Interview with Soraia

Philadelphia rock band Soraia, fronted by powerhouse female vocalist ZouZou Mansour, has been creating waves with their music and dynamic live performances since 2007.  The band is in the process of releasing a new album entitled Dead Reckoning on Steve Van Zandt’s label Wicked Cool Records and Mansour took the time to answer some questions about the album, finally performing in Europe and the origin of her stage name.

Congratulations on the new album!  What was the recording process like for this album? What can the fans expect?

Thank you so much! We are all very proud of this record, so that means a lot.

The recording process was different for us from previous records, in that we recorded all 12 songs in two weeks. I loved doing it this way, actually. In the past, we’ve spent a lot of time producing and arranging in the studio. This time around, we wrote the songs last summer,  then played them out on tour in the fall so that they were road-worn by the time we got to the studio.

Also, it was important to both us and the label that we capture as much of our live sound on this record as possible. Between the amount of time we spent in the studio, plus the insight from both Steven Van Zandt and Geoff Sanoff, and the collaboration of the whole band, too, this album definitely exceeded our expectations. Super happy about it.

Our fans can expect what they always do from Soraia: raw delivery fo the music and a passionate vocal. The songs definitely are even more introspective, but we also worked with outside writers this time around. Steven Van Zandt wrote a song for us and we worked with Eri Bazilian on the final cut. They can also expect a much more alive version of the recordings than on our previous releases. It is the first time we recorded directly to tape, too. So it’s warm and much more us as you’ve seen us live.

Everyone involved that collaborated to make this record what it is, were heavily invested in it, too. Which makes a great record!

You all recently signed a record deal with Steve Van Zandt’s label!  How has that experience been for you as a band? 

It’s been the best experience EVER. You hear these horror stories of when bands sign to labels. How they lose their artistic individuality, or how they get lost in the shuffle, and no one cares about them or their record. That has absolutely been the opposite of our experience. Everyone at the label has been hands-on on a daily basis, and are heavily invested in our success. Between Steven and the Wicked Cool team, and our The Orchard team, we are beyond grateful and lucky to have the personal attention and passion of these people. And their time. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better situation than the one Soraia is currently in with Steven’s label. It’s really all about the music.

Are there any songs on the album that are especially meaningful for you?

I’d say “Come Down, Angel” and “Wandering Star”. “Come Down, Angel” is about a last ditch effort to ask an angel to save me while dying. I was an addict and alcoholic, and during my active addiction, I overdosed a few times, and this song is about all those times, plus the dark charisma of the substances. When I first wrote it, I was like,”Who wants to hear about another addiction story?”, but it turned into an intense writing experience between Travis Smith and myself when we co-wrote it together. It was deeper than I felt I had ever gone on a song before, and much more vulnerable than I felt I’d been with my lyrics.

“Wandering Star” is taken from the point of view of being on the edge of the river when Jeff Buckley dies. This is the first time I wrote a song that was about a story, rather than an actual real-life experience. It felt great – as a songwriter – to get out of that box and write about something that I know affected me, without me being there.

You recently released the video for the song Quicksand from your upcoming album.  What was the filming process like? Do you enjoy making music videos? Had you worked with Leech Ernowetz before?

The filming process was easy, at least for the band: we just had to be ourselves. On stage and off. I talked at length to Leech about wanting to capture the live instensity of the band, but also, the feeling of all the influences of the band, and he did an amazing job of using color and editing to achieve that. He understood what I was looking for, and added in his own vision and eye to make the video all the more intense and honest.

I’m not a huge fan of making music videos, though I understand the importance of them and love watching them. This experience has been the best yet, since Leech really honored the vision, and captured us in a genuine way. Plus his vision added in was perfect, and we really collaborated to make a great video. He’s an extremely talented guy with an artistic eye. We are working with him again on our next video being shot this October.

I saw that you will be performing in Europe for the first time in October.  What prevented you from touring Europe in the past? What are you looking forward to the most about those shows?

Yes! We’re very excited about playing in Europe. The only thing that inhibited us in the past was no booking agent or money to get there. With the support of the label’s team and their roster of artists, we are able to go this time around!

We’re really looking forward to playing for European audiences, because we’ve heard so much about them and how much they get into the shows. We’re also excited to see the areas we’re going (Spain and Germany) and all that goes along with that: the people, the food, the architecture. Whenever I go to another part of the world, I’m so much more alive: you’re no longer around what you know and are comfortable with. It’s  been one of our main goals for a long time now!

As a band you have had your ups and downs.  What drives you and keeps you motivated to keep going as a band? 

I think through the difficult times, either within the group or if there’s outside issues, there’s always the music. And – for all of us – that has to remain the focus. I’ve preached that a lot to the group, including myself! We’re together because we all love the music, and we all believe in the power of what music does, and we all want to grow and keep evolving as artists and musicians and songwriters. I think when one area of a relationship isn’t working, focus on what is. For us, that’s the forward momentum of our passion within this band.

Who are some of your favorite artists right now?  Who are you listening to that you feel like people should know about? 

I love a lot of artists from previous generations, like: Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Otis Redding, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Prince, Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith Group, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, and the list can go on and on. A little more modern artists I love are The Struts, Queens of the Stone Age, Sia, Rival Sons. They all have something in their voices and songs that hit me hard.

I love all great music, songs, and singers, honestly. Anything with a melody that hooks me is what I’m attracted to. I love a lot of artists that can throw it out there and not give a fu*k–just be raw and bluesy, yet still remind me of soul and heart and speak lyrics that mean something. That doesn’t mean I don’t like a song that’s pure ear candy. That works just fine, too!

You were a teacher before becoming a musician.  What prompted the transition?

I was teaching and doing open mics at night. It was getting difficult to do both.

I became a teacher because I loved to learn, loved interacting and stay curious, and I knew I could stay in a career that held that.  I knew that was a career I could do and never get bored of. I also love to read, and I knew that would help me stay in touch with that, and keep finding new authors.

But ultimately, my heart belonged to  singing: that’s where I found my passion and purpose. I was teaching a poetry class, and had no plan for the day, so I told everyone to write a poem. I did, too, and EUREKA! I found what I loved in songwriting that day, too. I knew there was something there, so I just followed my bliss, and here I am!

How did you come up with your stage name?

My father used to call me “ZouZou” growing up, it always felt like a term of affection and felt like he really knew and loved me when he’d call me that. “ZouZou” makes me feel vulnerable and light.

I had a meeting with Steven Van Zandt almost 7 years ago now, because he’d heard a song I co-wrote called “Runaround”, and really loved it. When I sat with him, we ended up talking for hours, it was so natural and flowing and wonderful. In that conversation, he told me that I reminded him “…more of a ZouZou than anything else”. I couldn’t believe it. From then on, I’ve gone by that name.

Again, it feels like when someone uses that name with me, they really know me and see my innocence and vulnerability. I love it.

What kinds of challenges have you faced as a woman in the industry?  Do you feel as though things are getting better for women? 

There are people that are going to treat you differently because you’re a woman, and then there are those that won’t. And then there’s a lot of grey area in between. I tend to really try to only surround myself – in my personal life and music – with people who mainly see me as an artist. It’s so difficult otherwise, and I think being an artist has no gender.

I can tell immediately when someone’s talking to me a certain way because I’m a woman. And I respond, knowing that. I can’t change their mind or attitude, I can just be myself.  I never keep my mouth shut, either way, but it is more difficult to keep the lines of communication and creativity open when someone only sees me as one thing, you know? Some of the more common things I see are more in group settings than one-on-one, and they tend to be the same thing. People think twice about your opinions and ear, and they tend to denigrate your musical knowledge and experience – kind of tell you the way it is.

I used to be involved with people who treated me as more of an object than an artist, and that’s ok. I participated in that just as much as they did. And I’ve learned from that. It’s a very real thing.

But at this point, I’ve found my value as a singer who’s worked diligently on her craft, and a songwriter who now trusts my own instinct, and also asks for insight from writers I trust when I’m unsure. With time and experience come wisdom, and that’s irreplaceable. But in the beginning, it was difficult to speak up and say what was on my mind. I think any woman needs to know her worth and be honest about what she knows and doesn’t know, and then, that part can be triumphed most days. It’s all in honoring your own vision, and if you don’t have a clear one, finding a group of people you trust who can help you formulate and develop it.

What do you all like to do for fun on off days or when you’re on a break from recording/touring?

Wow, there’s an awful lot of things. For me, mostly napping. But I think we all love hanging out with friends and having  good conversations over good food,  going to see family and doing nothing at all with them or having a good meal with them,  art museums, spending time with animals, the beach. There’s so much to do, especially meeting so many new people all the time.

What’s next for the band? 

Well, touring and working on new songs, mainly.

Look for a new single next summer after Dead Reckoning!

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