A professional whistler blows onto the scene

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If you’re a comedian, at some point you’ve gotten the dreaded “Tell me a joke!” from a stranger.

If you think that’s bad, try being a professional whistler. “It happens all the damn time,” said Molly Lewis with a smile. “Sometimes I’ll oblige.”

Molly Lewis’s first album, “On The Lips,” was released Friday. She’s hoping that it can raise the profile of whistling. “People often don’t have a reference for whistle music apart from a jingle or a riff in a bad pop song,” Lewis said. “I think it’s a beautiful instrument and I believe the album does that justice.”

When I spoke with Lewis, it was the morning after the Grammys. She had been invited to an after-party at the Chateau Marmont, where she rubbed elbows with nominees and winners, including Taylor Swift. “I love the Chateau Marmont, even though I’ve only been in the lobby, like once,” Lewis said.

Lewis is still far from an industry insider, but people are beginning to take notice. Her whistled cover of Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For” appeared in the Barbie movie, once in a scene and again during the credits. And her new album is being released by Jagjaguwar, a respected indie label that has put out recordings by the likes of Okkervil River, Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen.

Believe it or not, Lewis brings depth and nuance to a form that is usually cheerful or absent-minded. Still, she’s aware that there’s something novel and kitschy about what she does. There is a knowing, winky David Lynchian patina to her music and her persona.

One of her chief inspirations was Marty & Elayne, the husband-and-wife lounge duo with a cult following in Los Angeles. “They played for 37 years, five nights a week and it was this very special beautiful thing,” Lewis said. “They had great outfits.”

She bristled when this reporter implied that some people didn’t care for Marty & Elayne’s brand of camp. “That person obviously has no taste and no love of life and no sense of humor,” she said with a laugh. “I can’t imagine being that dull.”

Lewis learned to whistle when she was 4 years old. She occasionally fielded compliments from strangers, but hadn’t taken her talent seriously until she saw “Pucker Up,” a 2005 documentary about competitive whistling. She attended the International Whistlers Convention in Louisburg, N.C., in 2012 and has been plying her trade in music clubs ever since.

Lewis’s whistling has brought her to a residency in Mexico and a show in Shanghai, but Los Angeles remains home. “To me, L.A. is a magical place where you can make a living doing wonderful, strange, creative things,” she said. There, she has found a community of show people on the creative fringes, including puppeteers and theremin players.

Starting in 2017, Lewis curated a series of shows called Café Molly at the Los Angeles music club Zebulon that drew the likes of actor John C. Reilly, Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and singer-songwriter Mac DeMarco. She also appeared at an open mic held at Canter’s, a beloved time capsule of a Jewish deli near West Hollywood that feels like walking into the early 1980s, minus a smoking section.

On tour, she would strive to create an atmosphere of louche elegance. “I wanted to make a show that felt like the kind of show I would want to go to,” she said. “Beautiful, loungey, something where you want to get dressed up to go.” This was easier said than done in music clubs with green rooms covered in obscene graffiti.

Now, with “On The Lips,” she wants to bring that experience home. The album comes with instructions on how to enjoy it:

“Mood lighting is a must — the record will not play if you have bad lighting. Splayed on a chaise lounge with eyes closed works too. Light chit-chat between friends or lovers is encouraged. Clinking of crystal glasses makes great additional percussion.”

Best of all: “Silk or velvet should be worn, or alternatively, fully nude always works!”

correction

An earlier version of this article said that Lewis was a native of Los Angeles. She was born in Sydney, Australia, and grew up in Los Angeles. The article has been corrected.

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