Molly Lewis whistled for Dr. Dre and 'Barbie.' Now she's puckered up for stardom

August Brown, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES — A few years ago, Molly Lewis walked into Dr. Dre's recording studio and accidentally roasted him.

Lewis, an L.A.-raised musician and composer, is renowned for her otherworldly whistling. She'd cultivated it for years among L.A.'s avant-garde, and one of Dre's collaborators found her and brought her in to cut a track.

She recalled Dre whistling a part himself to guide her, and Lewis gently ribbed him — "I told him 'I think you should stick to producing,' and everyone in the room started absolutely dying laughing, including Dre," she recalled. "I didn't think it was that good of a joke, but once he left the room, they said 'You do realize that's a line from Ice Cube's diss track about Dre?"

"They were all shell-shocked I'd referenced that, but it was totally unintentional!" Lewis insisted, very Larry David-ishly. "It was an unintentional diss!"

Lewis' extraordinary talent in a very niche field has taken her to unlikely places, from Dr. Dre's studio to covering Billie Eilish on the "Barbie" soundtrack. It's all culminated in "On the Lips," her February debut LP.

"Lips" is a sly wink at midcentury jazz and exotica, mood music that's more moving than you might expect. It will probably put her in front of much bigger audiences that don't know what her ubiquitous yet unexpected instrument is capable of.

"When people ask me what I do, I say I'm a musician, and then I brace myself because we have to get into an hourlong conversation about whistling," Lewis said. "Most people don't even think of it as an instrument. But I'm just so used to this being my career I've forgotten that a lot of people have never heard of this before."

In late February, Lewis met up for martinis at the Westin Bonaventure's revolving rooftop bar in downtown L.A., famous for 360-degree views and swanky concrete brutalism.

Lewis loves preserved-in-amber places in L.A. She grew up here (her dad, Mark Lewis, is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker), and fell in love with spots like the Dresden Room and Musso & Frank, where she became close pals with bartender Sonny Donato (he inspired a song, "Sonny," on her new LP.)

"The bartenders there could smell the fear of a newbie," Lewis laughed. "But I love L.A. history like that. Compared to Europe, 100 years old is not that old, but Musso's just about the oldest thing L.A.'s got. Every time you go there, some waiter will tell you, 'Oh, that's Lauren Bacall's favorite seat' or 'That was Charlie Chaplin's booth.'"

A few nights earlier, she joined the music history that passed through the Troubadour. Her headline set showcased her whistling as an elegant, virtuosic instrument, punctuated with costume changes and self-aware Catskills shtick. She deadpanned a whole bit where her magical lip-gloss bestowed her whistling abilities on a random crowd member. (He was a plant.) Introducing her song "Miracle Fruit," she dryly noted, "This is a protest song, so you might call me a … whistle-blower," to groans of appreciation.

Lewis said that she came to whistling as a side-door to songwriting. "Music was a big part of my life, but I didn't feel like I was a musician," she said. "I had this particular skill set that I adapted to, where I could participate in music in a way that I couldn't with any other instrument I tried."

She worshiped the Dresden Room's residents Marty and Elayne, and pined for a similar classy intimacy at shows. "My grand idea was when (Ennio Morricone collaborator) Alessandro Alessandroni died, he was my whistling hero," Lewis said. "Zebulon had just opened. A lot of people came — I didn't know how many other people liked this music, but I also realized that people had never seen this music performed live before with this very specific instrument."

With one ear toward Morricone-style melodrama and another on underground experiments (she's one of the artists who greet you at Dublab's new LAX installation), she cultivated an unusually fervent word-of-mouth fandom. Her onstage act, with different intentions, could land as a Vegas lounge gig, but it instead buzzed through the L.A. art-rock scene. At Zebulon, she hosted a long-running series, "Cafe Molly," that brought her into the orbits of collaborators like Karen O, Caroline Polachek, Mac DeMarco and John C. Reilly.


"It's pretty rare what she's up to, there aren't a lot of whistlers in the Rolodex you can call," said Thomas Brenneck, Lewis' longtime collaborator who produced "On the Lips." "I remember the first time I saw her at Zebulon, it was very otherworldly but her stage persona is incredibly charming. It's performance art, but she also cracks jokes."

Word of her talents reached producer Mark Ronson, who flew her to New York to track an alternate version of Billie Eilish and Finneas' Grammy-winning "What Was I Made For?" on the "Barbie" soundtrack. "Mark and Andrew (Wyatt) had this very 1930s orchestral arrangement, and I just had to whistle this melody that was already so gorgeous," Lewis said. "A total dream to play on something so evocative that was such a big moment in pop culture."

Director Greta Gerwig was so taken with Lewis' music that her family booked her to whistle at Gerwig's 40th birthday. "She's just done so much and she's such a humble, lovely lady," Lewis said. But perhaps the most meaningful moment in her whistling career came when Donato, a longtime friend of "Twin Peaks" actor Harry Dean Stanton, asked her to perform for Stanton in hospice care in 2017.

"I whistled a few of his favorite songs, which Sonny told me were 'Danny Boy' and ' Just a Closer Walk With Thee.' I was like, 'Sonny, geez, does he like any happier songs?" Lewis said. "But he was still himself, he was asking the nurse for a cigarette. When we left, Sonny and I held each other in the elevator and cried. I'm honored to have met him in one small way."

Lewis has released a few EPs through the acclaimed indie label Jagjaguwar (home to Bon Iver and Angel Olsen), but with "Lips," she has a definitive statement of her rare and delightful craft. Tracks like "Lounge Lizard" and "Crushed Velvet" have the gentle class of Chet Baker (one of Lewis' heroes) and feel as welcoming as a sunken conversation pit in the living room. Some, like a sashaying cover of Jeanette's "Porque Te Vas," are impeccably stylish, others like "The Crying Game" are implacably melancholy.

She's assembled a zippy, bossa nova-infused band to build out her productions, but it's all in service of her whistling acrobatics, which she deploys with effortless charm.

"I'd love it if someone wants to close their eyes and bask in it, but I also love it if someone wants to put it on at a dinner party and it's background music," Lewis said. "I'm not precious that way."

"It's probably not going to top the Billboard Hot 100," Brenneck said about "On the Lips." "But it will get the attention of a lot of music supervisors. I'd love it if this record can get her more into scoring work, or doing interesting performances. Her art really deserves it."

"Lips" does arrive at an unusually potent moment for avant-garde wind instruments. André 3000's "New Blue Sun" became an unexpected hit for its wild and woolly flute experiments (and yielded the longest song to reach the Billboard Hot 100, "I Swear, I Really Wanted To Make a 'Rap' Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time"). Shabaka, the acclaimed U.K. saxophonist behind Sons of Kemet and the Comet Is Coming, also has a flute-driven album "Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace" coming out in April.

Lewis was drolly skeptical about wind instruments having a breakthrough. "I'm very out of the loop with what's cool in music, and I'm obviously not making music for the purpose of being on trend," she said, laughing. "But yeah, I do hope wind instruments are hot for 2024."

If whistling is the indeed new flute this year, L.A. will have to swoon from afar. Lewis is moving to New York this month, a last-minute change of scenery she felt was needed after a decade in L.A.

"I've been obsessed with L.A., it's influenced everything I've done," Lewis said. "But I've been cheating with New York in the last couple of years. I think it's just nice to be somewhere new. I think I've started to finally get sick of cars."

As the Bonaventure's bar took another lap around downtown L.A.'s skyscrapers, she admitted that it'll be hard to leave the city that enabled her odd talent to flourish. "It does feel a little wild for me to want to leave L.A., but I think we need a break," she said. "Maybe. I'll probably be back."

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