You have to bring a fuller person, a person brimming with gratitude and spirit to the table if you want to truly feel successful. My definition of success may not work for someone else, but it works for me. And when I’m working too much, I know it now. When I’m coming from a place of lack, I wait until I feel better to make moves. But boy, when I’m on and feeling filled-up, I’m unstoppable. How will we be capable of handling any outward success if we are depleted on the inside?
As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing ZouZou Mansour of the Philadelphia-born rock band, Soraia. Personal growth, rebirth, even revolution — such transformative concepts are the heart of what Soraia is all about. These heady themes inform the songs on Dig Your Roots, the band’s latest album, out March 13 on Wicked Cool Records. “I look at Dig Your Roots as a continuation of what was begun on Dead Reckoning,” says singer and frontwoman ZouZou Mansour of the new album’s relationship to their 2017 Wicked Cool LP. That record’s release prompted Rolling Stone/Mojo scribe David Fricke to write Soraia’s “searing guitars, burning soul and true CBGB grit…are the rock you need, in your face now.” “Dig Your Roots is coming to terms with the light and dark inside myself and in the world,” ZouZou shares. “I come from a multicultural and diverse religious background — my father was Muslim and Egyptian, and my mother was Belgian and Catholic. I was ‘different,’ and I hid some of my background from people, thinking I wouldn’t be accepted. Digging my roots is being proud of who I am, letting it come before me even at times, being proud of who and of where I come from, and asking the listener to do the same.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Soraia! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I’m honored for the opportunity. Thank you!
I’m the youngest of both my parents’ second marriages and grew up listening to my parents’ favorite music. From a young age, my Mom would play Elvis, The Beatles, and “Runaround Sue” for me all the time, and my father was from Egypt, and a huge fan of Oum Kalthoun, a renowned Arabic singer. I heard her on the cassette in his car constantly. So hearing those mixes of music gave me a root in different cultures, sounds, and ways of relating to music and the world around me. I believe this also affected how I see the world.
I visited Egypt and Belgium when I was in my teens (both being my parents’ homes) and got to see how different cultures lived from an early age. This influenced me greatly but also created this feeling of being a little different from my peers at home. It affected me to the point of almost wanting a “more normal” teenage period — more like the girls I went to school with (I went to an all-girls Catholic high school). It’s only later I realized the value and soul worth of getting the opportunities to see how my parents grew up, and also what’s valuable in other cultures. I got to see the world!
I also had a Muslim father and Catholic mother, which contributed to my feeling “different”. By the time I hit high school, I had hidden the Muslim part of my roots out of fear. Too many varied and floating fears to name here, but the truth is, I’m more ashamed of that “hiding” than of anything else I could say in this interview. Denying your roots denies yourself on so many levels, and were contributing factors in some of the issues I had growing up. Dishonesty and secrecy leak into all areas of your life; so it did mine.
From a young age, I was no stranger to suicide attempts, addiction, and was a full-blown alcoholic by 18 — just after my mother’s death which occurred when I was 17.
Isolation and secrecy haunted me — but I got sober at 26, and have pursued all things that give me life since. We’re here a short time, so I plan on enjoying all I have in front of me!
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 2nd grade, I decided I wanted to sing for our school talent show. Shy as I was, I still went and asked my friend Karin to sing with me. I have no history of musicians or singers in my family that I know of, but I really wanted to sing — badly enough to break out of my shy shell and take action.
I did sing in 2nd grade. I wore a beautiful gown (well, for my 7-year-old self, anything that was a dress was beautiful). I kept my one arm pinned behind my back by the other out of pure nerves, but still never stopped singing as scared as I was. I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to get through the entire song without breaking down and crying out of terror of all those eyes on me.
Whenever things get hard in my singing or writing today, I remember that story. It’s that little ZouZou petal I keep in my pocket that reminds me this is something I’ve wanted to do since almost when I started breathing.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’d say it was a sequence of events that just seemed to come out of the left field. It was a magical time, but also a very confusing one, and I’ll explain why in my answer.
It was late 2010, and I had written this song called “Runaround” with my (then) producer. He had given it to Steven Van Zandt to listen to, thinking it would be right up his alley since Steven had “The Underground Garage” radio station, and the song fit into a more garage-rock format. Next thing I knew, I went from basic obscurity in my field, to meeting with Steven and the head of his label for three hours.
That was followed by a trip to California less than a month later, where I met Wes Scantlin from Puddle of Mudd. We were sitting in the front of LA’s Rainbow Room with a musical headhunter that had seen us perform the night before. He kept telling every person who walked into The Rainbow that night that my band was the next Jefferson Airplane and subsequently handed them a demo. Wes took one of our demos and called me the next morning to tell me we were showcasing that Friday at Whisky-a-Go-Go for a lot of major record labels. He loved our stuff and wanted to be a part of getting us in front of the right people. And we did.
I came home from that trip to the phone offer of Jon Bon Jovi to open his birthday show in my hometown of Philadelphia three months later.
I had no idea what was going on. It was a whirlwind from October 2010 through December 2010, and the beginning of many great things to follow afterward.
Because it all seemed to happen so fast, and I don’t think I was at a point in my career where I had enough confidence in my abilities, I started to feel like it wasn’t real. Like, I didn’t deserve it, and it wasn’t really earned. So at the same time that it was exciting and magical, it was very confusing and debilitating, even.
Still, it was a definite “bump” to another level and peoples’ awareness of Soraia.
I never gave up, even when some of those seemingly definite possibilities fell through. It made me strengthen my resolve and forced me on a soul level to part from anyone who was detrimental to my well-being.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’d say the funniest mistake I made when I first began was putting my name on a cassette tape I was giving in as an audition to play at a club. I thought of it as putting my name on a spelling test at school, so when we got booked for the gig, they called the band “Soraia”. I thought to myself,” But I didn’t want my band name to be Soraia! I didn’t even think I’d get the gig!” Truthfully, my hope was we would get the gig, and I figured when we did, I’d decide upon a cool band name, then. Well, we’ve been “Soraia” ever since, and I’m damn proud of it. “Soraia” is a Persian name and is actually the Arabic translation for Thurayya, the Pleides Constellation. It also means “a very bright light”, which sums up the energy of the band. So it is the best band name I could’ve thought to come up with. The lesson is that most good ideas are simple, direct, and honest.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Soraia is always exciting for me, mainly because we are always creating; we get too bored when we aren’t. I realize if we aren’t busy playing shows, we are recording. If we’re not recording, then we’re writing. If we’re not writing, we’re learning some covers to help us have more tools to write. Everything is eye-opening and new right now, especially.
Personally, I’ve been reading more than I normally do — which is a great asset to my writing and just to my personhood, in general. It brings me to new experiences, new literature, and new people and places. It is constant growth, evolution. revolution and the benefit is that all of this keeps my mind open. What a beautiful thing, and what a way to stay a child well into life!
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
I’ll happily give you more than three reasons. It’s important to have diversity, first, because that’s what life really is. Once you leave high school, if you haven’t already been attuned to this fact, you will see it. In any continuing schooling, in the workplace, in the streets, in your hometown — -when you don’t have diversity — fear breeds. An “us against them” breeds. a “You’re different” breeds. Closed-mindedness breeds. Survival instinct breeds when it’s unnecessary, and then violence usually follows. Look at history.
Also, I believe it breeds a closed mind, which is terrifying. You will become more ignorant to reality and will begin believing anything spoon-fed to you, or the bytes of reality you see or hear. That’s downright dangerous. You’re either taught that there’s an openness for all types and cultures and religions, or you’re taught to fear and hate them. As a human, that kind of ignorance will also hurt the individual — stop them from growing and evolving. And that ultimately means death to the brain, the soul, and vitality.
Diversity is a fact of life. Look at how many types of the flower there are. When someone’s right and someone’s wrong, there’s no place for people but to isolate and hide and stop communicating and growing.
Secondly, if I don’t see someone who looks like me in entertainment, I start to believe someone like me doesn’t belong there. It’s SO IMPORTANT for our examples to persevere, no matter the odds. After all, we’re not just doing it for ourselves. We’re doing it for the culture, and the future. I’m a Muslim-Catholic-Egyptian-Belgian raised woman, and I’m none of these and all of these. These are the roots of my family and how I grew up, I need other girls who are a little to the side of the norm to see it’s possible for them, too. That they also have a voice that needs hearing. I have something different, but equally important to say. That’s how it can influence our culture.
Lastly, when we can’t or don’t know how to process things like “Me Too”, the voice of entertainment reminds us as a mirror would. Shows like “Law and Order” would address topics straight from headlines, and allow us to interpret the world around us through the characters on tv. “Mad Men” showed me the growth of female roles from the ’50s through the ’70s, how would I know otherwise?
Film and television give us interpretations of art and life that teach us how to look a little better at the world.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
(1) Study your craft, study your craft, study your craft. Then, let the outer achievements follow naturally
For me, learning how to sing originally was only secondary to wanting to be “famous”. At some point, I had to understand why I wanted to be famous more than I wanted to study my craft. I loved singing, so I was putting some illusory attainment ahead of wanting to be inwardly proud of what I was accomplishing with my voice. When I finally realized the value of the gift I believe I was given and honored it by taking care of it and working on it — it had taken a lot of terrible damage to my cords before I realized that. I think there’s a better way to get to that conclusion before hurting yourself. And I think that’s knowing the WHY of what you do. I now know, but it took a low bottom to reach that place.
(2) Find and use a mentor you admire
No one knows how to be inwardly (or outwardly, for that matter) successful unless you consult someone who is. They have the experiences of feeling the way you do and did, and the experience of how they navigated those thoughts, feelings, and actions. That mentor can help you avoid some of the nastiest pitfalls, and teach you how to find resolve within yourself. And you’re giving them the gift of reminding them how hard it was in the first place, but where there was nothing but pure desire.
I’ve been lucky enough to have several mentor. They taught me how to write songs, how to navigate the business of music and not take it personally, and the value of a real team of believers in your corner.
(3)Beat on your craft, beat on your craft, beat on your craft
Refer to #1. Work on your craft. Whether it’s practice, studying, reading, seeking out training in your field, seeking the best teachers you can. The rewards always follow the work. It’s an inside job.
The more I worked on my voice and writing, the more confident I’ve become in both, and thus, the more successful.
(4)Create networks based on flow, real bonds that are real attractions, not a desperate attempt to “get somewhere”
I used to network with an expectation attached and would feel de-energized after each experience, and less confident, too. It will naturally follow that if you’re doing #1, 2, and 3 on here, you’re not going to be so desperate, because you’ll really believe in yourself. You will still have your doubts and times of insecurity, but that’s all they’ll really be. I find the people I’m naturally gravitating towards are people I enjoy being around anyway. And I think we can help each other from a natural place rather than a place of “you owe me” kind of thing, which sucks.
(5) Evolve and continue working on your inner growth — at times — even harder than you work on your craft
I’ve suffered by not caring about myself enough and caring more about attainment. The sea is of no life use to an empty shell, so you have to bring a fuller person, a person brimming with gratitude and spirit to the table if you want to truly feel successful. My definition of success may not work for someone else, but it works for me. And when I’m working too much, I know it now. When I’m coming from a place of lack, I wait until I feel better to make moves. But boy, when I’m on and feeling filled-up, I’m unstoppable. How will we be capable of handling any outward success if we are depleted on the inside?
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Take time for yourself to laugh and have fun, wherever and whenever you can. And find a way to make your work really enjoyable — like we try to tour and find a day off in places we really want to investigate. Play. I’m trying more and more to be like a child in all that I do. When I bring that innocence to experiences, it gives me joy and keeps my mind open and gives me ideas where I originally had none.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Love for the homeless, education and empowerment for mental health conditions, and comfort for the terminally suffering individual. That’s seemingly a tall order, but I pretty much named an experience most people have been in or have known someone in. And I’m not saying enabling — — that’s different. But empowering a person to make a change in their own lives. That’s a movement to get behind.
I believe there’s plenty of opportunities to affect change in others by involving yourself in anything that speaks to you. I get behind “Project HOME” in Philadelphia because they are warriors for real people in really desperate situations. They empower. To watch someone who didn’t have a shot get one, and take it? That’s the power of love we need to see more of in this world. People triumphing circumstances.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Definitely there’s a bunch. But there are two people in particular who have affected me greatly and longer-term than others, and that’s a strong woman and mentor named Allyn, and in my career and friendship, Steven Van Zandt.
I met Allyn at a time in my life when everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, was falling apart. I had lost what was looking like a real career, the whole team of people than supporting me, I had lost my boyfriend of ten years, and most importantly, my soul. I wanted to die, and even knew how: I wanted to drink myself to death.
Allyn told me the truth of who I am and what part I played in all these things (over a period of time) and showed me how to live empowered, and not the victim of my own unconscious reactions. I had the willingness, and she had the experience, and I sought out her wisdom and talks. I can say I wouldn’t be anywhere near who I am today without her toughness and love. She’s mentored my spirit, and for that, I’m truly grateful.
Steven came along when everything in my career was feeling like it was over. I had lost all the things I was going for, felt like I wasn’t much of a singer or performer or writer, I had let that in — and people who told me the same — along with it. When it all fell apart and I was at my lowest, he came to watch Soraia perform at The Bitter End in New York City. He believed in me and in Soraia, which is my heart. He supported, worked with, mentored, and actually signed the band for a record deal at the end of it all. He still continues to help us in every way. He’s a busy person, but a tireless warrior for artists and teachers. What an example to lead in my life.
How can I achieve anything less than what’s been taught to me?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Truly, there are so many, but the one coming to mind most pervasively right now is this:
“Start where you are with what you have”.
I think I spent a lot of time worrying that I didn’t have the money or wasn’t confident enough, or was afraid to ask for something. Or the worst one, “when I’m ready, I will….” Which left me with a feeling of always being unready and not really knowing what “ready” looked like It leaves you stuck in limbo, which is a truly powerless place to be.
Start with whatever you have, with whatever you got. It’s as simple that: when there were no opportunities on the horizon in my imminent future, I had my voice. I strengthened it. Worked on it. Use it. Sang wherever would have me — open mics — I couldn’t get a gig to save my life. That’s not so anymore.
It’s a very powerful mantra.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oprah Winfrey. She’s unabashedly honest about where she came from, what she believes, who she admires, and I’m terrified of her at the same time. I need to have breakfast with her.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Soraia is my band, and they’re pretty amazing;)
@soraiarocks on Instagram, Facebook. Twitter//
Our music: https://soraiawcr.bandcamp.com/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
Thank you for the opportunity!