Got a Girl Crush On: Molly Lewis aka Whistler’s Sista

A conversation between Molly Lewis and Gaea Woods Los Angeles, CA Photographs and audio by Gaea Woods

Gaea Woods: When did you first become interested in whistling? Molly Lewis: I tried to whistle when I was young and I remember distinctly really wanting to know how. But I guess I got more interested in the whole world of whistling when I was in elementary school after seeing a documentary called, “Pucker Up” about the International Whistling Competition. I realized it was a subculture of music and got interested in it from there. My dad is very interested in strange subcultures and he seemed to cultivate this interest in me. He bought me a CD for my birthday one year of Broadway show tunes whistled by then World Champion - Steve “The Whistler” Herbst. It was also my dad who told me that if I ever got in, he would take me to the International Whistling Competition. I ended up getting in….so we went there together in 2012.

GW: What was that like? ML: It was amazing. 80 whistlers, 9 countries, 4 days… and it was all held in the very small town of Louisburg, North Carolina. The local high school auditorium housed the event, and there were a few different rounds - classical competition and popular competition. I had never been to anything like that before, let alone met another whistler, so I was loving the whole scene, but also just really nervous to be whistling on a stage for the first time.

GW: Once you had your initial whistling inspiration did you teach yourself or did you have a whistling teacher? ML: I taught myself… but I didn’t have much choice! I used to take piano lessons and I remember asking my piano teacher if she could help me with my whistling and she had no idea how to help. I never met anyone who was interested in it or could do it like I could, so I just practiced a lot on my own. Before I went to the International Whistling Competition though I wrote to my whistling idol, Geert Chatrou, to try to get some advice from him. I was nervous–writing to this great whistler–not expecting a response, but he replied and offered me some great advice. For example: always stay hydrated and never forget your chapstick.

GW: Watching you perform is incredibly moving. It’s as though you’re tapping into a deep emotional place. Is accessing an emotional or intuitive place within yourself a part of the work, or do you view your performances as more of a regimented skill and the emotional component just happens naturally? ML: Both I guess…Performing whistling is quite hard. Naturally I smile and laugh a lot and recognize how funny the idea of a professional whistler can be. I know that if I’m not concentrating and I look at the people watching me perform then I might laugh, so I’ve had to teach myself to be quite present within the whistle. I think the emotional aspect just happens naturally because if I’m whistling something I love it’s a great feeling to be able to perform a piece of music in that way, I’m sure its the same way any musician feels when they feel that kind of control over their instrument. 

GW: And it must also be rewarding that it’s an instrument that in a way you’ve created. It’s almost this thing you get to have ownership over as yours, even if you’re performing to a scripted piece of music. As though you’re creating a new application or layer to the music that’s unique to you.

ML: Yea, it’s always nice to hear it come out that way. It is unique, which is what makes it special, though I don’t think the whistle is the best instrument. I think it can work beautifully amongst other instruments, or in the same haunting way a theremin can be used. Or, in a performative aspect–when it becomes about the speciality of the sound and the act. But, for example, I don’t really think anyone should actually listen to a CD of whistled covers of opera. I love to perform it, because it lets me take part in music that I love. And I think seeing it performed is sometimes vital, because I know many people don’t get what it is or might not even be able to place the sound until they see it done. For musical uses, I think the role of the whistle is special but limited. It is beautiful and mystical but it has its own applications. However I find in a lot of music unfortunately whistling seems to be mostly used in gimmicky ways, and not to its full potential as an instrument.

“ I don’t really think anyone should actually listen to a CD of whistled covers of opera. I love to perform it, because it lets me take part in music that I love.”

GW: Your hands move so elegantly as you perform, can you discuss how their movements play a role in your performance?

ML: Its nice of you to say that, because I actually got penalized at the International Whistling Competition for too much hand movement! They were strict in those ways. I don’t really know what the hand movements are about, I guess they act for me as some way of conducting the sound.

GW: Do you perform mostly classical pieces of music?

ML: I can do anything from Nicki Minaj’s Truffle Butter to…

GW: (laughs)

ML: You should hear me in the car! I do like performing classical pieces a lot because they’re the most impressive. With whistling you’re trying to pick a song that’s beautiful and shows off range and really transports it from what most people think it is. But I can whistle anything within range…I love whistling Patsy Cline.

GW: From a musical perspective, do you have to practice scales?

ML: No I don’t have to practice anything like that. I whistle a lot just for fun when I’m walking around, or at home, and I feel like that’s my practice. If I’m about to perform something specific though I will practice it a lot beforehand. Even if I know the song well, practicing it a lot helps me to get my breathing right. I whistle breathing both in and out, so sometimes have to make sure that certain notes occur when I am breathing out as that breath produces stronger notes for me.

GW: So you can just hear it when it’s right and resonates with the music correctly?

ML: Luckily I have a very good ear for music. I can’t read music so I couldn’t tell you that’s a “B” note for example but if I hear something I can whistle it straight away. It’s very lucky!

GW: What strikes me most about your performances is the contrast between whistling existing as a fun and silly activity, and the sheer seriousness with which you’ve devoted to it. It’s so surprising, wild even. Was there a shift that happened as you begun to delve into practicing your whistling where you realized that this skill could exist in a realm that was deeper than its original playful context? 

ML: That realization happened quite slowly and it’s only recently that I’ve fully come to it. I kind of went to the International Whistling Competition as a joke, I mean I thought I could do well, but it was also just an excuse for a funny adventure. But now…I have definitely come to see it as a unique and special instrument that can also be used in different and beautiful ways. And I know some musicians who appreciate it that way too.

GW: So it was a gradual realization

ML: Yes exactly. But now I’m like, “Shit, I’m a whistler, how did that happen!?”

GW: Do you have a special bond with birds because of your mutual abilities?

ML: I’m very interested in bird songs as a form of music and language. If you listen to slowed down bird songs they sound incredible. And there are things I’ve been wanting to do musically with bird songs. Actually, a few weeks ago I spoke to a bird!

GW: Really!? Whoa. Tell me about it!

ML: I was lying in bed and I heard a bird out the window go: (she whistles a tune) and so I went (she whistles the same tune again), and then it did it back. My heart was beating, and I couldn’t believe it, and I did it back, and it did it back! Then it changed its song and I changed my whistle to match. We changed like 3 times!

GW: Was the bird leading the transitions?

ML: Yea… it was leading (laughs)

GW: There’s got to be a leader in every relationship (laughs)

ML: Exactly. I was letting it lead though (laughs)…It went on for so long that I eventually burst out laughing with joy for how cool it was!

GW: So do you prefer whistling by yourself or with others? Birds, people etc?

ML: I prefer working with other musicians. I love whistling but I feel like my musical abilities aren’t strong enough to use whistling in the best possible way so I love whistling amongst other instruments. Unless it’s in a performance where the whistle is the main thing.

GW: Do you have any other whistling related projects on the horizon?

ML: There’s a lot that I want to do with whistling. There’s a place in the Canary Islands called La Gomera where they have a language of whistling. I would love to go there and learn the language and incorporate a language of whistle into music.

GW: So there are specific whistles for different words?

ML: Yea, there are 4,000 words of whistle! I would love to be able to use whistles in song that can then be translated - though I think I need to go there first. Unfortunately I have not been able to find any whistlers of the language in Los Angeles.

GW: That sounds amazing

ML: Yes, there are a lot of plans! And things get more exciting the more musicians I meet who are intrigued to use the whistle. I just recently got back from New York where I did a bit of whistling on a track for the new Blood Orange album. Dev Hynes is a big fan of whistling - and we’d been talking about a lot of whistle ideas for awhile, so it was wonderful to finally be able to work together. LA composer Maxwell Sterling and I have plans for an ambient whistle album, and just recently the trio Dessert got me to improvise some whistles over a couple tracks of theirs. It’s been fun working with various people and seeing how they all incorporate whistling differently.

GW: Wow, that’s exciting!

ML: I know! It is. It seems there are some good things to come in the world of whistling…

GW: I can’t wait to hear all about it. Thanks so much for talking with me and whistling for me Molly, it was a pleasure!

ML: Thank you!!