Soraia: The Road Not Taken
Inside a cold and shadowy Philadelphia house, two men are hovering over the body of Sue Mansour, lead singer of the band Soraia. One is panicked while the other is holding her lifeless body as tears stream off his face dripping onto her cold lifeless skin as a needle, which provided a potent shot of cocaine to her right arm, lies next to her motionless body. There was no pulse, no physical reaction and it appeared for all intents and purposes that she was in an everlasting catatonic state. As Sue Mansour recollects the story to me she states quite austerely, "I was dead". No one could have imagined that in the not too distant future, her band Soraia would be performing before 23,000 fans at Milwaukee's Summerfest opening for Bon Jovi. To the audience, Soraia was a damn good appetizer before the main platter but few there, including this writer, had any appreciation for the road that was traveled in order for the band to be there. The voyage of Soraia is one of the most involving I've come across in recent years and as we're about to find out, if a higher power had not intervened, the group never would have made it to Summerfest.
The Soraia story began a few decades back in Fairless Hills, PA when Ahmed and Stephania Constancia Mansour gave birth to Soraia Mansour, who would inherit the nickname of Sue from her father who called her "Zuzu". Both of her parents had been married before with other children and Sue was the youngest of six combined children. Despite some internal family struggles and strife, she grew up as a strong-minded student who brought home straight-A's, but that all changed her senior year in high school. Upon arriving home from school one day, she sensed a dark power encompassed the house, yet no one was talking. The family sat in silence, which proved to be so unbearable she locked herself in the bathroom until, "my older brother came in to tell me that my mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer that was inoperable". Put into a dramatic shock, she crumbled to the ground and cried. Over an eight month period, Mansour and her family secluded themselves from each other. Her father and mother's final days were complicated by unresolved feelings and regret. "Lots of mean things were said over the years and in the end, it ate away at my father, because he could never apologize to my mother". She finished her senior year of high school and prepped for her freshman year of college at Penn State, but before it could start, her mother's body succumbed to the cancer leaving her lost in a world that didn't seem to love her back. Her father never made peace with her mother and that profound regret would haunt him for the remainder of his days while erecting a wall so tall, that he and Mansour wouldn't bond on a meaningful level until it was almost too late. When speaking about this period in her life, Mansour ever so gently describes the period as one where she was "mad at it all".
Less than a week after her mother's funeral, she started Penn State in a fog of pain. "I tried to numb it every way I could". The quiet soul that had always excelled in everything was "lost in a haze of booze and pills". Throughout her freshman year, she refused to return to her home, where the ghost of her mother haunted her family, especially her father. Because of this, she turned to anything and anyone who would numb the pain and she found herself attracting the wrong people and eventually lost herself in a world of drugs. After one year at Penn State, she dropped out, "I didn't see the point of anything at that time" and through a friend, she decided to begin dancing at a strip club in New Jersey. "After three hours, I made more money than I ever imagined possible". There was an added benefit to her feeling good when dancing on stage. "As odd as it sounds, it was a way to perform the loneliness away". When discussing her love of music, she admitted to delving deep into White Zombie, Nirvana and Alice In Chains during this period because "it felt real and those lyrics, those emotions and that pain struck a chord with me. I was able to crawl into those songs and nothing else spoke to me other than pain". However, Alice In Chains and Nirvana didn't provide enough solace for her and she continually found herself snorting, smoking and eventually shooting cocaine to numb the world away. For the next few years, Mansour shifted through a series of clubs dancing, shooting up and attempting to hide from a world until it all collided. Over time, Mansour's body became spavined and slovenly thin. "You could see my rib cages and bones everywhere, I looked deathly ill". In discussing the lifestyle of a dancer she told me "just when I would admire one of my fellow dancers for having it together, you would get word that she overdosed, proving to me there was no such thing as 'having it together'". A short time later Mansour was shooting up with her boyfriend and her dealer in a Philadelphia house when she took a high dosage of cocaine into her right arm. "All I remember is everything going black and then waking up a short time later watching the tears rolling down my boyfriend's face". She had taken a hit so pungent that she had actually died. There was no response, no breathe and no pulse, but a few minutes later, without the assistance of any medical personnel she miraculously survived. When asking her if she saw it as a sign of something spiritual, she looked at me with a devastating look, something that not even the black eyeshadow could hide, "I was pissed, I wanted to die, I wanted the pain to succumb, I begged them to give me another hit…because I wanted it all to end". There was an otherworldly intervention of sorts and while she didn't understand it at the time, she had unfinished business with the world and she wasn't getting out the easy way.
In a self indulgent moment that only a rock star like Slash or Nikki Sixx could appreciate, she didn't see her near death experience as anything but a failure. After a non-drug induced suicide attempt a few weeks later, she decided once and for all that she would bring her life to closure in one all-encompassing weekend with liquor, drugs and pills whose combination would bring her the long wished for serenity of eternal darkness. What began as a binge on a Friday night continued into Saturday morning, then afternoon and evening before starting all over again Sunday morning again into afternoon and once again into the evening. In a darkened room in the early hours of that Monday morning, she sat alone, confused, afraid and pissed. "I wanted it all to be over and no matter what I tried, I couldn't kill myself". After three solid attempts to end her life, she had a moment of awakening as the sun began to creep into the sky. "I was worn out and had no answer as to why I was still on this earth. For the first time in my life, I was OK with not having the answers, because I came to the realization that something out there did!" When I pushed her further, she told me, "I can't explain it, but for the first time in a long time, I had a feeling that there was hope". It's this overriding sense of hope that Mansour instills into her music as a vessel of empowerment for the listeners and a way to come to terms with her past.
It would be easy and clichéd to say that Sue Mansour was reborn, but upon her awakening, she signed up for AA, got herself into a detox program, quit dancing and went back to school where she proceeded to complete a staggering eighty credit hours in less than two years. After finishing Penn State, she had a small relapse, but in a world that is full of coincidence, Mansour befriended a woman musician while re-attending AA meetings. After a meeting one week, her friend asked her to accompany her on a weekend sobriety retreat. It was during this weekend that a flame was lit. That weekend Sue found herself in a music studio for the first time. "I felt alive again" she defiantly proclaimed with both of her hands in the air. Invigorated by her exposure to music and an incessant need to perform, she hooked up with her friend Joe Francia. What was initially supposed to be a temporary gig until Sue could find a more permanent guitarist; the two layered the foundation that would become Soraia. It all started with an open mic night at a bar in Philadelphia and when they asked for the name of their group, Mansour was taken aback as she hadn't even thought of it but she blurted out "Soraia", her namesake and its stuck ever since.
As she began her musical path, she also began teaching 9th graders to earn her keep versus the treacherous world that dancing held. On her first day of classes she waited in the bathroom with immeasurable trepidation, "I was terrified, the previous few years were so up and down I wasn't sure if what I was doing was right or not". As she entered the 9th grade English class as a substitute, she opened the poetry book to the poem, "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. Upon seeing the poem she knew this was more than serendipity but destiny. "I knew deep down that I would never be satisfied by merely getting by, I had to throw myself out there and needed to express myself and that moment pulled it all into focus for me". While continuing to teach, she and Joe began to increase the number of open mic nights and a songwriter was born. "I had so many ideas flowing through me it was hard to get them all down". The most fruitful of their early collaborations was the sexually melodious "Need". The song is rarely performed these days but is a cornerstone of their debut Shed the Skin. "That song was based on pure emotion, fantasy and desire. I was winging it when I wrote it but I unleashed every inner desire in me into that song" With each performance and song, Mansour's confidence blossomed. The band expanded to include bassist Travis Smith, guitarist Dave Justo and a series of drummers, as she explains "In typical Spinal Tap fashion, it feels like we've had hundreds before finding Joe". Joe Armstrong came on board in 2007 and has been permanently seated behind the kit ever since. It's this version of Soraia that recorded Shed the Skin and performed at Summerfest in 2009. Mansour is wildly enthusiastic when discussing her band members; "Dave has grown so much in the last few years, he's constantly playing and his love of modern music comes with him on stage and in the studio and the band is better for it". Behind the kit Armstrong was the quiet one, but he pounded his drums with the intensity of John Bonham, "he has a truly uninhibited joy in his playing and that is what differentiates him from the other drummers we worked with" commented Mansour. As for rhythm guitarist Joe Francia, Mansour credits him with exposing his eclectic and wide ranging tastes to the rest of the band, "He's a pure music lover and can turn you onto everyone from the Beatles to Zappa to They Might Be Giants; he still turns me onto all kinds of new music to this very day…" Over the course of the last few years, Soraia has become more than just a group of guys backing up Mansour, but a vital band where five distinctive and matchless instruments have melded together to forge one irrefutable sound.
Improving their chops on a daily basis, the band would rehearse next to a studio once owned by Obie O'Brien, Jon Bon Jovi's long time engineer and music archivist. O'Brien and producer Lance Quinn (who produced the first two Bon Jovi records) worked and owned the studio in the 1980's. Based on the urging of mutual friends, Mansour reached out to O'Brien for advice on her musical direction. Surprisingly, O'Brien responded and was honestly blunt. "The difference between Obie and other people is he zeroed in on what was wrong with the songs and instead of merely criticizing, he offered remedies and solutions". At the time O'Brien was busy with a series of Bon Jovi projects and wasn't interested in tackling any studio work other than for Bon Jovi. O'Brien had spent years producing everything and anything that walked through the door to his Philadelphia studio before Jon Bon Jovi graciously put him on the Bon Jovi payroll, which he has been a part of for over two-decades. Despite no guarantees from O'Brien, she pursued him until he gave in because of her unbridled determination. "I wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, I kept on him until he gave in". In between his responsibilities with Bon Jovi and Soraia's touring schedule, the band hunkered down to refine their songwriting skills and released Shed the Skin in early 2008. The end result is an all-killer no-filler set of songs transporting blissful meditations filled with golden harmonies, funkadelic riffs and spiritual soul bearing lyrics.
Over the last three years the band has trekked all across America performing their fiery brand of rock n' roll. Each performance has found the band congealing their respective powers into a larger combined force. The live performances have only improved the band's power and mindset as they return to the studio awash in renewed resolve time and time again. While Mansour is the ringleader and the central driving force, she is quick to point out that Soraia isn't any one person or thing, but as she stated with stalwart resolve, "a band". She states with unwavering faith her devotion to the other four members. "The artists I grew up loving were in bands and they shared a dynamic that is tough to match". The studio sessions of the last few years which have birthed Shed the Skin and a series of stimulating singles has been an organic group effort. While having a slinking and sexual female at the forefront is an eye catcher, make no mistake, the other four members are integral. Bassist Travis Smith is an instinctual bare knuckle old school musician. With an education steeped in the music of the sixties, he is a rare breed who believes that music is more than a mere form of entertainment, but a craft that should be taken as serious as a heart attack. In a conversation I had with him over a year ago, I was astounded by his clarity and drive. This wasn't a mere musician looking for fame and fortune, but someone forty years from now who will still be creating in some form or fashion, because he has no other choice. Mansour agreed with my declaration, "Travis is an all-instinct musician, he'll never do anything else and he's a huge influence on my songwriting process. My writing is a continually changing and evolving, it's a constant learning process for me. For some of the songs, I work on an initial draft, some are with Obie and others Travis and I tackle and then bring to the band where they are completely re-worked". On the presence of an experienced producer/engineer for one of the world's biggest bands, Mansour credits O'Brien with "balancing everything". When I ask her how they equalize five unique personalities, she credits O'Brien, "Obie knows how to bring everyone's individual and unique strengths to the surface, whether it's a vocal from me, a drum take from Joe or a guitar solo from Dave…he has a way of putting us at ease, yet challenging us to go to that next level. He is critical but always backs it up with positive reinforcement". "She is inspiring and continually pushing not just herself but everyone around her forward as well", producer O'Brien says, "Hell, look how involved I have gotten up to this point, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't feel the band had what it takes".
The band received notice in the spring of 2009 that they would open for Bon Jovi during a one-off performance at Milwaukee's opening night of Summerfest. By show time, the amphitheater was largely filled. Before hitting the stage Mansour should have been trembling with fear and trepidation like she did on that opening day of school, but she embraced a gargantuan crowd that wasn't hers, laid herself out in such fashion that won over many of them. Twenty-three thousand people had their eyes set on Sue Mansour with her arms spread and voice belting out tunes of loneliness isolation and liberation. As the wind blew through her fingers and down the hairs on her arms, she was living a dream, free of shame, fear, pain and expressing herself in ways that just a few short years ago seemed impossible. Not terribly long ago, those same arms were spread out in the lap of someone on a cold floor, lifeless. But on a glorious summer evening, Mansour pounded her tambourine with a raging swing and shook her hips in trancelike unison as the rest of Soraia followed her lead; mere minutes into the biggest show of their career the five members of Soraia gelled into a breathtaking union and proceeded to forge ahead with a such a vengeance that Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora spent the entire set right behind the drum kit peeking throughout the curtain watching the show go down and was the first to offer the band congratulations after the set. "The craziest thing about performing is that you do things on stage you wouldn't normally think of doing" Mansour comments with a smile. This particular evening Mansour glided and resurrected some of her dancing moves in a show that was fearless. "For that performance I went into it feeling like a warrior who has been on the battlefield and I was entering the field once again to win".
"Every show we do now is our best" Mansour tells me with a defiant voice. "I won't lie; there have been some incredible highs and some intense lows". At a tour stop in the fall in Fort Worth, TX found Mansour face-to-face with a distant relative who verbally attacked her for her career path, proving that the rock n' roll road is one full of many bumps. She currently has no permanent address since everything she has in invested in Soraia. When discussing the struggle, she defiantly says "It all makes me stronger because I know this is just a small bump in the road". It also dips over into her music. She wrote "Not the Woman" as a declaration of being strong yet not wanting to lose touch with her inner sensibilities. "I don't want love to be my weakness, I want it to be my strength and that is what inspired that song to flow from me." When I ask her about the demos she played me of "Don't" and "Runaround", they're clearly influenced by her ongoing fight to make it. "The idea stemmed from my struggle of being a woman in the music industry and broken promises, it's very easy to become jaded and fall into old habits, but I have worked hard to get where I am personally and professionally and I don't want to lose myself in the process. By creating music, I'm able to purge my soul of the darkness I carry and be hopeful." There are two types of musicians in the world, those who seek fame and those who create because they must; Mansour and Soraia is in the latter; this is rock n' roll at its most unadulterated and meditative. By channeling her grief she accomplishes something rare; Soraia creates music that does more than tell stories of the past, but heals you in the present.
Over the course of our two day discussion,
I kept asking her to clarify "the" turning point she had that Monday morning
as she was coming out of a drug haze. Finally right as we were ending our
talk, she looked at me and said "I saw two paths in front of me and neither
appealed to me. One path was to get clean and just making it through life
without making an impact and the other was dying. I didn't feel like I
was fortunate enough to make it to the other side and I didn't want to
live an ordinary existence, because the pain of my past was too prevalent".
I pressed her for which road she wanted and she looked up at me…one tear
streaming down her left cheek and a gleaming smile and she says "I chose
an alternate path". I smiled back and said "The Road Not Taken", her eyebrows
raised...she smiled and said "Exactly".
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
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Soraia: The Road Not Taken