Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2015 12:15 am | Updated: 10:55 am, Sun Feb 15, 2015.
By ANDY VINEBERG Staff Writer
They were hardly the most high-profile musical couple on the red carpet at the Grammy Awards last Sunday, not with Jay Z and Beyoncé in the house.
But if Crystal “RØVÉL” Torres and Michael Law Thomas are not quite household names ... well, give it time.
The high school sweethearts from Levittown (they met as students at Harry S. Truman in the late 1990s after they were introduced by Thomas’ stepfather, Truman phys ed teacher Fred Brown, maintained their relationship while attending different colleges and got married six and a half years ago) were involved with six Grammy nominations this year — she as the trumpet player in Beyoncé’s band, he as the engineer on works by Common and Jhené Aiko.
And that’s only the beginning of what figures to be the most artistically satisfying year of their lives.
Sometime this spring, Torres, as RØVÉL (an acronym for “ray of violet eternal light”), will release her self-produced debut EP, “Infinity,” the culmination of years of songwriting amid touring the world with Beyoncé. The album was engineered and mixed by Thomas, who was selling cars at Precision Acura of Princeton seven years ago, but today has a Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated song on his résumé.
Yeah, it’s been a bit of a wild ride.
“A lot of times, I stop and think, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’ ” Thomas says by telephone from the couple’s apartment on the top floor of a house in Hollywood. “This is nowhere near what I expected to be doing seven years ago.”
Certainly, he never expected to be working with superstars such as Common and John Legend, as he did on their Oscar-nominated collaboration, “Glory,” which plays over the end credits of the 1960s-set film “Selma.”
“Anything Common’s voice has been on in the past year and a half, he’s worked on, making (Common) sound like Common,” Torres says while driving home through West Hollywood. “I’m so proud of him. But it doesn’t surprise me — he’s that type of person. He gets this laser focus on something and just knocks it out of the park.”
As Torres arrives home to Thomas and their miniature schnauzer Magic, it’s sunny and 72 degrees.
“I miss everything about Philadelphia except winter,” she says. “We’ve been here three years, but I’ve been touring for the last two and a half, so it feels like we’re just moving to Los Angeles. I’m just getting to know it.”
Diverse roads to success
Long before Thomas ever envisioned a career in the music business, Torres was already well-established as a professional entertainer. A graduate of William Paterson University’s acclaimed jazz studies program, she had performed at the White House for President George W. Bush and toured the world with trumpeter Roy Hargrove and his progressive jazz-fusion group RH Factor before successfully auditioning for Beyoncé’s all-female band in February 2007.
Torres’ list of live gigs since then is staggering — arenas, stadiums and festivals in more than 50 countries, a second White House appearance (this time for Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday last January), dozens of televised performances, including the Grammys, the Super Bowl, “Saturday Night Live” (singing backup for Jennifer Lopez) and the final episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” ... the list goes on.
Beyoncé actually sang happy birthday to her onstage in Sydney in October 2013 during the Mrs. Carter Show World Tour, where the tour manager acknowledged Torres’ love of Halloween pumpkin carvings with a variety of carved watermelons (apparently, they don’t have pumpkins that time of year in Australia).
But Torres is also finding success away from the bright lights of the Beyoncé tours. She’s featured on trumpet on rap superstar Lupe Fiasco’s song “Adoration of the Magi” off his new album, “Tetsuo & Youth,” and she sang with him last week at a concert celebrating the one-year anniversary of Sean Combs’ digital cable music network Revolt.
“A lot of people know me as a trumpeter, but I sing all the time,” she says. “Before the last tour with Beyoncé, I was doing a lot of studio work, singing 100 songs in the studio in a hundred days. I was really focusing on taking it seriously to build up a repertoire.”
Even as Torres’ professional stock rose, Thomas gave no indication he wanted to join her in the music world. But Torres doubted her future husband would be satisfied selling cars for the rest of his life.
Right before they got married, on Aug. 8, 2008 (triple infinity, Torres notes), she asked him what he really wanted to do with his life.
“I pretended we were in kindergarten again. I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up,” she says. “At the time, he was putting demos together for some songs he was helping me with and he was reading some manuals, but when he told me the next day he wanted to be an audio engineer, it took me by surprise. I didn’t expect him to choose anything in music.”
Soon after their garden wedding in New Jersey, the newlyweds packed up their car and headed west to Arizona, where Thomas, who had briefly pursued a degree in physical therapy at West Virginia University years earlier, enrolled in the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, one of the top such schools in the country.
“Oh, man, this is great,” Thomas recalls thinking. “They opened up the facilities to students all night long, so we got the sense of the studio life before we were actually at a studio. We’d be up there all night, till the sun came up, then do it again the next day.”
After Thomas completed the intense, 11-month program, a classmate repeatedly invited him out to California. He initially resisted — “I’m from the East Coast. I wanted to stay here” — but eventually realized there were more opportunities out west. He ended up working for Def Jam vice president Ernest Wilson (better known as No I.D.), moving up from intern to assistant engineer to engineer.
Soon, thanks to a combination of talent and connections, he was behind the board for some of the biggest names in the business.
“I can remember listening to Nas records as a kid, and there I was sitting in the studio, and he’s in the booth recording,” Thomas says. “I’m just in awe — his voice is coming through my speakers. It’s weird, surreal.
“There was this session once where Pharrell (Williams) is in there, and he’s doing some singing right next to me. ‘Man, this is Pharrell.‘ This is the stuff you dream of as a kid.”
Not that Thomas necessarily gets starstruck — being married to a member of Beyoncé’s bands obviously provides more opportunities to rub shoulders with the rich and famous than the average person gets. But it’s still a relatively new world for him, and being in the audience at the Grammys last week is something he’s still pinching himself over.
“The overall intensity of the red carpet is something I’ll remember forever,” he says. “Everything was exciting, nerve-wracking ... I’ve never been so close to that type of thing. Seeing everybody’s reactions, seeing how many stars walked past, everyone being in one place, celebrating one night ... everything was really intense.”
Thomas won’t be attending next Sunday’s Oscars, although he obviously has a personal stake in the best original song category with “Glory.”
After he and Common wrapped up work on the rapper’s “Nobody’s Smiling” album, Common asked Thomas to begin working with him on a new project with “John.” At first, Thomas had no idea that meant John Legend.
“I’m so excited, man,” he says. “This is a really good song, so elegant. I’m super-fortunate to be part of so many great projects and work with such amazing artists.”
The next phase
For everything Crystal Torres has experienced with Beyoncé, she has rarely been as excited as she is for her first solo project.
“I feel like this is my first time fearlessly showing the world who I am, really, without boundaries, without labels,” says Torres, who is planning to play a CD release show in Philly at a date and venue to be determined (her and Thomas’ families are both still in Bucks County). “I’m meshing all of my musical experiences up to now into one project. It’s really a steppingstone, a piece of me, with more to come. It’s very exciting, and I couldn’t have done it without Michael.”
Torres describes the eight-song album as “alternative singer-songwriter, with a soul, hip-hop and pop influence.” She sang, played piano and programmed all the beats, with musical accompaniment from a handful of talented friends, including Adam Blackstone, the acclaimed producer/multi-instrumentalist she’s known since childhood.
She says paring the final track list to eight songs was “super-hard,” given how much she’s written in recent years.
“I chose the songs that best embodied what I wanted my introduction as an artist to be,” she says, “whatever songs embodied that search for what’s strong, what’s powerful, what’s special, what’s magical about all of us, which, at the end of the day, is love. There’s nothing more infinite and powerful and able to overcome obstacles than love.”
The RØVÉL stage name was inspired by her experiences with chakra meditation and her desire “to connect, inspire, empower and awaken through music.”
Getting to do all that with her husband by her side has made the project even sweeter.
“He’s my secret weapon,” she says. “We create together, and he makes everything I do sound great.”
“At the end of the day, she’s the musician,” Thomas adds. “Maybe she gives me more leeway as far as suggestions, but at the end of the day, she’s the one that has to get onstage. I’m always behind the scenes. I wouldn’t call myself a musician being around so many great musicians. What I do is mess around.”
Whatever Torres and Thomas are doing — together or apart — it’s working. And maybe, someday, they’ll be the musical couple at the Grammys that the cameras can’t get enough of.
“That is the plan,” Thomas says. “That’s what we want to work toward.”