Arts & Entertainment

Melissa Reese of Guns N' Roses, on Life as the Band's First Female Band Member

Melissa Reese, who is also half Filipino, now has kids dressing up like her for Halloween
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Melissa Reese’s story is well known by now: in 2016, she became the first female full-time member of iconic rock band Guns N’ Roses, breaking stereotypes and inspiring an untold number of aspiring musicians to reach for their dreams, no matter their circumstances in life.

Reese was in Manila last weekend when the band played their first-ever concert in the country at the Philippine Arena. It was a homecoming of sorts for Reese, whose mother is a Filipina who hails from Camalig, Albay.

“We still have an ancestral home there,” she told Esquire Philippines in an interview one day before the big show. She was accompanied by her big sister Stephanie, who is also a singer and musician. “We were born and raised in Seattle. Our maternal grandparents came to the US to help raise us so that’s how we know of Filipino culture. I was raised primarily by my lolo and lola.”

In the interview, Reese talked about how surreal it is to be part of one of the biggest bands on the planet, what’s it really like backstage at a GnR show, and combatting sexism and being a role model for young people.

ESQ: Walk us through what it was like when you got the invitation to be part of the band. Was it an immediate yes or did you have to think about it?

MELISSA REESE: It was a process because I didn’t really think I was being asked. I thought it was a joke at first. It sort of went through these stages of, “Oh my god it’s not a joke.” Then I sort of started to have to actually do the hard work and really prove myself. By the time I got into the thick of it and thought okay I gotta get into this thing, I was fully in “work mode”. (The band–along with Caram Costanzo who originally recommended me, and our managers) respected it and saw that I was filling a lot of musical needs that the they had.

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ESQ: But there was no doubt in your mind that this was something that you really wanted?

MR: That’s a really heavy question (laughs). There were a lot of emotions, very bipolar emotions for me. I was like “Ah! What is happening to me right now”? But once I focused into work mode, the decision was made and I was in 1000%.

ESQ: I gotta ask, was there some sort of formal ceremony, when the band members welcomed you?

MR: There was a vetting process, definitely. But it was ultimately up to Axl, the other band members and our managers Fernando and Beta (Lebeis). You just have to be a very specific type of person to be able to work under these conditions. And what I mean by that is being personally, and musically respectful of something this crazy fucking iconic and huge, while simultaneously knowing your worth even though you’re a millennial girl. You gotta know what your puzzle piece is and where your value is, and be strong there.

But there was no formal ceremony (laughs). There were a couple of awesome moments where I wanted to freak out a little bit. I remember early on they brought me in and sat me down in the rehearsal studio, and played through some of the set for me. I went, “Oh my god, like, wow, a concert just for me!” As I was listening though, my thoughts were spinning about how I had to fit in sonically with what they were doing, and there was like a fucked-up mental musical soup going on in my mind.

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"I sort of started to have to really do work and really prove myself. By the time I got into the thick of it and I thought okay I really gotta get into this thing, I was in it." IMAGE: Hub Pacheco

ESQ: But they made you feel welcome?

MR: Yeah, absolutely. There were a couple of moments where I felt scared, for obvious reasons. There were times I remember when I was separated from everybody else doing all my mapping and programming and designing my rig and learning all the songs and then I started visiting their main band rehearsal (area) and they were all coming up to me excited like “You can sing this part, you can play this part.” I thought, I’ll do whatever they needed. I was just willing and open.

ESQ: Okay, what was your first memory of Guns N’ Roses?

MR: Well I saw my Ate (Stephanie)’s album. We were raised in a very Catholic family, and I just saw the skulls and cross on the cover of “Appetite”, and I remember being scared of it. I was little, you know? It just looked so intense. I might’ve even heard the big songs and just not made the association with that record in its physical form.

ESQ: Let’s get into the good stuff. What’s backstage like at a GnR show?

MR: We’re like a family. We have fun together and talk shit. Lots of crew people and friends visit my dressing room cause that’s where the candy is. The shows are really long and we need the energy.

ESQ: So no wild rock n’ roll parties?

MR:I think it was a lot crazier before (laughs). You know, band members being rock stars. But for me, it’s a different story. It’s just like a traveling family. We like watching Netflix and HBO. Right now we like watching Westworld, Better Call Saul, and Peaky Blinders.

ESQ: So I’ll name members of the band and you tell me the first thing that comes into your head. Let’s start with Axl Rose.

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MR: Oh man. Axl is THE best. I owe him so much. He’s a fucking icon, an amazing singer, and musican. He has the most soul-piercing, quintessential voice of our time, and he is a TRUE artist in every sense. He’s fiercely loyal and really funny. The first time I met him was at the House of Blues a long time ago, I was really intimidated because his presence is so powerful.

ESQ: Slash?

Slash really likes candy, like me. He likes horror. He has a quiet confidence and he’s an incredible and moving musician. He speaks with his guitar, loves what he does and is really fun to be on stage with.

ESQ: Duff?

Duff and I are both from Seattle so we have a lot in common. We’re crazy Seahawks fans. We like to get a group of fans in the band or crew together and watch the NFL sports package before shows when we can with our jerseys on! He’s awesome. An amazing dude. really supportive, really smart, and most of all–one BAD - ASS bass icon and overall musician.

ESQ: Dizzy?  

MR: I was afraid of him the first time I saw him. He looked like Jesus! But he’s one of my favorite people. We talk a lot of shit about football. He’s so important to me, so supportive, so positive and so funny. I love him to death. The dude is so committed to his craft, and can play his ASS off because of it.

ESQ: Richard?  

MR: Richard works out a lot, like Duff. He’s an extremely technically proficient guitar player. He can play anything which is incredible to see and be around. He is also super fun to be on stage with.

ESQ: And finally, Frank?

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MR: Frank is basically family. I adore him. He’s so amazing and talented. And he’s so open. There’s so much love he brings to his drumming and you feel it. That is something very special about him.

"Oh yeah, for sure. There were a couple times I got death threats on Twitter. There are some people who still want this to be a dude thing." IMAGE: Hub Pacheco

ESQ: It was a pretty big deal when you joined GnR, becoming the first woman in the band since it was formed in the 1980s. But did you get not-so-positive reactions as well?

MR: Oh yeah, for sure. There were a couple times I got death threats on Twitter. There are some people who still want this to be a dude thing. But the guys (band members), and our manager Fernando Lebeis are very forward-thinking. They’re going, like, it doesn’t matter if she’s a she, or she’s purple, blue, green, gray, orange, whatever. If she’s rad, she’s rad, and we’ll give credit where credit is due. This is our puzzle and we’re missing this piece, and she’s that piece. Fuck it, fuck everybody. And they’ve had my back like that.

Filling those shoes, well, I basically had to make my own new pair of shoes and go, “I’m matching this outfit!” Cause the shoes didn’t really exist. At first, the whole vibe was just like, oh the OGs are getting back together and joining forces with other members that have been in the band for years and years. And, they’re bringin in a chick. And I was that chick. Everybody was thinking, what’s this going to be like? Not all of it has been (a walk in the park) with the fans. Especially, initially, I think, people were used to a boys club thing, but that’s since faded away.

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ESQ: Did you have a bad time during this whole thing?

MR: Really, I didn’t. These dudes not only had my back but they made it a point to let me know that. All the time. And it’s not just the band members. All our crew, our security, and of course, our managers. We’re all really, truly a family. And that’s how it’s been.

ESQ: Do you consider yourself a role model?

MR: I get a lot of DMs on my socials about that, from young people and moms. That part to me is one of, if not the, most important part because obviously I want the music to live on and be relevant, but also the little girls and boys need that type of role model. It really hit me hard when I started getting tagged in photos of little girls dressed as me for Halloween. Those were very intense, like whoa. They even put the dots on their face and the blue wig. It’s crazy to be a costume, and so cool.

ESQ: Can you tell us some of the other things you’re doing outside of GnR?

MR: Sure. A movie just came out which I co-scored with (Bryan) “Brain” (Mantia) called Bodied. It’s produced by Eminem and directed by the amazing risk-taking rebel, Joseph Kahn. It’s about the battle rap scene in Oakland and this white kid/grad student learning about the culture of battle rap, finding himself immersed in the scene, then stirring shit up when he ends up actually being rad at it himself. It was a self-funded passion project by Joseph, but Eminem came by it and was moved, so he got involved. I missed the premiere cause I was on a flight to our first show of the tour. I was so bummed the dates just happened to fall on the same day. But, I know there are many more to come so there was a silver lining. We are so proud of that score. I’m still writing and producing and there’s a lot of stuff to look forward to next year, including film, video games, performance–a lot of good stuff.

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I’m still writing and producing and there’s a lot of stuff to look forward to next year, including film, video games, performance stuff and a lot of good stuff.

ESQ: Can we expect new music from Guns N’ Roses?

MR: Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to say. I hope for the best. Anything that allows me to spend more time with my big bros, I embrace a thousand, million, billion percent. But I hope. I hope.

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Paul John Caña
Managing Editor, Entrepreneur.com.ph
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