Philly-based rockers Soraia recently released their latest single: ‘Tight-Lipped’. Vocalist ZouZou Mansour was on hand to talk to us about the single, as well as discussing the early days of the band, and how the band came to be signed by E Street legend, star of The Sopranos and Lilyhammer, and walking encyclopedia of all things music-related – Stevie Van Zandt.
What are the origins of Soraia? How long have you been playing together?
I started singing when I was in 2nd grade, then really started pursuing it by playing some open mics in 2002. Every week I was terrified and excited to sing in front of people –whether it was 3 or 30 at those open mics. I became a regular on the scene. I just always wanted to sing since I can remember.
The name of the band is my actual full first name: Soraia. It’s Arabic, and a name for the guiding, bright star in The Pleiades Constellation. I just put my name on a tape one day when I was going for my first gig ever, and it stuck.
Travis and I have been playing together for 15 years total. The rest of the band is newer: Brianna has been playing with us for 4 1/2 years, and Nick only a year. Travis and I have been writing together for ten years. So it’s kind of a long time in band life terms.
How did you feel performing your first gig as a band? And how was it?!
It was terrifying. I couldn’t hear, I was so scared, I honestly didn’t know what was going on, or where we were in the songs, and I was way more conscious of myself than I ever want to be again! Hahaha, that is the absolute truth. I’m not even sure how we really did–but I felt super cool and accomplished when we finished. What a great memory!
What should people expect when they check the band out? How would you describe Soraia?
Soraia is a powerful force on stage. I get to be part of that every time we perform. We have a lot of raw energy, and we are still so passionate about what we do and the songs and the performance part of it. It’s no fun when it isn’t fun—so we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have the passion and fire we have for it as we did when we first started. Now, we have a lot of shows under our belt, and that makes us polished to a degree, but more so, I feel like we still get lost in it all. That eruption of energy and mayhem rock n’ roll is all about. That never goes away.
“Tight-Lipped” is the new single, what are the lyrical themes behind it? It’s quite an evocative title, it could have so many different meanings!
“Tight-Lipped” is about my own personal experiences with not speaking up and being afraid to speak out. It’s that lack of belief in yourself that what you have to say adds value, is unique, and important. It’s a fierce kind of rebuke of myself and the people who I used to be around. But it’s more of an evolution of self–all our songs are about triumph, ultimately, even if they’re about tragic things. Life happens, and it’s not all roses. It just is what it is — and you either grow from it or get bitter and isolated. I try to advocate the prior 🙂
The 7” single looks stunning, who designed it? And how blown away were you when you saw it?
Thank you! Travis Smith –my co-writer and our bassist. — designed the front cover, and Louis Arzonico designed the back based on his own ideas of how to represent the song best, and what Travis had done on the front cover. Collaborations always yield the best results, in my opinion. I had input/gave Louis guidance on which colors to use, and the font for the title and band name on the front and back covers—so that’s how it was all put together. I absolutely think the vinyl is beautiful, and the artwork is beautiful. It blew me away for sure! I’m very proud I was even a part of some of those decisions.
It seems that having a physical product out there means a great deal to the band?
Yes, it does. It means a lot to music lovers who are also vinyl lovers, as well! Having a physical single you can place on the player and listen to, and reading the artwork information and credits is such a hands-on experience, and satiating. It’s more than tapping the phone, you know? I mean–I love digital when I’m driving, but the EXPERIENCE of music happens more so for me in the house listening on the player. Packaging is an extended artistic expression of the song, as is a video. It gives the song opportunities to live in different realms and have varied interpretations.
The b-side of the single is an incredible cover version of ‘Angel’ by Aerosmith, which also features your Wicked Cool labelmate, Jessie Wagner, what was it about this one that made you cover it?
Honestly, Jessie and I were talking over the summer a bunch, and she suggested at the end of one of our phone calls that we should do a duet together or something. All of a sudden — probably about a week after we’d spoken — it popped in my head to ask her what song she’s always wanted to do that maybe she’s never had the opportunity to do live. She sent me a bunch of ideas, and after settling on one–I changed my mind and decided on “Angel” (which she had also sent). It was a song I had tried to sing as a kid when I was on the boardwalk, at one of those “record your voices” things, and I failed miserably. So I wanted to give it a go again. We were just trying to stay connected and creative during the pandemic. We ended up recording a video of us singing the song at our band’s rehearsal space, and it got over 10K views in two days. Our label also called and thought it was killer, so it seemed to make sense to record it together!
How did the band come to be signed to Wicked Cool Records? With Stevie Van Zandt at the helm, it’s perhaps one of the coolest underground labels out there.
Well, Stevie had heard a song I co-wrote with the producer I was working with at the time called “Runaround”, and he loved it. He called me in for a meeting, and we talked for over three hours straight. I loved him immediately–though I never understood why he spent so much time with me until the end of our talks. We just conversed about music, he told me about his experiences and what he thought about what I did, and by the end, I knew he was interested in the band. We didn’t sign with Wicked Cool until almost 6 years later, oddly enough, but Steven stayed involved with us for all that time–producing our live set and coming to a lot of our New York City area shows. He’s a real music fan, and we love being on his label. He gives us production notes on each of our releases, and also the artistic freedom to really be ourselves. It’s ideal, and pretty much a unique situation. He’s mentored us, promoted us, produced us, and written with us. He’s such a talented artist, and I learn so much from him about how to give back, too.
What goes through your head in the run-up to releasing new music? Are you excited? Nervous? – Both?!
Always nervous. The more I love the song, the worse it feels. Hahaha. It’s odd but true. I’m always worried people won’t like it. It’s no matter since I am always proud of what we do, but still, it’s like sending your kid to kindergarten. You almost don’t want to lose that personal connection you have with it. But when we start to get feedback, I quickly change my mind.
In what ways has the band grown over the last few years?
We’ve become increasingly confident in what we do: we know what we’re about, and we know when and how to say “no”. That’s a big deal. We also are willing more to try different approaches to songwriting and pre-production. I think that’s what experience and confidence afford you as a group–you stop doubting your gut. And you start realizing you want more for the music and become less interested in anything else.
In terms of a similar audience: who would be the ideal act for Soraia to support?
Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, and we do. She has that fierceness and DIY attitude, and she’s pure rock n’ roll to me. If she wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be. That’s the damn truth. I think we fit with bands like The Hives or Foo Fighters or pretty much anyone who is raw and genuine. There’s a ton of those types of bands, I don’t even think the music has to match that well. More the authenticity.
What are your first musical memories? And what was the lightbulb moment that made you go “I want to do that”?
I heard the song “You Light Up My Life’ from an old movie, and I wanted to sing it. On stage. To people. That’s really the moment. There were no musicians in my family, no singers, no one pushing me in that direction. It came from within. And I knew then. It was simple.
Personally, who has been the biggest influence on you becoming a musician?
Honestly, songs have been the biggest influence. They made me want to sing. I can credit a number of people with helping me along for sure–but the inspiration has always been music itself. I’ve been drawn by it and to it since I can remember.
What current social issue are you particularly passionate about?
I’m very interested in helping homeless people and organizations who advocate for the homeless. I was once in their shoes. I understand but also feel it’s not right for people to be thrown out like that. Ignored, and looked at as some sort of “liability”—like they’re some sort of embarrassment to be hidden or rid of. These are humans struggling and doing what they have to to get another day, and I’ve never understood the coldness of those who can look at people any other way. For myself, it was only with the help of others that I found my way out of being homeless. I was lucky. And I couldn’t have done it alone.
I also feel strongly about mental health issues and domestic violence. But I really put a lot of my efforts into helping the homeless (which these issues can also be a part of), especially through Project HOME in Philadelphia.
What album do you have in your collection/Spotify playlist that would surprise most people?
Melissa Manchester’s “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” in my Spotify Playlist, I think none of my albums would shock anyone–but I listen to a lot of fun, singable stuff in the car. I love Melissa Manchester–and I’m a sucker for a great ballad.
Although 2020 was a year to forget, there was some great music released; what would be your album of 2020?
Oh boy, that’s a tough one. I don’t listen to a lot of new music–which probably sounds awful. I would say I loved a lot of singles, from that collaboration with Lzzy Hale, Taylor Momson, and Amy Lee for “Use My Voice”…and when The Foo Fighters put out “Shame Shame”, I couldn’t stop listening to it.
Albums I listen to on vinyl–and tend to be much older albums and artists, like I love The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. And Otis Redding. I watch them a lot on Youtube, too.
If music is truly subjective, is there such a thing as a guilty pleasure when it comes to music?
I don’t think so. You like what you like and I feel like most people have diverse listening tastes if they really think about it–even if they tend to listen to mainly one style 95% of the time. We all listen to things maybe we don’t typically listen to at different times–I think that is normal…?
Who would you class as an underrated songwriter?
Skylar Grey. Maybe not underrated, just not well-known in terms of popular appeal. She wrote “Love the Way You Lie” and a number of other big songs, but I feel like her original lyrics on that were even better, deeper than what was recorded by Eminem and Rihanna. Her writing is just dark, truthful, and beautiful. Great metaphors and honesty.
What are your plans for 2021 should COVID ever disappear?!
We plan on touring as soon as possible, keep writing, and trying new creative ideas out with our shows. Also, adding other elements of what we do outside of Soraia into Soraia. Other artistic ventures and expanding what we do. Just taking more risks, really. But I’m anxious to get back into a live setting with a live audience–I’ve missed it terribly.
How active are you on social media and where can people connect with you?
We post almost every day if not a few times a day. Here’s where you can find us and our music:
Colour image – Drew Bordeaux
Black and white image of ZouZou – Johan Vipper Photography