Molly Lewis on capturing the magic of a whistle

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Molly Lewis on capturing the magic of a whistle

Molly Lewis
Words by Lewis Noke Edwards

We've all had a crack at whistling, but beyond that, our skills are pretty lacklustre. There's something very human about the whistle, an instrument we all have access to, and Molly Lewis has honed her craft since she was young.

The new single “Lounge Lizard” is out now, a precursor to the album On The Lips, available on February 16 2024. Having been featured on the new Barbie film soundtrack, as well as slowly building her own repertoire of originals, we spoke to Molly about the reality of being a professional whistler.

Molly, thanks for taking the time! For those unacquainted, who are you and what do you do?

Hello! Thanks for having me. I’m a musician… my main instrument is the human whistle. I’m a professional whistler. It’s hard to explain, because I know you might not understand what that means until you hear it. I have a lot of explaining to do when people ask me what I do. 

When did your love for whistling begin?

It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a child. I loved it because it was an instrument that I could wield well. I grew up playing piano but it was something I never felt very adept in. Being a good whistler enabled me to participate in music in a way that made me feel I could do the music some justice. I could perform arias from operas, or Patsy Cline songs… or any number of pieces I loved, and it felt blissful to be able to soar into that melodic realm.

How does writing begin for someone like you? Are you demoing songs yourself and then recording them at a studio?

I love the Voice Notes app on my phone. I have hundreds of voice notes. I’ll get melodies in my head and I’ll whistle them into the app in the hopes that later when I’m home or at the studio I’ll remember them and save them from Voice Note purgatory.

How complete are songs when you get to the studio?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with the producer Tom Brenneck at his studio in Los Angeles and it’s always a very relaxed and intuitive process. Every song is different… sometimes they’re created in the studio with the musicians who happen to be there at the time. Some of them are demos that Tom brought to me, or that he and I wrote together.

A few times I’ve brought in very basic demos of just guitar and whistle. But in all cases the songs really get fleshed out and take shape during the recording process. 

What is your live rig like? Have you got effects available to effect your whistle live or is there more to it?

Well, I always say “reverb is my middle name”! So – I like sauce.

But besides that, it’s usually just me and the mic. A Shure 57 or 58 does the trick live. I recently bought a little pedal, a TC Helicon echo and delay. I’ve been experimenting with using it live at certain times in the set… it’s fun, but I use it sparingly. 

How did your work on the Barbie movie come about? Were they looking for a whistler specifically or is there another part to the story?

I was in the studio working with Tom on my upcoming album. Tom had just been in NYC to record with Mark Ronson on the Barbie score, and he told me that Mark had asked for my number and to “expect an interesting phone call”.

Mark Ronson

OK! So – Mark called and he said they had a part in the score that he thought would work beautifully as a whistle. He needed Greta Gerwig to sign off on the idea, so I recorded a sample and sent them an audition of the tune. The next day they flew me out to NYC to record it properly. A high flying gig! Was so much fun to record the beautiful melody over a full orchestral track – made me quite emotional. 

What does your warm up routine look like?

I don’t! I just practice the song to myself. I try not to think too much about it. It’s something for me like billiards or bowling that goes haywire when you start to think too much about it. But practicing the song helps my body to learn and understand the music, and to know when to take the time to pause, or breathe. 

Thanks for your time, for someone looking to get into whistling, where is a good place to start?

I made a whole list of links on my website that I think are interesting aspects of the whistle world. From transcendental whistling, to whistle languages, to my hero Geert Chatrou, there are a lot of fascinating resources that will take you further into the whistle realm than you probably thought you would ever go. The last link on the site is for the documentary “Pucker Up” – it’s about the International Whistling Competition and it’s a wild ride. Seeing it as a kid got me into this whole mess! I highly recommend. 

Keep up with Molly here.