When Molly Lewis opened a string of shows for Kirin J Callinan's recent world tour, the LA-based Australian demonstrated the difference between a party trick and a hidden talent. It's the same thing every time you're at one of Lewis's shows, the crowd cycling through the same motions: There's the initial surprise, then the mood turns tense because everyone is waiting for her to fuck up, lose pitch, or take a misplaced breath.
After two minutes of perfectly sustained control with no signs of faltering, a palpable ease settles over the audience. She's got this. As Callinan told the Melbourne Pavilion audience, "When you see her whistling, you can't help but smile." And Callinan isn't the only one. Musicians from Connan Mockasin to Blood Orange's Dev Hynes are lining up to collaborate with her.
It was watching the documentary Pucker Up, a dive into the strange world of the International Whistlers Convention (IWC), that first piqued Lewis's interest in professional whistling.
Last year, Lewis—who's known professionally as Whistler's Sista—competed at IWC, the world's foremost whistling competition, and took home the champion's trophy, cementing her place as the world's best whistler.
We got Lewis on the phone for a chat.
VICE: Your performances have all the presence of a professional musician—somewhere between a solo flautist and a vocalist. How did you get so good?
Molly Lewis: Thank you! I was given piano lessons and exposed to lots of music, but whistling was never encouraged or nourished in any particular way. I never met anyone who was interested in it or could do it like I could, so I just practiced by myself. Whistling for me used to be a really solitary thing. I think performing and collaborating has helped me gain confidence. People react better to seeing a performance. If I try and explain what I do verbally, people don't get what it is until they see it done.
Can you sing?
No! I can't sing at all, and people always assume I can because I can whistle well. I bring all the whistling qualities into singing rather than the other way round. Lots of unneeded vibrato.
What excites you most about your instrument?
It's unique, it can work beautifully with other instruments, and I love to perform it, because it lets me take part in music that I love.
Whistling has an interesting musical history. There were some professional whistlers in the vaudeville era. In La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands of Spain, a whistle language is still used. Do you communicate with your whistle? It can be expressive. The song I open my whistle show with is "Queen of the Night Aria" from The Magic Flute. It's powerful and dynamic, so I have to whistle almost angrily.
How do you prepare for a whistle show?
Fortunately, I don't have a lot of equipment or scales to practice. I whistle near constantly, though out of habit, so I consider that my practice. Before I competed in the Whistling Competition, though, I wrote to my whistling idol, Geert Chatrou asking how to prepare. I was not really expecting a response, but he replied!
What did he say?
"Always stay hydrated, and never forget your chapstick." What advice would you yourself give other whistle enthusiasts?
I'd just tell them I firmly believe in the whistle as a musical instrument. That I often have people laugh and dismiss it, but I'm excited for the future of whistling. Unfortunately, I find whistling seems to be mostly used in gimmicky ways, and not to its full potential as an instrument.
I'd encourage people to try new applications. For all it's limitations, it's still the most portable instrument and one I can practice in public without being "that guy with a guitar." It's not too in people's faces to walk around whistling to yourself, but I much prefer collaborating with other musicians.
Check out Lewis's stuff at Soundcloud.