Singer/songwriter/ukulele player Molly Lewis is only 20 years old, but she has talent and maturity that defy her young age. And thanks to modern technology and the support of her fellow musicians, she’s making a name for herself very, very quickly.
Born and raised in Orange County, Calif., a stone’s throw away from Disneyland, Lewis began playing music at a young age with the help and encouragement of her mother, also a musician. Her first musical heroes were progressive acoustic trio Nickel Creek, who inspired her to play guitar, the first in a long series of instruments.
“I sort of went along this really bizarre daisy chain of instruments before I arrived at ukulele. First, I played guitar. And then, I thought [Nickel Creek’s] mandolin player, Chris Thile, was dreamy, so I picked up mandolin in emulation. And that didn’t work,” Lewis said in an interview. “And then, for my middle-school graduation, I was really into Steve Martin at that point, so I asked for a banjo. And that also didn’t work.”
A stint on accordion (inspired by They Might Be Giants and “Weird” Al Yankovic) followed, before Lewis settled on her primary instrument — the ukulele. It was on its tiny strings that she took her first, unknowing steps toward Internet fame.
“I think it was my junior year of high school, I played my school talent show with my ukulele,” Lewis said. “The whole thing went over really, really great, because there’s no crowd you’ll ever play for that’s more forgiving than your own high school.”
Friends who couldn’t be at the show asked her to bring her instrument to school, so she could show them her performance. She responded by posting a video of herself performing one of the songs — “Toxic” by Britney Spears — on YouTube. Before she knew what happened, a friend posted it to Digg.com and her cover went viral, racking up over 300,000 hits.
She had also posted a brief snippet of herself performing comic musician Jonathan Coulton’s song “Tom Cruise Crazy.” “That footage sneaked its way back to Jonathan,” Lewis said. “He said, ‘Oh yeah! She seems really talented, I wish I could hear the whole thing…’ And I’m like, ‘Aww!’ And I clamored, like, ‘Jonathan wants it, I will give Jonathan a whole version of his song, if he beckons for it!’”
That video also became a hit, inspiring Lewis to post more songs, covering a wide range of artists — The Beatles, Patsy Cline, Radiohead, Lady Gaga. Then, she began posting her own songs: a hilarious tribute to MySpace’s increasing obscurity called “MyHope,” and “Road Trip,” inspired by the strange tale of love-struck astronaut Lisa Nowak, whose cross-country trip to confront her rival made headlines.
“Before I even had an inkling that I would write songs one day, I heard that story and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this woman needs a song written about her. I don’t know who’s gonna do it, but it has to happen eventually. And I remember one day, I was unpacking my locker, and the words, ‘I don’t tell my parents/I don’t tell my friends/I just grab some rubber tubing/and I pull on my Depends/and then I drive’ just came into mind. And I was like, ‘All right!’”
In 2009, she was invited to take part in an online competition called “Masters of Song-Fu,” hosted on asitecalledfred.com. The event gathered numerous Internet musicians in an Iron Chef-style songwriting battle. Lewis won the competition, writing four new songs in the process.
“I feel like everybody sort of won that one. The output of everybody else was just spectacular,” Lewis said.
Now, Lewis finds herself in high demand. She regularly appears onstage with her hero Coulton, as well as comic songsters Paul and Storm, who invited her to take part in their recurring celebrations of geeks and music, w00tstock.
A defining moment for Lewis came at the San Diego w00tstock in July. Before the show, it was announced that Lewis would not be allowed to enter the building — she was a minor, and the venue sold alcohol. She could come on for her set, escorted by security, and then would have to leave immediately.
Lewis had to wait outside the stage door. She performed to a raucous response, including a quickly-learned cover of Save Ferris’s song “Under 21.” And then, at the behest of her fellow musicians, Lewis performed at intermission in the parking lot, with more than 200 audience members and all of her fellow performers watching. The performance became known as “Mollystock.”
“That thing could have been really crappy. I mean, everyone was so nice about coming out and seeing me when they were not onstage. But then, the Mollystock thing, I feel like it just turned the crappiness of being left outside on its head, and just outweighed how poop it was that I had to sit out there.”
As she gains experience, Lewis continues to mature as a performer — her shy, awkward nature being tempered by a growing confidence. “On my Wikipedia page, it actually says one of my distinctive stage qualities is that I forget my words a lot, and I forget important props, which is not something I want to be known for,” she said, laughing.
But Lewis never wants to outgrow the awe she feels at her success. “I don’t want to not be new to this. I never want to be in a position where I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m great, of course 200 people showed up for my acoustic thing on a loading dock,’” she said. “I never want it to get old. I never want it to be something that’s a chore.”
Lewis also has to balance fame with her college career. She maintains a full workload of classes in addition to her continuing performances. “It’s been particularly challenging this year because last year, the w00tstocks and Jonathan would be in town, and it would kinda conveniently coincide with break.
“The frequency has picked up a bit. So I actually had to send an e-mail to my professors saying, ‘Hey, I’m a D-list Internet celebrity, I’m gonna be gone for a little bit.’ I didn‘t actually say, ‘I‘m kind of a big deal,’ but I implied it,” Lewis joked.
And though she’d love for her music to become her livelihood, Lewis keeps a level head about everything.
“I would really like it to, but I don’t want to plan for it,” Lewis stated. “I didn’t plan to become viral on YouTube, I didn’t plan for Jonathan to reach out — very graciously, I might add — to share a stage with him, and share his fans. And it’s not something I can make any plans for. I can’t plan for it to fail, but I can’t plan for it to be a success, either. And so, I’m going to school so I can eat, in case the Internet drops out tomorrow.”
The EP “I Made You a CD, But I Eated It” is available at mollylewis.bandcamp.com/.
Tags: Jeff McGinnis, Molly Lewis, Pop Goes the Culture, YouTube