"The guys call me Blue," Melissa Reese says. The blue-haired, classically trained composer is kicking back in holographic sneakers at her home in Larchmont, on break from touring with the guys: Guns N' Roses.
Outside of her work with GNR, Reese composes for TV, film and video games at breakneck speed. Her work has appeared on Fox, The CW, E! and Sony PlayStation franchises like Infamous. To keep up with her deadlines, she takes a mini recording studio with her on tour. "When I get offstage, the first thing I do is go back to the hotel and set up my rig."
Before a gig, she'll eat a box of See's candy, topped with Diet Coke, which helps her get jacked for a three-hour set. In New Jersey, she puked. "I didn't know what to do! I swallowed it because I didn't want it all over my rig." The crew gave her a blue bucket matching her mane, which has become GNR cosplay. In Mexico, black-market vendors outside shows hawked blue wigs. "Little girls waited in hotel lobbies to tell me that they played piano because of me, which warmed my heart."
It's been a year since Reese joined GNR as keyboardist and backup vocalist. She had two weeks to prepare for the reunion tour, spending 15 hours a day in the studio mastering 50 songs, and zoning in on rock's mightiest instrument: "I studied Axl [Rose]'s phrasing like a hawk."
She's also the band's "enhancer," using an Akai sampler among other tools to trigger "new-school productions" off Chinese Democracy, or play classic parts, such as the Moog synthesizer on "Paradise City." "I don't want to get in the way of these songs," she says. "On the keys, I add sonic layers to thicken our sound, without sticking out like a sore thumb. Anything from synths [to] organic patches and samples."
No matter what she does, she knows she'll be criticized for being the "chick in the band," which is something she's long dealt with in the male-dominated industry of producing.
"I'm one of the only women doing what I do, so I use the hate to fuel my composing, or just rip onstage."
Reese grew up in Seattle, where by age 3 she could play Bach by ear. She was hired by GNR in March, but waited until the band's third show, on April 9, to inform her parents. "I didn't want to stress them out," she says.
As a child, she was discovered by Tom Whitlock, who co-wrote "Take My Breath Away." With his support, she could have been a pop star, but she moved to California and began to study music technology. "I waned to become more independent in the studio," she explains. "I didn't want to be controlled."
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Once in L.A., Reese connected with drummer Bryan "Brain" Mantia over a shared appreciation of old-school Dr. Dre beats. The two rented a Santa Monica studio together in 2010, and from there they became a digital Wrecking Crew, turning out tracks for a variety of projects.
Reese, hopped up on caffeine and candy, would work at a frantic rate. "Brain, who did a lot of the rhythm stuff, would take coffee breaks," she says. "By the time he got back, I had written 15 hooks over finished beats."
Their work includes scoring and remixing Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" for the music video version. Reese also wrote the end title theme to the recent Walter Hill film The Assignment, starring Michelle Rodriguez, and is now finishing up work, with Mantia, on Joseph Kahn's new film, Bodied. She's also going back on tour with GNR in May, a gig that has made her a national star.
"I had no idea what I was getting myself into," Reese says. "But I'm eternally grateful to Axl and the rest of the band for taking a chance on me."