The Rock & Soul of SORAIA

By Diane DiMemmo

May 9, 2020

Philadelphia rock band Soraia has been steadfastly making a name for themselves in the rock/alt rock/garage rock genre … garnering awards, recognition, and commendations from not only fans but industry influencers as well. They have created four albums: In the Valley of Love and Guns(2013), Soraia Lives! (2014), Dead Reckoning(2017), and Dig Your Roots, recently released on March 13, 2020. On that same day, all live shows came abruptly to a halt; a tough blow to any band anxious to promote and share their newest material with fans. Lead vocalist ZouZou Mansour, though, has chosen to focus on the positives and took some time to talk with me about her bandmates, the stories behind her new songs, and the very special relationship she has with her fans. 


GENRE

Garage Rock/Alt Rock/Rock n' Roll

FOUNDED

2007/2008

BAND MEMBERS

ZouZou Mansour: Lead Vocals, Tambourine

Travis Smith: Bass Guitar, BG Vocals

Brianna Sig: Drums, Percussion, BG Vocals

Nick Seditious: Lead and Rhythm Guitar

HOMETOWN

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


THE INTERVIEW

OUR CONVERSATION

D: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us at Asbury Park Vibes! I want start by congratulating the band for winning the Independent Music Award for “Evergreen!”

Z: Thank you. Yes we just found out; my label called me and said, ‘Congrats, you just won the Vox Pop [the People’s Voice] Award.' You know it’s chosen by the people so it was really extra nice.

D: What does this award mean to you at this moment with everything at a standstill and you, obviously, wanting to tour and promote your new album? Does this award mean more to you at this moment in time?

Z: I knew when we were writing this album, and especially when we started recording in the studio that this was a special album. I knew it was really going to be an important album to us and for us. It was intuition and it was also just knowing what everyone was bringing to the table. A lot more confidence, a lot more ideas, a lot more artistic freedom than we had in previous sessions. And we totally trusted our producer, Jeff, who we’ve worked with in the past. “Evergreen” was the only single we released from the album last year. So, for that song to rise up to what it’s become and win an independent music award to me is a huge success. To me, there are judges and then there are the people’s awards. And the fact that the people chose “Evergreen,” it’s an honor and I’m humbled by it. I thought ‘Now that’s a big deal!' When I started out, I used to feel jealous of artists who got those types of awards, mostly because I thought I would never be able to achieve that. So, every milestone that we’ve achieved, especially lately, I feel like it’s earned; I feel like we deserve it. I’m not in a place where I’m pompous about it; it’s just I’m not surprised. I mean it would’ve been fine if we didn’t [win], but it was really nice that we did, especially at this time.

D: You were quoted as saying, “Dig Your Roots refers to loving what grounds you: the people, the lifestyles, the places you live, where you grew up. It’s being willing to dig up your roots and re-plant if where you are no longer keeps you free.” Why was it so important for this to be the album’s main message?

Z: Because honestly, with this album the title came after. It wasn’t thought of before; it wasn’t a concept thing. But I looked at all the songs and the stories they told about different times in my life umbrella-wise, and thought this is about accepting all the parts of myself; and the cover of the album has [a picture of] the apple for that reason which is a bit of symbolism. The idea that there’s dark and light in all of us and accepting and loving those parts just as much, acquiescing that they exist, took a long time for me, and a lot of heartbreak and trauma. But that’s all dead and what I have left is being able to take those roots and make them who you are but also be able to dig them up and move elsewhere if you have to. Especially with what’s going on now, I feel like we’re faced with ourselves. So, it was an important message that reflected every theme of every song on that album.

D: As a musician do you feel a catharsis in sharing that message with your fans?

Z: Absolutely. I think with every album the goal is to be more honest about who we are as artists and who we are as human beings. You have to know who you are at the most basic level.

D: Your new video “Wild Woman” just came out this week. Where was it filmed and what was the experience like making it compared with your other videos?

Z: I actually worked with the same screenwriter as “Monster” off of our last album and I was really happy with the narrative she came up with. I told her what the song was about and she built the story around it. I really like working with her and she has a good team of people. We were touring in California so on our days off we filmed the video in Corona, California at a park that’s actually closing and it was probably one of the last things done there. It’s a beautiful park with so many scenes and settings to use there. I had some visions for the video where the main character falls back into the abyss to look like the original Star Wars wasteland “Tatooine.” I was watching Star Wars before this and thought, 'We should make the video look like this.'

D: Does the whole band come up with ideas/storyboard for the video? Or did the storyline mainly come from the song lyrics?

Z: It starts with the song. I co-wrote “Wild Woman” and “Monster” with our bass player, Travis Smith, who I’ve been co-writing with for years. If he has a strong idea, it’s a really good idea, so I listen to him. But with this video, it was mostly from the lyrics. I came up with the title and lyrics, and Travis wrote the music.

D: Is the song “Wild Woman” autobiographical?

Z: Absolutely, it’s my best version of me. And what I want every woman (and human) to feel. The idea is taking those scars and making them gold. You know, like the old Japanese bowls where the cracks would fill in with gold. That’s what that whole video is really about.

D: Tell us about your bandmates in Soraia.

Z: We have Nick Seditious on guitar, who is amazing, such a great player. He’s been doing the “One & Done” series with me online. Brianna Sig is our drummer who also co-writes songs with me. She sings amazing harmonies with me and does a lot of arranging with the songs. She just started doing that on this record. And Travis Smith (bass) has been with me the longest time. He’s my main co-writer; we write really well together, great chemistry; we cut our teeth during the last eight years of writing together. It’s easy to write with him and he’s an artist to the “Nth degree.” He studies; he notices I like something and he’ll bring it into the song. And sometimes we add John Hildenbrand on keys too; he’s a major player on this album. Although I can’t get him as much for the live shows; he’s a part-time Soraia.

D: Regarding your co-writing with Brianna and Travis, do the songs you write together have more meaning to Soraia, as a whole, because they’re written by several of you?

Z: I only ever wrote one song by myself when I was nine years old. And I was thinking with what’s going on now, I should write songs on my own. But I have no desire to. I can write poetry and I can do that on my own. But I love the conversations that come when you sit in a room with someone you have no pretense with. You don’t care if they hurt your feelings or you hurt theirs. That’s a magic relationship and the more honest you are with that co-writer … you’re trying to write a great song. I’ll sing a part or share a lyric and ask if it’s ok or if it sounds dumb, because I’m not sure. There are some parts I just don’t know. And I know I’m always going to get the truth [from my co-writers]. When they know your writing style, they know what to call you on. It keeps you honest, keeps your ego out of it. I don’t get my feelings hurt anymore because I believe in how long I’ve studied writing and how long I’ve done it, I figure I must be ok at this point. But I always want to grow, I’ll always want to be a better writer. Sitting with Brianna, I was actually able to talk about things I wouldn’t necessarily talk about with a male writer. It was easier to write a song with her like “Don’t Have You” (which was about a very vulnerable female heartbreak) than with other writers. Brianna was the first female I’d written with. She has a great ear for melody and harmonies. When you let other people put their hands on it and put their ideas into it, and you trust that they care about it … it’s 100 times better than if you did it by yourself.

D: “Foxfire” is such a hauntingly beautiful song with lovely harmonies, an element not usually found in hard rock music. What led to your decision to put layered vocal harmonies in some of your songs?

Z: It just happened naturally. In 2015, I remember seeing Brianna play in another band before she joined Soraia. When she sang, I thought, 'Wow she’s a really good singer!' She’s a great harmony singer. I remember calling her after that to meet for coffee. I knew there was something special there, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. We already had a drummer. I didn’t even know why I wanted to talk to her, but I felt like she was an important person in my future. Then when our drummer began having hand problems, Brianna joined the band. And we just started harmonizing. She would come to rehearsal an hour and a half early to work on strengthening her voice and harmonizing. Heart is a good example of [blending] female voices. I have a husky voice, Brianna has a pretty, ethereal voice. It’s a great dichotomy. It’s a nice mix. You hear it in “Superman Is Gone” and “Foxfire.” With each record we learn where the harmonies work and we get better at knowing where to add them. Whoever I write a song with, we always bring it to the band and everyone adds something to it. You bring it on tour and it changes. When you bring it to the studio, it changes again. It’s definitely a process.

D: Steven Van Zandt has been a staunch advocate of Soraia from the very beginning. His Wicked Cool label produced Dig Your Roots. What is your relationship like?

Z: He heard our song, “Love Like Voodoo” and loved it as well as my song “Runaround.” He had me meet him in 2010-2011 and I was really concentrating on my songwriting at that time. He was interested in us since then, and we reconvened in 2013 where he started playing us on the radio. He loved our album In The Valley Of Love And Guns. From that point we just started handing him in albums and songs. And he loved them. In January 2017, we went in to record Dead Reckoning; he had signed us at the end of 2016. He signed our back catalog from In The Valley of Love and Guns on. He produced two of the songs on Dead Reckoning; and Jeff, our producer now, produced the rest of them, and the next singles. Steven and I co-wrote a couple. So it’s kind of just progressed. His label is in the same building as the TeachRock.org charity he runs as well as his underground garage rock station. It’s like one huge warehouse floor, along with the studio, it’s all purple.

ZAEH_SORAIA_GROUP02-19

D: Stevie co-wrote “Still I Rise” and “Darkness is My Only Candle” from Dig Your Roots. How does songwriting work with Stevie?

Z: With "Darkness Is My Only Candle," he just happened to be walking through to go get lunch. We were on this part and we were stuck. I told him we were having a rough time with the bridge. So we played it for him and he said I have an idea. He literally stayed there for 20 minutes and we re-worked the whole bridge. I mean he’s fast. So, my relationship with him is he’s always been very supportive of me, personally as an artist. He believes in me; he believes is my writing. He believes in my & Travis’ writing. He’s always made our songs the #1 song of the year for 2-3 years in a row. He’s been a muse that’s freed me of my pre-conceived notions of how I’m supposed to write. He’s humbled me and made me realize an artist is an artist no matter what their level. But his belief in me has changed me. His total acceptance of our band is unparalleled. He’s never made us feel small, he challenges us, he’s a real artist. He understands artists. I love him with all my heart.

D: “Dangerous”- Such a great first song to the album; one that deserves a lot of radio play, in my opinion. "Hey baby, I took the bait. I can’t even see straight. I tell myself I’m not in love. You’re so charming dangerous." How did this song come about? Is this the kind of song you feel fans will be able to relate to?

Z: Sure. It’s about being jilted and I didn’t like it; who hasn't felt that? It was one of the last songs we wrote for the record and I didn’t want it to have a melody in the verse; I just wanted to have spit and sarcasm and a little bit of flirtatiousness. The middle section was Steven’s idea. We were listening to a lot of Jet at the time, and I was like, man, I miss listening to The Vines, and the early 2000 garage rock. Who cares if there’s a melody or not; there’s melody in the chorus. Yeah, absolutely this is a song that everybody can relate to.

D: What was the significance of including the cover “Nothing Compares To You” by Prince (and also famously covered by Sinead O’Connor)?

Z: Honestly, I’m a huge Prince fan and we covered Prince on our first record too. If you hear the Prince version (which I hadn’t), I just knew he wrote it and I was like, ‘Figures.’ When I heard his version, it was so much more soulful. I love Sinead O’Conner’s version but it’s more pop, and also very heartfelt and raw; and I like the vocals in the forefront of that one. Prince’s version is very soulful and has a different emotion to it. It’s a story of a breakup and it’s so well done. So I love it for that reason, but part of it is that I’m such a huge Prince fan and I just want to cover Prince on every record. When we went into the studio, we had not worked on that song at all. It was picked last minute and I didn’t have a lot of confidence in delivering the vocal. But by the time the vocals came, I was ready and I knew there was a reason I picked that.

D: Why do you choose to include covers in your albums?

Z: I think it’s a way to show people where you come from and what music speaks to you. Also, it’s something they can latch on to that they’ve heard before. Aside from that, they’re just fun. We ended up covering David Bowie on the “B” side of a single last year. I was scared to cover Bowie but realized he’s just an artist like the rest of us. But he has such a unique approach vocally; you can never sing like Bowie. You can cop Bowie which is like putting on a mask or you can just do it; it took me a while before I could just let it be my song. But I love covering other artists and Prince and Bowie are two of my all-time favorite artists. So, I’m sure there’ll be more Bowie and Prince in the future.

D: Why were “Dangerous" and “Euphoria” selected to bookend all of the songs on Dig Your Roots?

Z: We worked on the sequence after the mixes came in. I suggested “Dangerous” first because I felt like it was a statement, an explosion, and that people wouldn’t expect it. You’re basically saying, ‘You’re coming for a ride [on this album] and it’s gonna be wild.’ It was a statement on Soraia because that’s how we start our shows. We felt like “Euphoria” was Part 2 of the song, “Beggar,” which we did in 2015. It was the same style with the blues feel, and then it gets heavy and kicks into this very poetic metaphor that really needs interpretation; but I feel like I’m going to let everyone else figure it out. The idea that even though you have a lot of experience and you’ve done something for a long time; you’re not the one who’s going to [ultimately] bring you there. We wanted to end it kind of “churchy.”

D: Guitarist Nick Seditious is new to Soraia. Has your sound changed or transformed with his style? How are you melding as a group?

Z: He’s very similar to our former guitarist; I think he is into heavier rock more than Mike is. But they both loved a lot of the same guitar players; they both love Queen. They are both hugely talented guitarists and we weren’t going to settle for someone who was at least as good as Mike. There was no way we were going to fill his shoes, but we had to find someone who loved our music and could technically adapt to our style. Like you said before we deviate; we don’t stick with hard rock, we don’t stick with rock and roll; we do some pop. There’s a freedom in being able to do that, and we didn’t want to change that. So, Nick had to be versatile and he is. He really wanted to honor the sound [of Soraia] because he loves the music too, and he did. He plays slightly different but he plays all of the songs like they’re his own. I asked him if he could do this and he told me how much he loves the music; he has a very blues-Led Zeppelin sound but leans more toward heavy rock; he has more metal in his vibe. We walk that line between rock and roll and really hard rock (that’s how most people see us). You know, it’s similar to what Heart was doing, similar to Joan Jett. And Nick understand that. He's added a lot of new passion and new joy. He’s a road warrior and we need that. It’s always about the co-write and Mike served us well; we wrote some great songs together.

D: I always speak from the fan’s perspective and I feel that the artist-fan relationship is the heart and soul of what happens at a live concert. How would you characterize what your fans mean to you?

Z: I absolutely love them. I make an intention before every show that I’m going to put as much love as possible into it (no matter what’s going on in my world) for them. My vocal teacher was always very clear that it you don’t have a focus and a goal – or you don’t care – then that’s what you’re going to get in return. Life is a mirror, what you put out is what you get back. I’m not doing it with the intent of getting it back but when I talk about my fans, I well up in my heart. Because I am them … I’m a ridiculously huge music fan. I wish I had more time to enjoy it! I was in love with music as a kid and it saved me. I always felt different and rock and roll always gave me a home. So I know that’s what they want too. The people that come to our shows, they’ve been through some stuff and I can see it. But they’ve found their home.

D: If you did have the time, what live shows would you love to sneak in and see?

Z: Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, Bon Jovi, U2. I’ve seen Blondie in the past and love her. Patti Smith, love her, I’ve seen her before. Sonic Youth; they don’t play anymore but I saw them in 2008. I love Sonic Youth because you never know what kind of concert they’re going to put on. I’ve seen The Struts a few times; they’re really good. Alice in Chains is really good. Stone Temple Pilots and Rival Sons. Rival Sons are probably my favorite. I saw them last Fall and they’re definitely my top band right now. The lyric, the musicianship, and the delivery in that band.

D: Yeah, I saw that tour too here at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park and I was blown away.

Z: And Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown!

D: They are one of MY top bands right now. So kind and accommodating to us photographers. They are good people.

Z: Yeah, that’s what I got from meeting and playing with them!

D: Once things get back to some sort of “normal,” will you pick right back up with your tour?

Z: We’re starting to reschedule the whole tour we had in the Spring. We did the California leg and ended just one show early before everything came to a standstill. We’re going to reschedule all the dates we had for the Fall. We have a few opening spots in October and then we go off to Europe. Pretty much September on, we’re on the road and hopefully that will stay the case.

D: I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, ZouZou!

Z: Thank you so much, Diane. It was a great interview.

D: It’s been a pleasure. Take care.

MUSIC


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