by Randi Reed
Soraia, a band out of Philadelphia, had some musical heavy hitters helping out on its 2008 debut CD, Shed the Skin. Lead singer ZouZou Mansour sat down with MusicBizAdvice.com to talk music, growth (both artistic and personal) and what it’s like to go from studio intern to working with Bon Jovi producer Obie O’Brien. Since our interview Soraia landed an opening slot for Bon Jovi, and their single “Not The Woman” received airplay on Sirius Radio’s Alt Nation Channel 21, and made the Top 10 in Rock videos on Ourstage. Soraia was also a Featured Artist on TuneCrypt. As we update this intro in August 2011, They’re currently hard at work on their next album.
Philadelphia based Soraia is fronted by ZouZou Mansour. Their single, “Not The Woman” received airplay on Sirius Radio Alt Nation Channel 21.
RR: Let’s start with the basics. How did you come up with the name Soraia?
ZM: Soraia is my first name but I’ve always used a nickname. I wanted to associate the whole band as a unit–instead of just me as a solo artist–and keep “ZouZou” as the lead singer. I want them to see us as a unit, because the energy that we have is really as a unit, you know?
RR: What do you want people to know about your music?
ZM: I think it’s very powerful, and it’s new. It’s not like anyone that I’ve ever heard. There were some women that I used to hear that I really respected and admired, like Annie Lennox, Janis Joplin, those kinds of singers I don’t hear a lot of today…That kind of innocent but raw rock and roll. I think what we have is a really strong energy on stage and a very unique sound. It’s familiar but it’s pretty unique at the same time. I think Obie’s captured that really well on the record. He really gets that sound, and what we’re about, and [he] wants to bring out that strength about our music.
RR: How long have you been together, and who are the current band members?
ZM: There are 3 of us that have been in the band since 2003. I started the band with the rhythm guitarist [Joe Francia], who was actually just going to be helping out until I found a band, but he ended up writing songs with me and I really dug the songs we wrote. Joe Francia and [bass player] Travis Smith have been in the band the longest. They’re the core songwriting members along with me. And then we have Joe Armstrong on drums. He actually joined less than a year ago. He’s just so amazing, and his personality is so great. And our lead guitarist, Dave Justo, has been with us for about a year or two.
RR: Where can people get the album?
ZM: We had it for pre-orders which did pretty well…We’re not going to put it in stores yet. The record is available through our website Soraia.com. [You can also follow the band on Twitter @SoraiaRocks and on Facebook–Ed]
RR: Now let’s get in the Wayback machine. Who are some of your musical influences?
ZM: I’ve always loved commercial radio, but I also love the rebellious thing. Soundgarden, Nirvana. Chris Cornell has an amazing voice, he was definitely one of my influences growing up. I think Nirvana for their personality, their rawness and their…(Pondering for a moment) rebelliousness.
Female singer-wise, definitely Janis Joplin. I’ve never heard anybody since then like her. That raw, emotional, just let go. Like, really feeling every word…I can feel it even when she sings something like “Summertime.” The way she chooses to sing it in the beginning. Like, (Imitates Janis) all the way up there, you know what I mean? And she wasn’t afraid of the boundaries of her voice ‘cause her voice is jagged and rough. Grace Slick. I love Grace Slick. She’s got that power & authority. If you mix those two women together, that’s my ideal influence right there.
Musically…(thinking for a moment)…Currently I’m a big Foo Fighters fan influence-wise… Everything from like Prince to Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders, all that stuff. But really, the ‘90s period when I was growing up and those bands turned me on to be really involved in music. Even Mudhoney and Sonic Youth. I’ve always been attracted to that really raw sound. And I love Led Zeppelin. But I didn’t love Led Zeppelin until I was an adult. I actually hated them. I thought they sucked.
RR: (laughs) So did I!
ZM: People would talk about how great Led Zeppelin was: “Why? The songs suck!” (Laughs.) Now I have such a respect for their riffs.
RR: Now I love it…That guttural howling.
ZM: (joins in with raucous laughter) Yeah! And we’re so trained to hear that set place where the chorus is, that set place where the verse is. (Laughs.) And that doesn’t happen in their songs at all…You can tune in to that emotional part, and that’s the part that you have to get. And if you don’t get that, you’re not gonna dig them.
Obie’s always loved the Beatles, and for whatever reason, just lately I’ve really started listening to them. Right now it’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Blackbird”… It’s funny how music is. You really dig some band, then you don’t. It’s so weird if you really think about like, who are your favorite bands, and who they were, and why do some last forever–like you’re a fan forever– and other times you go through phases.
RR: Music’s an energy.
ZM: Yeah, and I think that time in your life, and whatever your experience, and all that stuff together makes you attracted to a certain type of energy at a certain time. There might be a singer or type of band that’s always a part of whatever your energy is all the time. Gotta do a paper on that! (Laughs)
RR: A while back you were an intern at Obie O’Brien’s studio in Philly. Describe Obie O’Brien as a boss in the studio, and as your engineer/producer in the studio.
ZM: As a boss he was really cool. I remember calling him up and [saying], “I want to work there. I will work there for free. Tell me what to do.” Finally he says “Come down.” And I went down there, and he’s like “You’re going to be cleaning toilets…But in between, I’ll show you some engineering stuff.” I thought that was cool because I did want to learn engineering at the time. I just wanted to be around music, I wanted to be around that energy, because I knew I wanted to do music. From the time I was 8 years old I remember I was writing songs.
So I was cleaning stuff up, I was helping out, but after a few weeks he didn’t make me do that as much. He kinda just let me watch sessions all the time and showed me stuff here and there. But he probably perceived that I wasn’t picking up on it. (Laughs.) The first thing he did was take me next door to this place and bought me this book that was huge. It had [highly technical stuff] and I was just like “Wow, maybe I don’t really want to know this. I’m not that good at math!” (Laughs.) He was pretty easy going…He always looked out for me.
And then working with him as a producer–Mostly I have to look at it from a producer standpoint, because even as the engineer he’d throw in ideas, and we’d come up with stuff. He’d usually deal with me after the initial pre-production part of it was done.
And I think because I always wanted to do this–this is my dream, this is what I want and nothing can stop me from having this–when I went in the studio, I thought, ”Wait until he hears my voice, how great it is.” Working with him, I don’t think he felt that way right away…But I think what he loved was the raw emotion and– “reckless abandonment” is how he puts it.
RR: What about your process as an artist? What was that like?
ZM: Working with Obie has been such a growth–like a leap–in every way. That’s why we called this record Shed the Skin. It’s all about letting go of what I think I know, what I think I believe, what I think is the right answer. Like I told you, I’m a really rebellious person. So any time he would tell me things it was just in my nature to be like, ”Why is he trying to change me?” And he wasn’t trying to change me. And when I finally realized that and that lightbulb went off, I just grew as a songwriter and a singer so immensely. A great process…
It’s been a weird kind of emotional growing process since January since we started the project…Because there was so much of me letting go of some of the thoughts that I had. I think when he was realizing that I was doing that, he was putting more and more of his energy into it. You know? I think working with him as a producer has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. He’s always been a friend, but at the same time he didn’t let that stand in the way. He knew what I wanted, and he was gonna give it to me whether I wanted it or not, whether my emotions could handle it or not. He’s like, this is the way it is and either you can handle it or you can’t. And I appreciate that. I don’t want to be treated with kid gloves; I don’t want to be treated like a girl. I want tough love kind of stuff. I need that, and that’s definitely been the case. It’s good. He’s not a yes-man. I don’t want that.
I really want to be growing as an artist always. I don’t want to stagnate. Say I reach the hugest level that I want to reach, like success [at] the market level. That’s great, but I always want to grow as an artist. It’s like a high but in a good way…like falling in love over and over and over again. Learning new things that you want to learn. Know what I’m saying?
I’ve always learned the most things from people in the arts. Like my singing teacher. I learned a lot from her you know? Life changing things. I remember one of the first things she told me to do was read The Ugly Duckling. I read it and I wondered why she had me read that. Not the brightest I was. But she was like, “Because as an artist that’s what you are. You don’t know you’re a swan.” I remember that day I talked to her about feeling like an odd person my whole life. I’m like, “How about that? I’m normal! How refreshing.” I learn from people. And I grow so much around those types of people.
RR: Later, you had an addiction problem. How did you turn it around?
ZM: I knew I could live…I’d thought of suicide so many times, and I tried it and it never worked! (Laughs.) So I realized I was gonna live that way, in that hell, for the rest of my life, which would probably be a really long time. And the things and the people I was involved with were, let’s say, below dirt. They were bad people.
What had happened was…I tried all the things that most addicts try when you have a moment of sanity. You move away, you go back to school, or you start dating that guy that was safe and normal. You know what I mean? I had gone back to college and I had a brief period where I hadn’t used anything. I started using again, and that’s when I realized, “Well, I’m doing all these things to get better, and inside I still want to be dead. So, do I live life like this?” Or do I try it maybe in a way I’ve never tried before, ‘cause I don’t know what it’s like to be a sober adult. I had no idea. I’d never been one.
[Editor’s note: During our interview, ZouZou was incredibly open and shared powerful insight about what it was like to descend into drug addiction, as well as how she got out of it. With ZouZou’s permission, we’ve posted that portion of the interview, unedited, in our Body and Soul section.]
RR: Later you were a teacher. Tell us about that.
ZM: Yeah for a short time. It was a very good experience. You know what’s funny is, I realized my very first few months student teaching…I watched the other teachers, and then when I got up in front of the Sophomore class of high school, I looked at them and inside my stomach was flipping out. And I said, ”Open your books and read—“It was a poem by Robert Frost. I said, ”Go ahead and read that, and I’ll be right back.” I went up to the other teacher that was my mentor and said, ”I’m going to cry!” You go into the bathroom and don’t let the kids see, right? And I cried my eyes out. I looked in the mirror and said, “Why are you doing this? You can’t stand being in front of people.”
And it’s so funny because now I realize–I’m a big believer in energy, and that you are put in situations to make you grow. When I finally embraced singing and stopped hiding behind other things, that was part of my process, you know? I loved working with high school students. But it wasn’t my heart. I enjoyed what I did there, and I loved the students. I loved the kids and loved that some of them could trust me and talk to me. You forget that 13, 14, 15 year olds have a lot going on emotionally. You forget until you’re in that situation. And you’re like wow, I don’t remember being 13. I remember a lot about it but I don’t remember being in that skin. So, yeah, I loved it. It definitely was a great experience. But I wouldn’t trade it for what I have now.
RR: Teachers see a lot of things about kids that sometimes even their own parents don’t see. What should parents—or anyone, for that matter—know about kids?
ZM: Well, that they’re human beings and just because they’re young doesn’t mean that they don’t have as much, if not more, emotional stuff going on as adults. There are periods in life, and I think adults settle into that idea of like, they’ve been through stuff and they’ve survived it. Kids haven’t.
Little things seem huge to them…When you’re like 13, 14, everything is a big deal. That means if you get your heart broken, it’s not puppy love. They have real emotions….I think parents should speak to their kids like human beings and give them the respect that they’re not stupid, they are intelligent.
I think the worst damage I’ve seen is people blowing off their kids or their kids’ experiences. That stuff stays with them. They turn it into whatever they think: they don’t feel love, they don’t feel appreciated, they don’t feel respect. They act out on that. They act out more than anybody, because they don’t think they’re going to die…I taught in an all-girls school and I saw a lot of eating disorders. And a lot of alcohol, very young.
RR: What’s your pet peeve?
ZM: Here’s the thing about what music’s done for me: A lot of the beliefs I had about what’s right and wrong are gone. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not like I’ve become immoral or anything. It’s just I know that with everything, there are no rules. I’ve become very free. And I love a lot more. We have these things that keep us safe. If I don’t hang out with this person, and I don’t do this…You realize it’s all you, man, it’s not everybody else doing it to you, you’re not the victim. You’re not the victim of your life. You’re the power holder, and whoever you choose to give that power to–whether it be somebody who gets you angry, or somebody that takes something from you—it’s all reflected back on you. All those things that make you angry, make you angry because there’s something in you…
I had this horrible habit of needing to please people for a long time as a teenager, and I don’t have that [now]. That’s gone. Half the time I don’t think too much about if I should do it, or don’t do it, where before I’d go back and forth. Music’s done that for me. The more I’ve let myself be the artist I am, and not be afraid, the more I’ve been free.
RR: What the strangest thing in your music collection, that you actually play? Mine is Desi Arnaz Greatest Hits, for example.
ZM: Mine is…I don’t know…I still listen a lot to “Moon River” by Andy Williams…I have some weird things in there. I found Winger. (Laughs). Don’t know where that came from…Somewhere along the way I was in a record store and thought, Hmm…Winger. But uh, yeah, I’d still say “Moon River”. I’m not ashamed of that, by the way. But, Winger? (Laughs.)
RR: (laughs) It’s OK, I have Winger too. Now for the question we ask everyone…God wants you to make the ultimate album, and guarantees it will be successful. You can use any musicians, living or dead, and they’ll be at their peak, but you can’t use any members of your own band (or anyone who worked on the album). God wants all the publishing, so you’ll have to get someone to write your songs–anyone living or dead, same rules. So: who’s in the band, and who do you get to write the songs?
ZM: Well, I can tell you the person who gets to write the songs is Jack White of the White Stripes, because he’s written such diverse stuff. And I know he’d embrace anything because he’s open minded. I mean, to go from the Cold Mountain soundtrack to the White Stripes to The Raconteurs? So I definitely think he would be the writer. Plus I like the way he writes. In my band…Now I’m singing still, right? (Laughs) I’m not putting together a superband or anything right?
RR: Yes. You’re singing.
ZM: I would want Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page to split. Wouldn’t want them together, I’d want them with guitar duties on different songs. And on bass? Maybe Flea, but I don’t know if he’d fit. But I just think he’s cool. (Laughs.) Otherwise I’m not too sure about the bass player. Um, drummer? I would say Taylor Hawkins from Foo Fighters, definitely. That energy he brings. And then that’s everybody, right? I would probably throw some organ on there, and some trumpet, things like that on some different songs. Maybe Prince could write half the songs.
RR: Last question. What do you have to say to anyone who says girls can’t rock?
ZM: They’re so wrong. They have no idea. No idea.