Soraia’s ZouZou Mansour makes the most of her ‘gift of desperation’

ZouZou Mansour

It took getting sober for ZouZou Mansour to realize that the unending perils of a predestined destiny could be sidestepped by something as simple as the power of choice.

The Ties That Bind UsIt seems so simple, at least on the surface: Make new decisions. Choose different paths. Break free from the crushing weight of generational trauma, self-inflicted pain and the grim resignation that life is the unkindest cut of all.

It seems so simple … unless that’s all you’ve ever known. When that’s the blueprint, life is assembled according to those plans, at least until the right people and the right circumstances come along and tell you that those plans can be discarded. Ripped. Shredded. Set on fire, even.

And that a different path can be chosen.

“I didn’t know I had a choice until people told me and I was ready to hear it,” Mansour told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “I learned that when I got sober, and that’s what opened my mind — realizing that I wasn’t destined to have the same views or stagger through life making the same mistakes. I’m only destined to do life for the next 24 hours, because I get to make a new choice every morning.

“And even after I first heard that, it took a while to truly understand it, because I had these ideas holding me down, and I still didn’t give myself a choice. I’m a real advocate that when you are ready to hear that in some way, then it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And who knows when that will be? That’s the great mystery — what will it take for us to finally change? Because it always happens on the inside before you see it on the outside.”

ZouZou Mansour: The end is the beginning

For Mansour, whose life is pretty sweet these days as the frontwoman for the Philly-based rock quartet Soraia, the decision to change came in the middle of a suicide attempt — she was literally trying to drink herself to death — at 4 in the morning outside of a friend’s Philadelphia apartment. That was several years ago, and like most alcoholics and addicts who find their way to recovery, that was where her journey may have started, but it took a lot of pain to get to that point.

That just happened to be the day she made a choice. Or rather, she sought the power to make a different choice. Because in that moment, she recalled, it was as basic as asking not to die as it was choosing a new way to live.

“I had been at a friend’s apartment, and I had been using substances all night the night before, and I decided I wasn’t going to get out of this space I was in,” she said. “So I started drinking everything in her fridge, which was a lot, just trying to drink myself to death. I remember I was dry-heaving, and she was like, ‘You’ve got to go,’ because she was scared of me. All I could think about was how cruel people were, and then I was outside, and I just fell on the pavement.

“I thought, ‘This is it. This is over.’ But then I realized that even though I had wanted to die for a long time, and I knew that I was dying — just laying there, trying to suck up the cold from the pavement — I didn’t want to go right then. So I just prayed. I didn’t call on any kind of god, even though I had Christian and Muslim readings under my belt and had related to them as a kid. It was just a last-ditch effort to pray.”

That entreaty was answered, and she’s been sober since that moment. She’s reticent to talk about how long ago that was, mostly because like most recovering addicts and alcoholics, her sobriety is a one-day-at-a-time lifestyle she chooses to embrace at the start of each day. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and all she’s guaranteed, she understands, is the power she’s afforded in each moment.

In so doing, she’s found fulfillment in what so many recovery programs promise: that lost dreams will be reawakened, and new possibilities will arise.

“I had that gift of desperation, and I was terrified,” she said. “I knew, left to my own devices, that I would go back. I had sworn it all off before, in plenty of worse situations, and I knew I couldn’t do it myself. I knew that on a soul level, if I didn’t get help, I was destined to do this same pattern, and no matter how long I would last, I would go back. I knew that about myself.”

Signs and signifiers of impending darkness

ZouZou MansourIn a sense, everything she’s done since then has been a stark rebuke of old patterns, many of them established when she was a child.

“I grew up with a Muslim father and a Christian mother. My mother was from Belgium, my father was from Egypt, and it was two very different cultures and very different socio-economic lives crashing together in a second marriage,” she said. “I grew up feeling different and not wanting to tell people who I was out of fear of them judging, and internally, I felt like I couldn’t have what other people had. That was the way my brain worked, and until I had that ability to open my mind and grew tired of living like that, no change was possible.”

Until she was 17, alcohol and drugs were regarded as taboo in her household, and she grew up with a healthy fear of them and the people who used them, she said. The year her mother died, however, everything changed.

“I was angry at everything, angry at the injustices of the world, and I felt like if there was any kind of God, He certainly didn’t care about me, and I spent the next few years trying to eliminate feelings of any kind,” she said. “The first time I did a line, I felt like a different person. I got to be someone else. Until then, I always felt different — not a part of, less than, so this thing made me feel the 180 degree opposite of that.

“But it didn’t last long for me. I not only enjoyed it, I went into it hardcore, and physically, I went downhill fast. On the inside, it became that hopelessness of chasing your tail, and on the outside, it was the people you start to meet and the places you start to be. All along, on the inside, I believed I had something greater, but it took finding what I chose to call a Higher Power to get me out of it and help me find the willingness to do the work and not go back there.”

Until she found the willingness on that Philly sidewalk, things got really dark, really fast. The siren song pulled her in with such immediacy that from the moment that euphoria first exploded in her brain like a bomb, she knew it was going to be a problem, she added.

“I knew that I liked it too much, and I didn’t care,” she said. “I think when I started feeling like there was a problem was when I started getting involved with people and I would look at them and think, ‘Why am I with this person?’”

ZouZou Mansour: The sweet sounds of Soraia

Soraia is, from left, Nick Seditious, Travis Smith, ZouZou Mansour and Brianna Sig.

The numbness of addiction kept whatever shock she might have felt two years prior, when her mother was alive, to a low-level acceptance. Until she reached out to the universe for deliverance, it was a life she accepted with a morose resignation.

Fast-forward four years, a brief period of sobriety and a hard-and-fast relapse that came to a harsh end outside her friend’s apartment: Another friend came and picked her up, nursed her through an agonizing hangover and then said a few things that changed Mansour’s life.

The first thing: “She said, ‘I’ve seen this before, and I don’t want to be friends with you anymore. I’m sorry,’” Mansour recalled.

“I told her, ‘I’m just going through a hard time right now! You don’t understand!’” Mansour said.

But the next words she heard really hit home: “‘No, you’re not. You’re an alcoholic.’ And I remember hearing those words in my mind, and it was so powerful.” That realization was a sea change, and for the first time, she truly understood that there were people in her life who wanted to help.

“Because you already know if you have a problem, and you know the problem is on the inside,” she said. “For me, memory wasn’t the thing, and will wasn’t the thing, and I just prayed, ‘I think I’m ready, and I’m terrified that I’m not. Help me.’ For me, ‘help me’ and ‘show me’ are the best prayers that I know, and they have no religious connotations whatsoever.”

And from that point, things started to get better. While Soraia released its first official record in 2005, Mansour regards 2010 as the year the band got off the launchpad. While Mansour gets a lot of ink as “an expressive, big-voiced singer with a gutsy, edgy, gritty, forceful style,” bassist Travis Smith has been along for the ride since the band started gigging around Philadelphia in the early ’00s. Drummer Brianna Sig has been part of the fold for almost five years now, and guitarist Nick Seditious has been around for about a year now, and with each new release, Soraia has gained a larger following in garage rock circles around the world.

'Lost dreams awaken and new possibilities arise'

ZouZou MansourIn 2009, an electrifying opening slot for Bon Jovi at Milwaukee’s Summerfest led to a growing buzz that put a spotlight on what Soraia does so well: souped-up rock ‘n’ roll that’s got all of the hallmarks of modified muscle car. It’s a classic template built on sounds that won over a guitar god like “Little” Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band (he signed the band to his Wicked Cool label in 2017); complimented by riot-grrl influences like L7 and badass grand dames of the genre like Joan Jett; and polished with the more melodic side of noise-rock outfits like Sonic Youth.

“All my songs are autobiographical, and I’ve gone back and forth between, ‘Maybe they shouldn’t be, because how much are you going to write about yourself?’ to, ‘Where else are you going to pull that well of truth from?’” she said. “As an artist, your whole life is a piece of work, and it comes down to, how much truth do you want to share with other people? How safe, are you really, sharing with other people? And for me, every album and every release is a little bit more insight into that.”

Case in point: The newest Soraia single, “Tight-Lipped,” described as a song “about a woman who politely refuses to challenge the status quo and direction of her life.” Again, she pointed out, it’s a song about her lifelong acceptance of the values and morals impressed upon her throughout her life, and a celebration of realizing that she could choose something different.

“All the things that sting about my childhood are all things that contribute to my sharing of experiences that can kind of empower the individual,” Mansour said. “I don’t write to empower, but my journey, my story, is very empowering. For so long, I held myself down, because I didn’t give myself a choice. I’m a real advocate that until you are ready to hear that in some way, that’s what it takes for us to finally change.”

Fans and friends alike have marveled at the new song, which comes fresh off the heels of last year’s full-length, “Dig Your Roots.” Mansour has fielded phone calls from friends and colleagues in the States and overseas, all of whom were emotionally moved by an anthem that’s both head-bangingly raw and emotionally complex.

ZouZou Mansour: Honoring the gift

Soraia: Brianna Sig (from left), ZouZou Mansour, Travis Smith and Nick Seditious.

But while such accolades feel good to hear, Mansour is careful not to let them become the reason she creates art.

“It keeps you sustained, but you can’t look at that,” she said. “I didn’t become an artist to have Wes (Scantlin of Puddle of Mudd) or Jon (Bon Jovi) or Steven (Van Zandt) come in. I didn’t have that in mind. I just felt driven to create and drive to write in particular and listen to people. That’s a gift, and I just honor it as often as I can, and when I don’t want to do it, I don’t do it. I never force it.”

And when she lets her craft follow its natural course, it’s always the art that benefits. Over the past several years, she’s come to understand that she’s a better musician because of Soraia, as are her bandmates. That unity is powerfully cohesive, as well as inspirational. And it’s one of the few things that has made life during the COVID-19 pandemic easier to bear.

“This isn’t for me; this is for something bigger,” she said. “It’s about these people in the band and their desires, and our listeners. We miss them, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve enjoyed doing these Facebook Live events, because it’s for other people. This is not about me anymore. This is what I love to do, and I’m glad they’re enabling me to do it, but if it was just for me, I would probably go be an accountant or something.”

There have been bright spots along the way — the video for “Tight-Lipped” was filmed in early January, and the narrative is a visceral one. And while the pandemic has forced everyone in the music industry to throttle back and wait, life itself goes on. And for Mansour, it goes on sober — because of the choice she makes, each and every day, to remain that way.

She’s not shackled to the specters of the past, nor is she a slave to the unfulfilled promises of tomorrow. She’s a child of today, and what a joy that is, she said.

“When I got sober, I thought my life was over,” she said. “I thought life was going to be boring and dull, but instead, it’s the complete opposite.”