MANILA, Philippines — Melissa Reese is being celebrated in rock circles as the first and only female member of the iconic American rock band Guns N’ Roses (GnR). And she’s half-Filipina.
The 28-year-old classically-trained musician joined the band in 2016 as a keyboardist while also playing the synthesizer, sub-bass and back-up vocals. She’s now traveling the world with GnR who recently came to the Philippines for the first time for the Manila stop of the group’s ongoing Not in This Lifetime… Tour. The reunion concert of the band behind such hits as Sweet Child O’ Mine, Patience and November Rain has brought together classic line-up members Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan.
Melissa has “more than one job,” also composing and scoring music for videogames, commercials, films and music videos such as Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood and the Eminem-produced movie Bodied. And did we say Melissa is half-Filipina?
If she’s become a source of #PinoyPride for Pinoy fans of GnR, it’s because she’s proud to be Pinoy as well. She credits her Filipino side for her passion in music.
Her attitude towards work is also credited to her Pinoy DNA, said her older sister Stephanie Reese, who accompanied Melissa on her second visit to their mom’s home country (her first was when she was 12). Stephanie is already a familiar face in the entertainment scene because the singer-actress (she was Kim in a German production of Miss Saigon) has been here to do charity concerts.
“It was our (Filipina) mom who said, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best because there are so many talented people and there are always better people but just work the hardest. Because if you’re the hardest worker, you will never be afraid. And I think that’s also (Melissa’s) Filipino culture,” said the proud sister during STAR’s interview with Melissa a day before the sold-out GnR concert at the Philippine Arena.
Here is The STAR’s exclusive interview with the Seattle, Washington-born Melissa:
On how Melissa got to be part of Guns N’ Roses:
“I got a call. That’s exactly what happened. I met Axl before and my composing partner Bryan ‘Brain’ Mantia was the drummer before. They knew of me as a producer and heard about my poetry work. I knew a lot of people in their camp. It just came up as an idea: what about her? I thought it was a joke. (They lost their keyboardist right before the reunion happened.) That’s how the music industry works in general. For producing or composing gigs, film and all that, you say yes to everything but it’s not necessarily a real question. Literally, nine times out of 10, it means nothing. But then, it wasn’t a joke.
“Axl also put in a call to my composing partner, ‘Do I have your blessing on this? I’m going to take your composing partner away, all of these stuff, can she pull it off?’ Of course, he vouched for me. But behind the scenes, he was, ‘Dude, it’s gonna be heavy and you should be prepared. It’s a really intense thing. You’re you and you’re used to being in a studio.’ So, you really, really have to be strong and deal with not being settled like constantly traveling all the time.”
On “coming home” and performing for Filipinos:
“The hospitality, the culture, a really beautiful sort of happiness. I really get where my mom’s sunshine comes from. That vibe — I never knew that before. But it’s really cool. Real talk: I have no sleep, but it’s fine. Everything has just been so pleasant. It’s awesome! I shall return.
“It’s funny because one of the executives at Gibson Guitars texted me, is your DNA buzzing? You know, I feel like, if anything, I’m learning and going, this should be something I should know about, identify with and be proud of.
“I’m not trying to be a d***, but I pay people for assistance and stuff but everybody here sincerely cares, I’m like, why? But you really do (care). The whole other thing — that my mom is a sunshiny thing. That’s what other people, friends of mine, some band members who met my mom (who loves to bring the GnR lumpia) love about her. It could be the most horrible situation and she’s like (laughs) happy.”
On where she got her musical genes:
“From my lola. My mom’s mother from Camalig, Albay. She sang to us religious songs. Heart of Jesus. There was a song that focused on the Sorrowful Mystery. I loved her voice. Even our mom’s dad, my lolo, he’s almost like hip-hop today, he does three notes. Not so much melody, but he did what he could musically. I find it comforting.”
Keyboardist Melissa in action
On her family’s reaction to her being part of GnR:
“I forced (Stephanie) to keep it a secret. They didn’t know at first because our dad would tell everybody. Like the band is really tightlipped on the press and about saying certain things for obvious reasons. And everybody is always trying to infiltrate and get info about these people because they’re these musical icons or gods basically… Nobody was supposed to know that I was part of a surprise, that they are getting back together and there’s this new girl.
“I tasked Steph to not say anything and just bring (my parents) to Vegas for a big show. Because I used to do these little things for them, I pay for them to go on these little vacations, it wasn’t weird for them to be sent to Vegas. It happened Steph was with them and took care of them. They thought it was business as usual. And when it was revealed… (I was) in the band, dad was like, wait a minute, what’s going on? He didn’t know anything! It was in an arena with 40,000 seats. He was like what are we doing? My mom was just jumping up and down. She’s just super happy. Our parents have met (GnR) a lot of times.”
On her first-ever show with GnR:
“It was in L.A., a surprise show. It was on April Fools’ Day (2016). People were like anticipating it being a thing. I was pretty freaked out in my mind but also just getting into the work mode and telling myself to keep it together. So, I was doing my thing and the whole place was packed and heavy. Axl broke his foot on the second song and powered through and finished the show like a badass. No one knew a reunion was happening. The whole top-tier of the rows (was) the who’s who of Hollywood. Then, there was paparazzi running after you. I really had to hide out. It was a pretty heavy situation. There were people in that show who had been to every single show for the last three years. And they cry, they freak out, they’re like the same since that Day 1. They just love the music and the band so much. That first show was just so crazy!”
On being the first and only female in the band:
“I think it’s awesome. I feel that there are two sides to that coin. Sometimes, it’s a little heavy being the only chick but obviously, you also have the opportunity to be yes, girl power! You know what I mean? And I think that’s the most important thing to take away from it, for both the fans and for me. It is to be like, I’m repping for chicks, you know, and for young people around the world. That you can work as hard as you can and get to like a level like this for your own thing. This is possible! Break the glass ceiling!”
On performing with the rock legends:
“Not to be repetitious, but they’re iconic. It just feels like larger than life. It doesn’t feel real sometimes. At this point, too, there is so much happening on stage musically and little things going on between band members, you’re so into the music, you forget you’re before 100,000 people.
“I remember in Peru, the tickets were expensive, people saved up to watch us. That was also a touching thing how much these people who really have nothing saved all their money to come to the show. My tech, the dude that helps me set up everything, said, check that out, Blue, they call me that. There’s this huge sea of people and you can see this mountain, they look like stars, thousands of lights, and he said, those are the people who can’t afford. But you can see their cellphone lights, and they’re trying to hear the music from the mountain, and it was so touching. God!”
On what she has learned from GnR:
“What do you not learn from these people? They are a gem, they keep their bodies in check, they work on themselves. Of course, they’re GnR. There’s also a need to preserve that attitude, still this iconic thing being looked up to. In music these days, I feel like a lot has been missing, I don’t want to say marginalized, but I’d like to say homogenized because everybody is able to do it which is a great thing to do, YouTube, Soundcloud and all the musical stuff. Everybody is a legend in their own line. But this thing is one of the things that still exist where for people, they’re still up there. This hope, this nostalgia. I can look up to this greatness and be like whoa, dude, I need to get my act together and work that hard to be that rad. To have that look, that vibe, I mean it doesn’t just happen anymore, you know what I mean?
“I think what I learn is to also just how to carry that with grace because they really do and to be hardworking, to have healthy boundaries. And just be really good people, be smart and really normal underneath it all.”