Words by Ren Aguila; Photos Courtesy of Reese Lansangan
Reese Lansangan’s music has not made it to space yet. The closest it has ever come was when NASA released a video in the run-up to the launch of the first U.S. astronaut mission in a decade. They featured “A Song About Space,” a track from her first album Arigato, Internet! It, however, has been online for years, and the YouTube one is the version they used. The video got her some brief attention from mainstream Philippine media. Still, those who have been following her career would not be surprised.
Reese is most well known as a singer-songwriter. She has released one album, two EPs, and several singles, with a second full-length album, in the works. There’s more to her than just her music, and we’ll get to that later.
Reese’s musical talent is a family legacy. “My late dad has always been the musical one,” she says, “He used to play guitar and the trumpet as a young teenager in the province, and he would do small gigs as a ‘combo’ with his friends to help fund his education.” Her dad encouraged her to sing with him when she was much younger, especially at family parties. After he died when Reese was nine, she started to pick up his guitar and learned how to play from her dad’s songbooks. Her mother encouraged her daughters to pursue music and even enrolled them in classes at the UP College of Music extension program. There, she and her sister learned classical guitar, violin, piano, and (at one point) the drums.
“I’ve tried writing my own songs as early as Grade 3, but of course, they weren’t any good,” Reese says, “it was just me toying around with the piano keys.” She says that it was around the time she was 14 that she came up with songs “that sounded quite decent.” Not long after, YouTube started in 2005, and she caught a few singer-songwriters performing their music on it. She says that the video platform helped inspire her songwriting because she realized that anyone could make music. “I used to think music as a career was unattainable for someone like me,” she notes, “but YouTube evened out the playing field for me.”
At the Ateneo de Manila University, Reese enrolled in the BFA in Information Design program. It was there that she joined the Ateneo Musicians Pool, and she met who would become her musical collaborator, Vica Hernandez. The collaboration was a “happy accident,” as Reese describes it. Before one scheduled public performance, Vica messaged Reese if she wanted to collaborate. They worked on their first song together, “Open Your Eyes,” via Yahoo Messenger.
Reese’s experience with Reese & Vica proved to be valuable for her as a musician. She credits Vica for being the “melody machine” of the duo. At the same time, she was mostly responsible for the thematic and lyrical elements of their songs. Learning to build up her vocal stamina was another thing she gained from her early years. “During our first few gigs, I couldn’t cope very well because my voice would be completely gone after just five songs,” she says, “I eventually built up my vocal stamina after more gigs with Vica, and I really owe a lot of who I am as a musician to that duo.”
It was when Vica could not make it to a gig that Reese started performing as a soloist. At what she describes as a “seedy club in Eastwood,” she had her first solo show, playing several covers.
She admits to being very nervous that night. The duo was a security blanket for her, and she adds, “Failing never means you’re failing alone.” Since then, she has been performing both solo and with other musical collaborators, most notably Josh Villena of Autotelic.
Reese is not only a musician but also a visual artist and fashion designer. Her forays into the visual arts also started when she was younger. She was encouraged by the example of a close cousin who studied at the UP College of Fine Arts. “[I] couldn’t imagine studying anything else in university,” she says. After completing her BFA in Ateneo, she studied fashion design and management as a second degree. Heima, a local design firm, eventually invited her to have her first solo exhibit, which happened in October 2014.
The exhibit was on the theme of collections and obsessions, Reese says. “I interviewed different personalities with distinct collections of items: Japanese erasers, tissue paper from different countries, fruit stickers, stolen restaurant items, [and so on],” she says, “as a hoarder myself, I had so much fun delving into the research aspect of this exhibit.” She has participated in a minor way in other group shows. However, it was around that time that she shifted gears toward music. Yet, she argues, she practices her art all the time. She designs her merchandise, makes her promo posters and other materials, and even directs her music videos.
In December 2015, Reese released Arigato, Internet! The full-length album, whose first edition was sold out at the album launch, is a tribute to how the Internet helped her gain notice as a musician. She says that songs from that record, such as “Grammar Nazi” and “A Song About Space,” continue to define her as an artist, and people get to know her through these tunes. However, it was a struggle putting together the record and the ensuing launch event. Eventually, with the help of people like her present manager Jmi Salcedo, Jason Conanan (her former colleague at AMP), and a small squad of interns, she was able to pull off having a launch event. With the help of other collaborators, who became her lifelong friends and colleagues, she put together the album.
The album was followed by what is arguably a more intimate EP, Of Sound Mind and Memory, in 2017. At a recent performance for Indie Manila’s Subdued online gig series, she told the story of one song, “Of Machines and Men.” It is a biographical track that includes, among others, mention of the fateful car crash in which her father died. Of that song, she says that it is about “observing a human life from start to finish.” “I think…about mortality a lot,” she adds, “much more than the average person.” Her father’s death, when she was younger, may have something to do with it, she claims.
Since these two records, Reese has been releasing a string of singles, including “Islands,” “Jealousy Is a Familiar Friend,” and “Tenderfoot,” which is one of her most recent recordings. The latter song was a collaboration with her friend April Hernandez (TheSunManager), who produced the track. We asked Reese about why the title was so. She explained that the idea behind “Tenderfoot,” which is the lowest rank in the Boy Scouts, was that we are all beginners in learning to love ourselves. She says, “I’m always rediscovering how to be kinder to myself. It’s easy to forget, so I’m always starting over. But that’s okay.” Reese worked with April to beef up the track, adding pads and other effects, most notably a shimmering sound before the song’s bridge.
Apart from these singles, Reese released a holiday EP, Merry Christmas, Friend in late 2019. She also recently worked on two collaborations. “My Sweet Hometown” is her interpretation of a song by Shoji Nakamura and Elyse Rainbolt, which is the result of a meeting she had with a Japanese producer during a recent trip to the country. “Stuck W U,” her most recent collaborative project, teams her up with Eden Kai (Terrace House), Jon Wong, and Leenda Dong to cover a song originally done by Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.
Recently, “A Song About Space” became a theme of sorts for NASA’s #LaunchAmerica campaign. Reese says it was a surreal experience. “It’s a dream come true to be noticed by NASA,” she says, “this entity has inspired dreamers, thinkers, and believers in all of us, including myself.” Her fascination with space exploration led her to create designs inspired by spacesuits for her fashion school collection. She also released “An Opportunity to Go to the Moon” to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in 1969.
What Reese’s fans and other listeners are awaiting is her second album. The launch has been indefinitely delayed because of the current pandemic. Still, it is currently 90% done and in the mastering stage (which follows recording and mixing). Reese admits of being concerned about the sophomore slump, the feeling that the second album would be worse than the first. However, she recalls what producer Steve Lilywhite shared with her when she was under his mentorship: “Nobody’s waiting for your album. They’re waiting for a great album.” The overarching theme of the record, she says, is “growth” and taking time, which she has taken to heart.
Reese is turning 30 this October. From her life so far, the one thing that she has learned is making time for her family. Her early days in the gig scene did not allow her to make an effort to connect with her family. “It’s the grind that you really have to do,” she says, “but as I’m getting older, I have more leeway to choose my battles.” She is learning how to achieve an excellent work-life balance as a result. Her biggest regret is being too precious with her material. “I think I could’ve been more experimental during the times I felt like I was running dry,” she says. She adds, “I just put a lot of prestige in the idea of ‘albums,’ and I kept every bit of new material to myself thinking I’ll never get to write more.”
What does Reese hope to do in the time to come? “I hope to continue doing what I love. I hope to lead with light. I hope to master my priorities by heart and answer to things that are truly important to me instead of chasing big ideas that I think I want. I hope to build meaningful relationships with the people who support me and spend more time getting to know who they are and what they care about.”