A Double Life in Acoustics
APL electrical engineer Ashley Llorens leads a double life. His "day job" is managing passive sonar automation projects for the Navy. On his own time, Llorens has a second career as a musician. Known professionally as SoulStice, Llorens is a lyricist, producer, and internationally acclaimed hip-hop artist.
Growing up in Chicago, he got interested in science, performing simple experiments like stripping twist ties and sticking the wires in electrical sockets. That scientific curiosity led him to computers and eventually electrical engineering, his major at the University of Illinois (B.S., 2001; M.S., 2003, in electrical engineering).
But he also wrote poetry, which became hip-hop music lyrics and a parallel career path. He won a regional hip-hop competition, gaining a following on the Illinois campus and across the state. By the time he graduated, Llorens' first CD was being played around the world.
As for his dual careers, Llorens says "They're similar in a lot of ways. Both involve acoustics and signal processing." He's a systems/signal processing engineer in the National Security Technology Department (NSTD) supporting the Undersea Warfare Mission Area. At APL, his satisfaction comes from the critical nature of the work he does everyday, keeping Navy assets secure against undersea threats. Beyond that, he says, "I like the atmosphere in NSTD and at the Lab in general. You know that people value the work we do here and that we're working toward common goals. There's a definite team mentality in my group and section. My co-workers are talented, and expectations are high, which drives me to perform at a higher level."
Sometimes it surprises him to see how far his music career has come. He's a bona-fide international artist and has toured in both Japan and Europe. He notes that Japan is the best market for independent hip-hop. Llorens' music has been featured in most of the major hip-hop magazines and websites. His membership in the Recording Academy earned him voting rights and the chance to attend a Grammy Awards show in LA (which he says was "a blast!").
Even with all his success, he's happy to remain a one-man business because there are things he can do as an independent that he says probably wouldn't happen if he waited for a major label to pick him up. "It's a great feeling to make the music I want to make and achieve success without being affiliated with a major label. It's a lot of hard work, but I get to do things my own way."
But as part of the larger American music culture, Llorens recently joined forces with fellow musicians to lobby Congress for legislative changes to the way royalties are paid to performers. "The issue is that when songs are played on the radio, songwriters receive a performance royalty and the performers of the song do not," says Llorens. "There's really no good reason for this other than that the legislation is outdated. This system was originally put in place back in 1909 before vinyl records become ubiquitous, and there really was no such thing as a commercial sound recording." So he made the rounds on Capitol Hill with a group of over 100 artists and music producers for a new adventure as a "lobbyist for a day."
He's still doing technical work, but as a project manager now, he has the opportunity to interact directly with sponsors and focus his work on meeting their needs. "Project management has given me experience with people management as well as insights into the financial side of things and how our budget system works. I've also served on several committees. I've really enjoyed the increased responsibility and the opportunity to grow and expand to meet different challenges."
How does he see his future playing out? Llorens says he's a lucky guy. "I haven't had to make a choice between engineering and music. I'm doing two things I absolutely love," he says. "I like the challenge of managing both careers, and I love using both sides of my brain everyday—it keeps me on my toes. I definitely feel driven to keep advancing my career at APL to make a more significant contribution. At the same time, I plan on making more music, making more fans, and touring more countries. I get to wake up everyday and work hard at two pursuits that I'm passionate about. If I'm lucky, I'll get to keep doing what I'm doing right now for years to come."