, blend whistled odysseys with mood lighting and short drinks.

Recently signed to Jagjaguwar, Lewis’ love of film scores and Italian composers meets her self-effacing ‘Aussie’ humour on debut EP The Forgotten Edge; a noir title taken from her neighbourhood that encapsulates the little oasis she created for herself in 2020. Recorded during quarantine with friends and collaborators, Molly let her imagination soar, creating mini soundtracks to films yet to exist.

Clementine Zawadzki: I found a Facebook post from 2011 where you wrote to enter the International Whistlers Convention. First of all, did you get to go that year?
Molly Lewis: Wow, the Internet really doesn’t hide anything [laughs]. I didn’t go that year, but I actually went in 2012. I made it to Louisburg, North Carolina, which was an adventure. I remember posting to a Facebook whistler forum of some sort and I also found some whistlers on YouTube that I followed, but I spent my high school years in Mullumbimby [NSW, Australia] I mean, not that if I had been anywhere else I would’ve had a big whistling community around me, but I didn’t know where to go to talk to another whistler. One of the good things about the Internet is the weird community that you can be a part of and communicate with people of all types.

“I don’t have lyrics, I don’t have words to guide the way…”

CZ: Where did your fascination with whistling come from?
ML: I remember being fascinated but it was something I couldn’t do for a while… I remember just working really hard to make sounds. When I finally did, I loved it. I guess the fascination grew when I found out about the whistling community. This wasn’t something I was working towards or thought I could get into. My parents showed me a documentary called Pucker Up [Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling – 2005] about the International Whistling Competition, and then I found other whistlers online who were professionals and were whistling in a musical capacity – that’s when I realised it was a thing and I could do it.

CZ: It seems like a secret community you wouldn’t necessarily know as a profession unless you were practicing this skill…
ML: Yeah, there are all types; there’s professional yodellers, professional Theremin players, people who have taken skills to the next level and that’s where I’ve gone with whistling. It is interesting, because I do meet a lot of people who can’t do it at all, but I think it’s a combination of having the talent, but also practice. I’ve been whistling a lot – 20 years or more – so I’ve honed the skill. There are certain notes I couldn’t hit, but now I can… it’s a lot of learning about breath and where to place breath, and learning about music.

Photography by Alexandra Cabral

CZ: Have you ever worked with lyrics?
ML: Whistling was the gateway to music for me. I grew up playing the piano, but I wasn’t a trained musician, so working with bands and doing sessions where I’m supposed to improvise, this has all been something I’ve learned a lot about over the years just from being thrown into it. I always loved music; it’s been my favourite art form and something I’ve been moved by my whole life, but I never really thought I was good enough to participate as a musician. I knew I didn’t have training and it all seemed very mysterious and difficult to me. So learning how to write songs has been a new process, but I make up melodies, and little voice memos of melodies and I’ll go home and record them. I collaborate with a lot of musicians and I’ve been learning guitar to help me with chords. I love working with other musicians, and seeing how far the whistle can go in different genres and capacities.

CZ: And you’ve also studied film…
ML: Yeah, I did Film Studies at the University of Sydney. I love cinema and I moved to LA to work in film. My plan was not to move to LA and take the whistle world by storm…that was an afterthought [laughs]

CZ: I find it interesting because your songs are these soundscapes. How do you build a story or imagine a scene in your head when writing songs?
ML: That’s a great question. I do think my love of film has played into the kind of music that I want to create. My favourite music is soundtrack music, and I think it is because it’s mostly instrumental music that tells stories and conveys characters through sounds. I don’t have lyrics, I don’t have words to guide the way, but I like the way the music feels emotive. With each song, I think about the world that it belongs to. I feel like the songs are soundtracks for films that don’t exist and belong to different realms.

“I feel like the songs are soundtracks for films that don’t exist and belong to different realms.”

CZ: What’s your favourite film soundtrack?
ML: Oh gosh, I have so many! The one that influenced me the most was actually The Lord of the Rings soundtrack by Howard Shore. This is going way back, when I was twelve, I heard the soundtrack and fell in love with this music. I wrote him two letters and he never responded… that’s how smitten I was, I was so enthralled. It would make me cry listening to it at night and I could imagine all the scenes. That led me to learning about other film composers and getting into other types of soundtracks. I love Vangelis, Blade Runner soundtrack… a lot of my big influences these days are Italian composers of the 60s and 70s like Ennio Morricone, Piero Umiliani and Alessandro Alessandroni, I feel like their more in line with the music I’m trying to make, not The Lord of the Rings stuff. That was formative.

CZ: How about your favourite storytellers? How do your roots at home in Australia and then the home you’ve built for yourself in LA feed into building a narrative?
ML: I mean, Australians have a great sense of humour. I have a sense of humour about what I’m doing, I don’t take myself too seriously, and I think that plays into this Australian heritage. I’d like to think that comes across. My Dad is a documentarian [Mark Lewis] so this is my family; I was kind of raised around my Dad exploring very niche worlds of interesting, weird people. I’m in the professional whistling scene, I don’t know if that’s a coincidence.

CZ: You’d meet many characters, I’m sure…
ML: Oh big time! It feels like Christopher Guest movie come to life, such a strange world.

“…a lot of my big influences these days are Italian composers of the 60s and 70s like Ennio Morricone, Piero Umiliani and Alessandro Alessandroni…”

CZ: Tell me about your Café Molly events, because I presume they’ve evolved quite a bit over time?
ML: They have. The first time I put a band together was for a tribute night to this great Italian composer who had died, Alessandro Alessandroni. He’s a whistler as well as a multi-instrumentalist, and I admired his music greatly and thought it would be a good way to perform these songs that I’ve listened to all the time live. A lot of people came and we had a lot of feedback that you don’t get to see music like this live. I didn’t know so many people also loved this soundtrack, lounge music. So it became a regular thing. I know a lot of great musicians in LA, session players who were down to play with me. I also kind of wanted to put on the show I’d want to go to. I’d go to a lot of rock shows, but it’s not often you get to sit down and sip a martini while there’s a band playing. Over the years we’ve had special guests, like Mac DeMarco did a Frank Sinatra song one night with the band. It’s always different and a lot of fun.

CZ: It sounds like the events involve a really eclectic mix of artists…
ML: Yeah, and I feel like what’s been interesting about being a whistler, I’ve been given opportunities to perform at a lot of eclectic events. Whistling transcends music in some ways, like I have worked in the magic world before, and people respond to it in a way that’s been interesting. I try to curate it in a classy fashion, you know, there’s no hacky sacks or street performers, it’s a classy evening.

CZ: Speaking about an eclectic mix, John C. Reilly is one of the first people that spring to mind. Now, did the roller skating group start before or after collaborating on music?
ML: It was actually before. We met at a music event that was a tribute night to Harry Dean Stanton. I was there doing a song with Karen O, and we met and hit it off. He was a big fan and we kept in touch. He’s a great roller skater, which was very fun. We’ve known each other for years now and he’s a great musician who’s always been down to collaborate in different ways. He’s a cool guy.

CZ: And I saw a photo of you with Dr. Dre on Instagram…
ML: Yes, me and the Doc! [laughs] That’s definitely one of the most interesting sessions I’ve ever done and it was an honour. I’m a big fan, so… Dr. Dre, call me.

CZ: You’re about to release our debut EP The Forgotten Edge. Has this been a long ambition of yours?
ML: I have been whistling my whole life, and in 2012 that was the first competition I went to, but it was also the first time ever I was on a stage. I was so nervous I was physically sick. It’s taken me a very long time to get used to doing what I’m now doing. In the last few years I’ve definitely wanted to release some music and do some recording, but last year I got involved with Jagjaguwar, so that was impetus to record, but the pandemic… usually I’m travelling a lot or getting distracted by things, but I was in LA for a year, stuck at home, so I started recording with Thomas Brenneck, this great producer. He’s the brother-in-law of my best friend, and she introduced us and said we have to make music together. We did and it was a saviour to my year as well. Everything just felt so doom and gloom, and we’d go to the studio and make some dreamy, exotica lounge, and then get out of it and feel like, “What are we doing?” [laughs]

CZ: Going back to that idea of storytelling, music videos are also a great means to express that creativity. Tell me about the video for Oceanic Feeling
ML: Yes, music videos have always been something I’m very excited to do because it provides the visuals to the world I feel like I’m building with the music. I have a lot of friends who work in the film world, and there’s this great Cinematographer Drew Bienemann who was always like, “Let me know if you ever want to make something.” He was able to borrow a great camera and his friend had a studio we could use, and my best friend Alex Constable is a Production Designer and he was just so excited to build the set I was dreaming up. If you knew the budget and what the place looked like where we were filming, you’d be shocked. It came out in such an incredible cinematic way because of these people, my friends who made it a reality.

CZ: Why does The Forgotten Edge represent this collection of songs?
ML: The Forgotten Edge is what my neighbourhood is called. I’ve always loved this name because it’s always sounded like such a great noir title. I felt it also encapsulated where I’ve been this past year, just sitting in my apartment at the forgotten edge, dreaming up these ideas. It’s so mysterious and intriguing.

CZ: What would you say to any aspiring whistlers out there?
ML: I’d say rack off, this is my game. This town ain’t big enough for the both of us [laughs]. Basically that, but also if you do like doing it, just keep on practising songs you love.

Follow Molly Lewis on Instagram

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