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Welcome to Appetite for Discussion -- a Guns N' Roses fan forum!

Please feel free to look around the forum as a guest, I hope you will find something of interest. If you want to join the discussions or contribute in other ways then you need to become a member. We especially welcome anyone who wants to share documents for our archive or would be interested in translating or transcribing articles and interviews.

Registering is free and easy.


2017.11.06 - Cosmopolitan - The First Female Member of Iconic Rock Band Guns N' Roses Started As a Classically Trained Pianist (Melissa)

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2017.11.06 - Cosmopolitan - The First Female Member of Iconic Rock Band Guns N' Roses Started As a Classically Trained Pianist (Melissa) Empty 2017.11.06 - Cosmopolitan - The First Female Member of Iconic Rock Band Guns N' Roses Started As a Classically Trained Pianist (Melissa)

Post by Blackstar Sun Apr 29, 2018 1:10 am

The First Female Member of Iconic Rock Band Guns N' Roses Started As a Classically Trained Pianist

Behind the scenes with Melissa Reese.

As told to Patti Greco

Anyone who's seen Guns N Roses on their “Not in This Lifetime…Tour,” which kicked off in April 2016 and ends November 29, will have noticed Melissa Reese on keyboard and singing backup. The Seattle native is the only woman on stage with Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKagan, Dizzy Reed, Frank Ferrer, and Richard Fortus. She's also the only woman to have joined the band's ranks as a full-time member, period, since it formed in 1985. "People, unfortunately, even now in 2017, have a tendency to be harder on women,” she says. “You have to work to break glass ceilings and to be noticed and acknowledged. But if I spent my time worrying about that shit, [I’d] have less time to do the work.” Here, Reese, who also works as a composer for video games, movies, and TV, tells the full story of how she got to be part of an “iconic, larger-than-life” band.

The story my parents tell is that they heard somebody playing a beginner Bach piece on the piano in the living room, and they assumed it was one of my two older sisters playing, because both of them played the piano and violin. But they caught me, at four years old, plunking it out. I had learned it by ear. They were like, “OK, we have to take this seriously.” I don’t remember this exact incident, but I remember in general always wanting to be like my sisters and copying them. That’s kind of how it started.

From that time, I was stuck on a track and everybody was going to make sure I stayed on that track. My parents put me in a Montessori school, and I was kind of in a music boot camp from when I was really little: After school I had piano lessons, I had voice lessons, I had Northwest Girl Choir, I was a hula dancer for 13 years, singing on stage in competitions.
There were times when I threw tantrums — so much crying, so much “I don’t wanna do this.” But my dad, specifically, was really strict, and he was like, “Nope, you gotta do it.” Now everybody’s like, “If they don’t want to, don’t make them. They need to have choices!” For me, I wasn’t given a ton of choice. But if you look at those more intense rearing styles, like a Joe Jackson type or something — I’m not going to say I’m a fan of what he did. He was abusive to Michael and his family. However, Michael ended up becoming the most talented, famous, amazing fucking music artist of all time. I think there’s a healthy balance you can find. I don’t think my balance was what one would traditionally call “healthy,” no. But I also think it’s why I matured so quickly and picked things up faster.

When my older sisters were born, our parents didn’t have as much money, they were just starting out. By the time I came along they had their own real-estate company, they had a lot more money, they were able to put me in private school, but they were working all the time, so I was raised primarily by my mom’s parents. (My grandparents passed away when I was in the beginning of high school, end of middle school.) They gave me so much warmth and so much love in those formative years, and eased a lot of the negative feelings that I might have had at one point or another about being on this regimented path.

When I was 13, my oldest sister took me to meet Tom Whitlock, who wrote huge hits, like “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun. [We connected through] the most random series of events: He lived at that time in Bellingham, Washington, which is an hour-and-a-half north of Seattle. His neighbor randomly happened to know my [middle] sister, who was in a theater group with him, and he heard that Tom was looking for young singers. The neighbor remembered me singing Aladdin karaoke in our den, and he called my sister. “Is Melissa still singing?” I just remember walking into Tom’s house and there was his Oscar for “Take My Breath Away,” and I was like, “I know what that is! This is insane!”

Eventually, my parents started driving me back and forth to record in a studio Tom had in his house. It wasn’t for an album — maybe he had intentions for the songs to become an album. But I always refer to them as my first “demos.” I got to fly down to L.A., where they were mixed. The studio process was fascinating to me. I was obsessed with it, and I was too scared to really get in there and say, “Let me fuck with the board and let me do everything” — but I was looking at all the gear. He had a beat-making machine that I remember thinking looked like a spaceship. What does that button do? I was so hungry for knowledge.

Being in that environment and not knowing the ins and outs of how everything worked, it just felt funny and I didn’t want to feel like — even though it was not anybody’s intention — I was being relegated to “just the singer position.” Put some words in front of her. We do all the important shit. I’m like, “No, no, no, no. I need to know what all that is. I need to know all of this.” So I learned.

Around then, [Tom] introduced me to my first manager, Joey Minkes, and I remember going to him and saying, “I watched [Tom] and I could do this. I could come up with stuff.” I would sing Joey these pop-y, R&B songs that I was writing myself and he said, “Dude, you might want to think about writing and producing.” And I was like, “Hmmm.”

A very bittersweet little side-note: Tom was into rescuing dogs and he’s the reason I was able to get my first dog ever, Hershey. My dad wouldn’t let me have one, but I knew I could pull a move on him if I got Tom on my side. It ended up working! Hershey was a part of our family for 15 years. He was the best dog in the world, and to make this the saddest story ever, he died last year literally right before we went onstage headlining Coachella. I wrote his name on my arm for the show.

I went to Roosevelt High School, my first public school, and I started to get really rebellious. I never did anything bad. I went to parties and stuff, I just never did any drugs, I never smoked a cigarette. I was always pretty focused on music. I won “most musical” in the senior poll. But when you get to that age, you're against everyone.

I was like, “Eff this, I wanna be a pop artist! I wanna do R&B, I wanna do soul, neo-soul.” I wanted to be like Alicia Keys. That really deviated from what my voice teacher wanted. She wanted me to go to conservatory, she wanted me to go to Juilliard or Curtis [Institute of Music] or Boston Conservatory, study classical voice, go into opera, maybe musical theater. Really, she saw me as this coloratura opera singer. I remember bringing her music I had written. “I’m doing this!” And she would be like, [horrified] “Ahhh, why?” She could not understand why I would not just respect the talent that I had and stay on that path.

I went to L.A. immediately after high school. I took online classes in theory, music history, and jazz studies at North Seattle Community College, [but] never finished. I didn’t even apply [to other schools]. I knew what I wanted to do. I was living with my boyfriend at the time in a pretty lame apartment in Sherman Oaks that had horrible air conditioning. I had my studio set up, and we were just in there, sweating while I produced all this music, still with pop and R&B vibes. I worked a normal job for a little bit, at a youth sports photography company. I was grinding hard. Pretty soon thereafter, shit started to happen for me.

I met Brain [Bryan Mantia], who was the drummer for Guns [in 2006] before Frank [the current drummer], through Joey. I found that as soon as I met him, creatively, we clicked, and it was on. In 2007, I did an EP called Lissa. I was in the studio with Brain and he had an urban dictionary, and he was literally opening up to random pages, throwing up a beat, going [pretends to point to a word], “Sing about this. Write a hook about that.” Words like emo, feels, beef, drank, creepin’. Those songs were written in under two hours. And then this dude who was running this label heard it through friends and said, “I wanna buy those.” I was like, “You wanna pay me thousands of dollars for this stuff? This happens in life?” I was like, “I can keep doing this! I have two more hours, let’s write 50 more!” I was over the moon. It was a media EP, [meaning] it was sent to music supervisors as music you can use in your show if you want. Tracks were on a ton of shows — Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Gossip Girl.

[Our next break came when] Brain went to the NAMM (National Academy of Music Merchants) convention, where vendors go to show their new products to the music community. He met a Sony music supervisor there, who was a fan of Brain’s drumming, and [the Sony exec] said, “Why don’t you come play drums on this video game we’re working on?” And then Brain called me and said, “I’m thinking I’m gonna just push and be like, ‘Can we have a shot at doing some of the actual music?’” He got us a shot. They gave us some music to listen to of the game in that series that had come right before. I remember us putting it on and staring at each other like [mouth hangs open]. It sounded huge. It sounded like Hans Zimmer. We were screaming and running around the room. “We’re never gonna be able to do this! What the fuck? Now we’re on the hook! We’re gonna look horrible in front of these people. What are we gonna do?”

We ended up getting it together and kicking ass on it and they gave us the job. You have to do like 200 minutes of music for these games — all the scenarios, all the battles. From then on we started doing more and more and more games. Eventually we got our first film, which was Joseph Kahn’s Detention (2011). We had a mutual friend who said, “You guys are doing all this cool shit. Did you ever think maybe you could do this movie?” It always happens like that.

You sort of, in music, end up getting in tribes. Caram Costanzo, who produced Chinese Democracy [GNR’s long-awaited and notoriously expensive sixth studio album], was somebody in the tribe. He’s a good friend of Brain’s, he’s a good friend of mine. Caram called me in March 2016 and brought up the possibility of me coming in [to meet with the band] because there was a need for a new keyboard player. I thought it was a fuckin’ joke. I was trying to ask him about his wife and his new baby and all this stuff, and he wasn’t about that. He was like, “No, we need to talk.”

A couple days later I hear from him again. “Think about that at all?” So I started to take it a little more seriously, and then it got really serious a couple days after the second call, when I got a call from Brain: “What’s going on? I heard Axl is thinking about bringing you in. What do you think about this?” Axl loves Brain, they still have a great relationship. Since my name had been put up for discussion, Axl wanted to know, obviously, what Brain thought. So Brain told me, “This is a very intense thing that you have to consider. If the opportunity presents itself to you, you can’t say no.” And I’m like, “But I’m scared!” And he said, “You have to have this experience. Are you crazy?”

So Caram asked me to come in. I’d met Axl and Dizz once, way before, when they played at House of Blues in 2012; Brain sat in with them, and I came and we hung out. I was intimidated by Axl, I was really quiet the first time I met him. I was scared of Dizz because he’s very intense. I’d met Richard and Frank before. But meeting everybody for this purpose, and especially meeting Slash and Duff, who I had no idea what to expect from them, I was very nervous, naturally. I was just reminding myself who I was. “You’re Melissa Reese. You’re a composer/producer/musician/singer. You are schooled, you know your theory, you can read music.”

But the band is this very tight-knit, impenetrable family, and so if somebody gives an endorsement to somebody else, that’s listened to. It counted for a lot that multiple people who were in the family had already said, “She can pull this. She’s rad. At least take a look.” I was lucky. I don’t know who else they might have been looking at or if there was anyone else.

I had two weeks to learn 30-to-50 songs. For the first week of rehearsal I wasn’t even in the same room as them. I had isolated myself to build my rig, the setup for my gear, and I was learning a new music computer program, mapping my keyboard, learning the set. I remember all of them, one at a time, would walk by and peek in like pre-schoolers. “When are you gonna play with us?” They were just so excited to have me come in and it hopefully be successful. It was sweet.

I wasn't supposed to talk about what I was doing because the band wanted news of me joining to be a surprise — and my dad has a big mouth. So [the first time my parents saw me play], I just told my sister, “Can you bring them to Vegas and say that we’re going to take them to the Blue Man Group or something?” And my dad’s looking around. “This is a nice new arena!” And then my mom is like, “Is that Liss? Is that Liss on stage? What’s happening? Why is she there?” My sister took video of some of it, it’s pretty funny. By the end, my mom’s at the little fence jumping during “Paradise.”

Axl specifically is so proud of [to have a woman in the band]. There was one conversation I remember — this was such a surreal moment in my life. Me, Axl, and Lenny Kravitz are in a room together, and he’s like, “Lenny, we’ve got a chick in the band!” He was so excited. And Lenny’s like, “I know.” He’d seen our show at the Troubadour. But, yeah, Axl from the jump has just had my back. He at one point had even given me a talk. “If anybody tries to talk shit or this or that, I have your back.”

As much progress as our society and other societies have made with women’s rights, there’s still places and pockets where it’s “This is a boys’ club.” I think that’s where my initial little fire came from. I wanted to be in the boys’ club. I wanted to say, “I have just as much knowledge, I can work harder, I can do this just as good as you, if not better.”

I get DMs and PMs all the time from these moms that have little kids. “I grew up with this music, but I took my little girl" — or son! — "to the show, and they identified with you, and now they’re not quitting piano.” Or they’re learning to sing. And here’s a picture they drew of you. And the face is all fucked up but it has my three dots and the hair is blue. I think, You see? You have to have hope. I hope when I’m old and grey, some fuckin’ chick comes up and takes over the world and I’m just like, maybe I had .00001 percent to do with helping hurl her over the fence.

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