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Welcome to the Jungle: How Melissa Reese Broke the Guns N’ Roses Glass Ceiling

The keyboardist has spent the last four years gigging with Guns N’ Roses, but it’s just the first part of her quest to become ‘the female Trent Reznor’

Guns N' Roses keyboardist Melissa Reese photographed in Los Angeles in February 2020.

Jessica Lehrman for Rolling Stone

A couple of weeks before Guns N’ Roses kicked off their 2016 reunion tour, keyboardist Melissa Reese got a call from Chinese Democracy producer Caram Costanzo. “We may be looking for a keyboard player,” she remembers him saying. “I didn’t even realize he was talking about me. Then he said, ‘What are you doing for the next few years?’”

Many thoughts flooded her head at once. First off, Reese was just 25 and didn’t really know the Guns N’ Roses catalog outside of mega-hits like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Welcome to the Jungle” (both released before she was born), and playing stadiums with a veteran rock band was not a career path she had spent much time contemplating. Also, she knew enough about GN’R to know that even by the standards of Eighties hard rock, it was a dude-heavy operation. (Up until that point, 21 men had played with the group and not a single woman.)

“You know I’m a chick?” she asked him, half-jokingly. “A girl in Guns N’ Roses? Really?”

Costanzo was serious. “These circumstances came up,” he told her. “We need somebody with a really unique set of skills that is excellent at those skills, and I’m wondering if that’s you.”

He called the right person. Reese may not have known the keyboard parts to “Paradise City” or how to double Axl Rose’s vocals during “Nightrain” (at least not yet), but she was a preternaturally-gifted musician blessed with perfect pitch and tireless work habits — and she’d already spent years working on complex musical projects where she was the only woman in the room.

“All those experiences gave me this fire in my belly,” she says. “It made me learn shit and how do it better than everybody else, so I could be the chick that breaks the glass ceiling.”

Reese, now 29, is saying all this in late February in the backyard of her aunt’s palatial home in Central Los Angeles, weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic would make such an interview impossible. Her hair is neon blue, but she’s taken off the multi-colored jumpsuit and Back To The Future II-style Nike high tops she wore for a photo shoot and is relaxing poolside in a loose sweatshirt. She’s spent the last four years criss-crossing the globe with Guns N’ Roses, playing 175 shows in the process, and this is a rare chance to relax before what she thinks will be another year of relentless gigging. (The dates were later called off after a single festival in Mexico City on March 14th.)

She’s learned many important lessons about touring since receiving the fateful call from Costanzo. “When you’re on a tour bus with a bunch of dudes, you shouldn’t go to the bathroom with no shoes, because piss might be all over the floor,” she says. “I also try not to eat before we have a long drive, because you’re not supposed to go number two on the bus.”

“And if you have the urge to vomit while you’re playing a show, you should not swallow the vomit,” she continues. “You should let the vomit out into a bucket. I had a big bag of Sour Patch Kids and a Diet Coke before we played MetLife Stadium in New Jersey [in 2016], and it all came up when we were playing ‘You Could Be Mine.’ I just puked in my mouth and I looked like a chipmunk for a second, but then I fucking swallowed it. I told the technicians and they were like, ‘Someone get Blue a bucket!’ So now there’s always a blue bucket in case something like that happens to me.”

Swallowing a mouthful of regurgitated Diet Coke and Sour Patch Kid chunks while playing the Terminator 2 song in front of 50,000 people was not how Reese imagined adulthood while growing up in the Seattle suburbs. The youngest child of a microbiologist and a real estate broker, Reese says she was largely raised by her maternal grandparents since her parents were busy with their careers and often traveling. “We all lived together, and it was a crazy household,” she says. “It was like the village raising your child, because everybody was a lot older than me, including my two sisters.”

Her grandmother, a devout Catholic who emigrated from the Philippines, introduced music into Reese’s life by singing her religious songs before she could even walk. Her older sisters played the piano and violin. “I hate saying this, because I feel like such a douche telling this story,” Reese says. “But one day my sisters were learning Bach beginner pieces that you learn in a piano book, and my parents heard somebody practicing, and they assumed it was one of my sisters. I was only three or four. They walked in and saw that I was playing and that I learned the piece by ear.”

They created what she calls a “makeshift musical boot camp” where she spent much of the time at her Montessori school learning music between the ages of four and 14 while devoting her after-school hours to classical piano and voice, along with dance and acting classes. “It was a hardcore regimen,” she says. “And not always super fun. I hate saying this, but it was like a Joe Jackson-type situation with my father. I had to practice. I had to do it.”

Seattle was a thriving hub of rock music during her early childhood years, but she gravitated to soul singers like Aretha Franklin and jazz greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ella Fitzgerald. And when her parents pushed her to attend a fine arts school like Juilliard, the Curtis Institute of Music, or the Boston Conservatory, she found the courage to rebel. “I told them I wanted to do anything but that,” she says. “I discovered Pro Tools, Logic, and I started teaching myself to produce. I was rebelling.”

Around the age of 13, she met songwriter Tom Whitlock via one of her sister’s friends when he was looking for young artists to develop. When she walked into his home and saw the Oscar he won for writing Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” from the Top Gun soundtrack, she knew he was the real deal, and they started demoing music with the aim of making her a star. “I really wanted to be like Beyonce, or more like Alicia Keys, really — because I played, but I had aspirations to be this hip-hop pop artist,” she says. “I really always leaned more towards urban music.”

Whitlock had other ideas and saw her more as the next Taylor Swift. “I had no hand in the writing,” she says. “It was just purely like, ‘You’re the artist. Sing this song. Do this.’ Their hearts were in the right place, though, and my dad also got really into it and was like, ‘My daughter’s going to be a star!’”

Things didn’t go as planned, but the experience changed her life forever. She not only met top-tier talent, like drummer Josh Freese, but she witnessed first-hand how music was created in a professional studio. She also signed with a manager. “I would secretly play him little things I had written on the side,” she says. “He was like, ‘Yo. Your shit’s better than than the shit you’re doing with Tom.’ It made me realize I could do this.”

Hair by Stephanie Hobgood using Hairstory Studio for Cloutier. Makeup by Anton Khachaturian using Mac Cosmetics for Cloutier (Photo: Jessica Lehrman for Rolling Stone)

Meanwhile, off in the distant world of Guns N’ Roses, drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia was growing extremely bored with his job. He’d been in the group ever since they reformed in 2000, but he spent much of the Nineties drumming for everyone from Primus to Tom Waits, and he was ready for a big life change. “I knew I just didn’t want to do this shit anymore,” he says. “I wanted to get into beat-making and composing.”

When he heard from a producer friend about a classically-trained young woman into gospel, hip-hop, and jazz, he knew he had to meet her. Despite their nearly three-decade age difference, they hit it off immediately. “He’s this drummer dude and I had all the melodic stuff going,” says Reese. “He had an interest in music theory and we just had the same vibe, like two peas in a pod.”

They briefly worked together on some of her pop music, but at night they’d drive around for hours listening to Frank Zappa, Ornette Coleman, and Eddie Palmieri. It didn’t take long before they started writing as a duo. “We’d be at my house or a coffee shop, and we’d just bring our laptops and headphones and make beats and vibe and do our stuff together,” he says. “We thought, ‘Shit, this is kind of working out.’”

Much to Reese’s amazement, shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Gossip Girl bought their music and put it on the air, despite her brief reservations. “I wanted to be an artist and have a vision,” she says. “Everything felt sacred and close to my heart. Bryan was like, ‘Dude, it’s hard out here. If somebody’s offering you $10G for a song you wrote in five minutes, you say yes. There’s more in you. Trust me.’”

More work (and more money) followed, but their work was interrupted every time Guns N’ Roses had to hit the road. “I’d be in, like, Prague playing with Guns, and I’d call her, and we’d talk music on the phone,” says Mantia. “I’d be like, ‘Aw, shit. I gotta run to the gig.’”

By 2006, Mantia grew tired of balancing both worlds. Nine Inch Nails, Korn, and Serj Tankian were all looking for new drummers, and big money was on the table, but he found himself unable to agree to any more road work. “Someone called me from The Firm or some ridiculous management company and was like, ‘What? You don’t like money? You don’t want to be a musician?’” he says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I do. But I want to go in this other direction.”

He explained his reasoning: “I found this girl and she’s rad and she knows all the harmonics stuff and she’s classically-trained. I know all the rhythm stuff. We make a rad team because we have everything covered. If someone wants a trap beat, we can play it. If somebody wants rock, we can do it — or classical, or even that cheesy Hollywood orchestral shit.”

So Korn hired Ray Luzier, Nine Inch Nails stuck with Josh Freese, and Guns N’ Roses brought in Frank Ferrer as their new drummer, meaning Mantia was free to work with Reese full-time. They called their new duo Brain and Melissa, and the work quickly piled up. They did a Tiger Woods Gatorade commercial, music for the NBA finals, and video games like Infamous 2 and ModNation Racers, along with the occasional film score.

They worked around the clock and rarely saw daylight while working on an important project, like the soundtrack to the 2011 Joseph Kahn movie Detention. “I had this tank top on at one point and I had bruises up and down my back from just having sat in the same spot for so long in one of those weird ergo chairs,” says Reese. “It looked like my liver was giving out.” (Sometimes they even broke free and performed a DJ/vocal set in public, often at NBA games where Reese sang the National Anthem and then they’d do a brief halftime show.)

Mantia was consistently amazed by her technical abilities. “One movie wanted us to deliver the score in 5:1 sound,” he says. “It was a low budget film and we couldn’t afford to have our engineer do that shit. But she literally took the whole film, fucking laid it out in Pro Tools in 5:1 with a timeline as long as the movie and mapped it out. I was like, ‘Wow, you figured it out!’”

They didn’t do a lot of work for rock bands, but Mantia had left Guns N’ Roses on good terms, and Axl asked him to remix some Chinese Democracy tracks a few years after his departure. (He plays drums on almost every track on the album.) The songs they worked on have yet to be heard by the public, but Reese grew close to Caram Costanzo while working on them. “I didn’t really know much about the band,” she says. “But I got to listen to isolated Axl vocals and isolated Buckethead solos. I thought it was dope.”

In early 2016, Mantia looked down at his phone and saw a bunch of missed calls from an unknown number. “Any time I get an unknown call, it’s either the IRS, Buckethead or the Guns N’ Roses camp,” he says. “And I never answer, because if I wind up talking to Bucket, that’ll be a five-hour conversation. If it’s the IRS, fuck that. If it’s the Guns camp, I’d just usually…any unknown I’d just let go to voicemail.”

When he finally answered, it was indeed the Guns N’ Roses camp. They wanted to know how he felt about Reese possibly joining the group for their upcoming reunion tour with Slash and Duff McKagan, which was still top secret at that time. “They were like, ‘Chris [Pitman] got fired,” he says, “and Caram really thinks that Melissa could help out this thing.”

Mantia only had the briefest moment of hesitation in his mind. “For a second I thought, ‘Uh-oh. On the road, maybe she’ll get a big head, and she’ll just be out there fucking partying, and she’s hot, so all these dudes will be after her,’” he recalls, ‘”and she’ll just go to a whole other side of life she’s never even dealt with.’”

But he told them that Reese was the perfect choice for the job. “I said, ‘She’ll fucking kill it,” he says. “‘She sings background. She does programming. She’s classically trained. She’s got perfect pitch. She could help in tons of ways for what that job calls for in that band, which is a utility type of role.’”

Reese was at her rehearsal spot in Venice, California, when she got the call to see if she was interested. She was driving down the L.A. freeway a few days later when she got another call asking her to come to a rehearsal so they could size her up. As an aside, Costanzo mentioned that Slash and Duff would be there, too. Up until this point, she hadn’t realized they were coming back into the fold. Suddenly, this tour was an even bigger deal than she initially thought. “I remember driving down that freeway,” she says.  “And just telling myself not to crash the car.”

As soon as she arrived, Costanzo introduced her to McKagan. “He’s very tall and has a very heavy vibe,” Reese says. “I got a vibe that he wasn’t super impressed. He was walking away when Caram said, ‘Duff, Melissa is from Seattle.’ He asked what high school and I said ‘Roosevelt.’ He said he went there too. Then Caram said, ‘Melissa’s a huge Seahawks fan.’ And Duff has his back towards me and he just goes, ‘Sea!’ I go, ‘Hawks!’ I jump up and we start chest bumping and he’s like, ‘She’s in the fucking band! She’s in the fucking band!’”

Then Slash walked in. “All the blood drained out of me and I was back at square one again,” she says. “But he was really warm and soft-spoken. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, so me and my girlfriend googled you last night, and you’re so talented.’ I felt like I wasn’t even in my body at that point, or I was just getting smaller and smaller. Caram was like, ‘If she were to be in the band, would there be anything that you would expect of her, that you would want out of her?’ And Slash is just walking by and he’s like, ‘I don’t know, man. Just play your parts right.’ And I’m like, ‘Yay. Okay, okay. I can do that. I can do that.’”

The gig meant she had to learn roughly 50 songs in granular detail so she could help replicate them on the stage. That includes keyboard parts along with countless tiny samples she had to create herself, like the flute flurries on “November Rain,” along with guitar parts she plays on the keyboard and various sub-bass frequencies. “I had to do an insane amount of shit, plus be able to sing backgrounds for Axl,” she says. “It’s stuff that would be hard to pick out, because I’m using sounds that are meant to enhance what’s already going on with Richard [Fortus] or another guitar part. It’s supposed to just sound bigger when I’m doing it, but it’s not supposed to stand out.”

On April 1st, 2016, she drove herself to the the Troubadour for the tour’s opening night, still not totally understanding what she was getting herself into. “I was immersed in the work so much so that that’s all I was concerned about,” she says. “I parked my shitty rental car like a regular person, and I’m seeing all the paparazzi and all these people. I’m like, ‘What’s this about? Oh my God. I guess this is for this. Okay, this is kind of a big deal.’”

It was, in fact, one of the most hotly-anticipated reunion concerts in rock history, and one of the toughest tickets to score in recent memory. Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey, Lana Del Rey, Lenny Kravitz, Jesse Hughes, Norman Reedus, David Arquette and many other big stars were crammed into the tiny venue near a handful of fans lucky enough to secure tickets. Axl Rose broke his left foot just a few songs into the set, but was pumped so full of adrenaline that he barely noticed until the show was over.

Cameras weren’t allowed in, but fan-shot footage still hit YouTube minutes after the band left the stage. Once the fans got over the shock of seeing Axl and Slash onstage together for the first time in 23 years, many of them had the same question: “Who is the woman in the back with the blue hair?” It didn’t take long for the press to figure out it was Reese.

“I woke up the next morning, and oh my God,” she says. “It was like CNN, Time, Billboard, People, Rolling Stone, every magazine somehow found my email address. And they were like, ‘Hello, we would like to talk to you about being in the band Guns N’ Roses.’ And I was just like, ‘What?’ I threw my phone across the room. ‘What the fuck do I do?’  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

Rose did his best to prepare her for this moment. “Before the Troubadour show he sat me down,” she says. “He was like, ‘Look, anybody ever fucks with you, talks shit to you, or about you, I fucking have your back.’ And I was just like, ‘Yeah. I got yours too, man.’ I was just trying to be on his level because he’s so intense. I later on found out what that would mean, because I just didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Having all that scrutiny on you and having all those people coming out of the woodwork and being on the news…It was a lot.”

Jessica Lehrman for Rolling Stone

Every once in a while, though, she’d go online and read what the fans were saying about her. Not all of it was kind, and some of it was dripping with misogyny and the notion that she was merely hired for her looks. “I think that 99 percent of the people that go see Guns want to see the top hat and Axl do his thing and Duff,” says Mantia. “They don’t get at all what she’s adding. If you take her away, the low end where she’s doubling Slash’s riff on ‘Brownstone’ wouldn’t sound the same. Axl’s voice wouldn’t sound as thick on a lot of parts. But they wouldn’t give a fuck anyway, since they’re drunk and all they want to do is see Slash do his solo and twirl.”

So that reaction was no surprise to Mantia. “She was against the eight ball from the beginning, especially since it was an all-dudes band,” he continues. “They think she’s window dressing. I mean, yeah, it’s a hot chick. She just happens to be hot and she happens to know what she’s doing.”

Reese also faced criticism from a completely different direction when some wondered how a woman could join a band with such a notorious reputation around their offstage treatment of women in the past, not to mention lyrics like “Turn around bitch, I got a use for you” that they still delivered at every show.

“Guns is definitely still looked at as this dude’s thing, where it’s a male club and there’s no place for a chick,” Reese says. “But you could not ask for a better group of dudes. That’s the band itself and everyone we work with. They’re protective of me. It’s beyond just having my back. We’re like a family, and they’re like my big brothers.”

And their past reputation? “I don’t have the history,” she says. “I wasn’t around for that. I don’t know if I was even born for that. I’m interested in now and moving forward. Specifically with Axl, sometimes there’s this unpredictable vibe surrounding him because of the reputation he carried from before, but my relationship with him is just not like that at all. My relationship with none of them is like that, so I’m not going to sit there and be reacting to some weird history that they may or may not have had, which I was completely not a part of.”

It is true that the modern era of Guns N’ Roses is nothing like the one chronicled in countless books and VH1 documentaries. For one, every single show on the tour has started on time. (Mantia remembers gigs starting well after 1:00 a.m. during his era.) Rose hasn’t had any onstage bursts of anger towards the audience or even a hint of tension with Slash. “So many of Bryan’s experiences were just the polar opposite of what I’ve experienced,” says Reese. “Axl was just different before. People change.”


Reese, however, has changed very little over the past four years. During nearly every moment of downtime from the Guns N’ Roses tours, she’d lock herself away to keep up on her work with Mantia. “I remember I was working on a Super Bowl commercial at one point while sitting on a toilet in Japan,” she says. “Sometimes I’m working right up until we’re walking on stage. I did start taking mental health days, though. We were in Denmark once and I woke up and didn’t even know what country we were in. I had to look at the room service menu to find out. It was almost scary.”

She’s able to let out a lot of her pent-up energy onstage every night. Fueled by her pre-stage snacks of Mike & Ike’s, Sour Patch Kids, and See’s Candies, she jumps and down throughout the entire set. “I am like a jumping bean, and I even eat candy while I play,” she says. “Frank or Duff or someone will come over to me and be like ‘Hit me!’ and I’ll throw them a Snickers.”

During a 2018 show at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii, she felt a tug on her hair midway through a song. She looks back and sees Axl Rose standing there with a big chunk of blue hair in one hand and a large pair of scissors in the other. “I’m like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’” she says. “I stopped playing and started screaming. He runs away and I don’t know if he’s taken off a huge chunk or what.”

It turns out the hair wasn’t hers — it was all a practical joke that Axl spent weeks meticulously plotting out. He even had a tour assistant bring him different wigs with all sorts of shades of blue so he could find the perfect match for her hair. “They went through all the possibilities of what might happen,” says Reese. “Someone even said she might grab the scissors and stab you. But he was so pleased with himself and it was pretty fucking rad.”

That might be a somewhat-cruel joke to play on a hired hand, but Reese is now an official member of the group. “I’m a member-member of Guns N’ Roses,” she says. “It’s always been the case, but I feel like I haven’t been forward enough about it. It’s something that would be good to just, once and for all, get out so there’s no questions.”

With the exception of the lone Mexico City show in March, Reese has now been off the road since early November. It’s given her plenty of time to unwind, focus on her film work, and contemplate her future. The priority at the moment is a production company she’s formed with Mantia that they’re calling Green Frog. That will be the home for not just their music production work, but also a clothing line, a possible solo album, their live show, and anything else they develop together.

“I have big, big aspirations,” she says. “Basically, I want to do this female Trent Reznor thing. He has Nine Inch Nails, but he also is an exec at Apple and he’s scoring film with Atticus Ross. That’s my model, and what I plan on being and doing. Also, I want to be the first half-Asian female EGOT winner. I really, really, really, really swing for the fences.”