Rebecca De La Torre: Engineering Sound Underneath the Desert Sun

rebecca-de-la-torre-interview
Growing up with a grandma who doubled as a professional musician rubbed off on Rebecca De La Torre early on in life. Instead of teacher her to knit, she started to teach little Rebecca music and by the time she was in kindergarten – she was able to read music and knew her way around the piano. Instead of nurturing that talent, she’ll later note on how she wasn’t encouraged to take a musical route early on. So instead of following that path, she landed in engineering for some time before switching gears and that’s where we’ll start this tale…

Kendra: You were an A+ student who then went on to study engineering at ASU, but some may’ve called you insane for pursuing music over that career. How long did you wrestle with that choice before you made it?

Rebecca De La Torre: To answer that question accurately I have to go back to dates/timelines. I would say that when I was a child I wanted to be a singer, but I didn’t get the right support from my family. Of course that has all changed now but initially they were being practical. Taking the engineering route was a safe bet. I thought that I would keep music as a hobby since it was TOLD TO ME that it was too hard to make a living at it. In retrospect, those that sold me on that idea were not as talented nor as driven as me, and I say this as a statement of fact and not conceit. And I was a fool to let them influence me thusly….or maybe it was just meant to be because my engineering background has actually given me an advantage on the business side of things. but I digress…

Several years ago I had barely been playing the piano two years, and I was working on my PhD in Electrical engineering (specifically digital signal processing which is a very niche field that still fascinates me) and I was applying for a research assistantship where I would be making $27k/year (down from $102k/year, mind you)…and I realized how much I wanted out of engineering regardless of the salary cut. I was trying to calculate it all and see if I could still afford to keep my townhouse. I have very minimal expenses but I still had a mortgage…and then it hit me…I could probably make at least $35k/year as a musician. I was already living WELL below my means – this is a VERY important key to my ability to leave a lucrative career.

I was cooking in my my townhouse and my boyfriend (now husband) was over and I was talking about leaving engineering and he kept trying to talk me into just changing jobs and after a little back and forth I just yelled out, “I don’t wanna be an engineer anymore!” Three months later I left engineering and became a full-time musician.

Kendra: I actually commend you for what you did, it’s admirable to those who head towards creativity over lucrativity. Do you have any advice for those who may be in the same shoes you were when you had to make that choice?

Rebecca De La Torre: Yes, I have this VERY important piece of advice: SAVE YOUR MONEY and NEVER buy on credit unless it’s a do or die situation. Also, don’t be foolish and just leave your career and try to live off some savings for a while. Keep your job until you get enough work as a musician to live. I had musician work lined up when I left engineering, particularly a steady gig at a church. That paid my bills and my insurance while I developed my skills as a musician. At this point in my career the church is only about 25-30% of my income.

I have NO DEBT except my little townhouse mortgage at 4%. I cannot emphasize enough how important that is. I buy used cars with cash; SAVE your money. When you buy something with you own HARD EARNED cash you will spend it SO MUCH more wisely that you would when you buy on credit. Keep that in mind.

Kendra: Sticking with this topic a little more. Engineering usually is a male run field, would you say that’s more or less the same with the music industry as well?

Rebecca De La Torre: Oh goodness gracious YES – it’s still mostly men! But I have not noticed or ever thought that I was paid less or treated unequally. Honestly in engineering there were many hardcore women who trail blazed for us – by the time I was in engineering I had it easier – women weren’t “quite” as rare. I even KNOW that I made more money than many men older than me simply because my rank was higher – therefore a higher salary. Honestly, I don’t think that I’ve ever experienced a “glass ceiling” – maybe because I’m not old enough yet, but I think it’s partially because I’ve never seen myself as a woman, but just as a person. I’ve seen myself as an excellent engineer or an excellent musician – not that I’m perfect, but that I don’t see gender as relevant to the paycheck.

Kendra: Asking because you do have your own company out in Arizona. What’s TopKat Music all about?

Rebecca De La Torre: Ha, this is a good question. Back when Google was still new and Gmail was in Beta, I got an invitation to open a gmail account. I wanted something cool and unique, not BlackCat4752123 – but something new enough with no required numbers at the end. So after trying several names, I was able to own topkitty@gmail.com! That was about a year and a half before leaving engineering. So when I started my own company, I decided to name it Topkat. So Topkat Music just encompasses everything that I do. Most notably, I own Topkat Studios in Tempe, AZ – the ONLY recording studio in the Phoenix area that sports a Steinway B 7’ grand piano. Jussayin…

Kendra: You also became the Music Director for the Queen of Peace Catholic Church. Are you still involved there, or are you focusing on your own music right now?

Rebecca De La Torre: OMGosh I do a TON of my own music at the church. YES I love playing for the church and directing my choirs. I have three choirs there – two in English and one in Spanish. I do so much of my own music there, too. It’s great, I’m able to try out different songs and see if they are easy for the congregation to learn or not. It’s a great place to be and a great community. I’m so blessed to have them!

Kendra: Your sound is a blend of so many different things from rock to R&B to Americana. When you were growing up and forming your style, was it as packed full of variety as it is now?

Rebecca De La Torre: Wow, well when I was growing up I don’t know that I was really forming my style, but I guess I was, subliminally. As a child I listened to so many things from classical music like opera and orchestral pieces to the pop music of the day (Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Will Smith, Michael Jackson, Tears for Fears) and even Civil War music since I was in a Civil War band (playing trombone). That’s variety for you. I was also the only white girl on the track team in high school. That influenced my music a LOT. I remember having to sing to keep them from beating me up. (this sounds silly but it’s true) I learned a LOT of R&B tunes and the other girls loved when I sang. As much as I hated Varsity PE class, I gained so much soul from having to sing for those other girls.

Kendra: What were you doing in Nashville in January? Working on new music?

Rebecca De La Torre: YES! There is a lyricist that I work with and we wrote several songs together. We recorded 11 songs there in January and I’m looking forward to releasing them to the world on April 30th!

Kendra: What are your immediate plans this year?

Rebecca De La Torre: Releasing my next CD titled Cuatro in April, as well as many other single releases and I’m shooting for at least one song a month to be released.

Kendra: You’re a charitable person, so if you had to make a mixtape for your favorite charity that they could use to raise money, what five songs would you put on it?

Rebecca De La Torre:
Time In a Bottle” – Jim Croce
La Dueña del Swing” – Los Hermanos Rosario
Landslide” – Fleetwood Mac
Pedro Navaja” – Ruben Blades y Willie Colon
Chattahoochee” – Alan Jackson

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