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Molly Lewis Wants to Change Your Perception of Whistling on Her Debut Album

The Australian-born star tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ about mood music, borrowing Mac DeMarco’s guitar, and getting a DM from Dr. Dre

Molly Lewis

Shervin Lainez

In red sequins and a matching trench coat, armed with Chapstick, Molly Lewis opened The Others Way Festival at Pitt St Church in Auckland with old Hollywood glamour.

Her instrument of choice? A unique and enchanting whistle—a magical bird-like melody that effortlessly flowed from her exceptionally gifted vocal pipes.

Returning after four years, the Australian-born, Los Angeles-based whistling sensation wasn’t a stranger to Aotearoa either. “In fact, it’s my 21st show here,” she shared with the enraptured audience, promptly seated in pews for the highly-anticipated set.

Lit by coloured lights on the well-worn carpeted floor, Lewis reminisced about her 2018 tour with none other than Crowded House’s Neil and Liam Finn, covering small towns from Paekākāriki to Waipu, probably seeing more parts of New Zealand than some local bands.

“You know, whistling wasn’t something I thought I’d ever be doing all the way in New Zealand,” Lewis chuckled, taking a sip of her matcha latte inside a quiet cafe on Lorne Street before her set. “But, you know, as I often joke, you don’t choose the whistle – the whistle chooses you.”

The 33-year-old music virtuoso, originally from Sydney but having spent the last decade in Los Angeles (with her family continuing to reside in Mullumbimby near Byron Bay), still finds it surreal to contemplate her unexpected life path, collaborating with big names like Dr. Dre and Karen O.

Lewis’ parents noticed her early talent for whistling, gifting her Broadway and Beyond by Steve “The Whistler” Herbst, a seasoned New York whistling champion, inspiring her to pursue the unusual talent. By her early 20s, she had entered and won the Masters of Musical Whistling in 2015, setting the stage for her later success.

Thriving in LA’s vibrant nightlife, Lewis became a regular at shows by Marty and Elayne, the legendary lounge duo at Dresden bar. While running Café Molly, her quirky lounge show featuring guests like John C. Reilly and Mac DeMarco, she ventured into session musicianship, laying down a whistle part for Dr. Dre.

“His producer Fredwreck DM’d me and said Dr. Dre needed some dope whistles. I was like, ‘I can dope whistle!’” Lewis recalled. “I listened to Dre’s beats to practise improvising. In the end, they just wanted a Western whistle. I really wanted to do a riff on a beat!” 

All of this caught the attention of Jagjaguwar, a label home to indie stars like Angel Olsen, Bon Iver, and Sharon Van Etten. Under this banner, she released two ample EPs, The Forgotten Edge and Mirage, accompanied by cinematic music videos. In the past year alone, she collaborated with super producers Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt for the Barbie movie soundtrack, worked with fashion houses like Chanel, and toured with US singer-songwriter Weyes Blood. 

“I’ve been very inspired by the creative city of LA,” Lewis admitted. “It’s a place where these kinds of freaks can thrive; you can be someone who can make a career out of a niche talent. I have friends who are puppeteers or even theremin players.” 

Next February, she’ll release her debut album, On the Lips, produced with Thomas Brenneck (Menahan Street Band, Charles Bradley), evoking classic Hollywood jazz clubs and Italian cinema soundtracks. The 10-track album features musicians like Nick Hakim, Brazilian guitarist Rogê, Chicano soul group Thee Sacred Souls, and members of BADBADNOTGOOD.

Picture smoky rooms, sipping ice-cold martinis on plush velvet seats — that’s the mood Lewis wants. She insists on good lighting, instructing “the record won’t play with bad lighting,” and takes pride in dimming lights as needed. “I was at a wedding recently where the lights were too bright, I was running around trying to find the switch so everybody could relax a bit more!”

Lewis composed many of the new songs herself during the pandemic, recording voice notes on her phone while cruising around Pasadena, or tinkering with guitar tunes as she learned to play. Mac DeMarco, a friend, pitched in by offering her a guitar as he was parting with, to which Lewis jokingly responded, “I was like, of course I want one, give me another for eBay, and can you sign it?”

Crafting her music collaboratively, Lewis welcomed musicians dropping by the studio with an ‘open door’ policy. Brenneck, the producer, played a pivotal role in boosting her confidence. “It took a long time to feel confident writing my own music because I didn’t study music,” she acknowledged. “But I’d show one of my little ditties to Tom, and he’d be like, yeah, we’ll put a bridge here and a saxophone solo there, and help me flesh out some of these ideas into real songs.”

Taking cues from legendary Italian composers like Alessandro Alessandroni, famed for his transcendent whistle, Lewis wants to change the overall perception of whistling in music. “People hear whistling and they think it’s annoying or shrill or twee. It’s often done in a very ear-wormy kind of way that doesn’t necessarily highlight the instrument. It can be really beautiful and soulful.” 

Back at Pitt St Church, Lewis’ sultry jazz tunes, witty stage banter and kitsch dance moves, truly captivated. Brandishing a trusty Chapstick, she wrapped up her set with a wink: “You know, people always ask me how I got so good at whistling… it’s this Molly Lewis special edition Chapstick. Give it a try, you too can whistle like me.”

Molly Lewis’ On the Lips releases on February 16th via Jagjaguwar (pre-save here) .