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 diverse multicultural and multireligious 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 where I come from, and asking the listener to do the same.
“Dig Your Roots also refers to loving what grounds you: the people, the lifestyles, the places you live, where you grew up. It’s being willing to dig up your roots and re-plant if where you are no longer keeps you free – metaphorically, of course. Inherently, I want this to be the message of the record: if you’re down, get up.”
As a spiritual descendent of iconic women in rock such as Patti Smith and Joan Jett, ZouZou’s Philadelphia-based band also embodies elements of kindred spirits of the ’90s and beyond – like PJ Harvey and The Kills, with more than a sprinkling of ’60s Garage Rock and Soul. Their primal sonic attack spreads a message of perseverance through trials of love, loss and letting go.
Bassist Travis Smith continues to be a crucial root of the Soraia tree, co-writing five of the album’s new songs with ZouZou, including “Superman Is Gone” and “Wild Woman.” “Travis delved into places on this album that we didn’t go to on the last record,” she reveals. “That’s scary. But he did it, which ultimately made me do it, too. It’s like, ‘Hold my hand, we’re going into this dark cave, and who knows what’s going to happen…”
Roots also finds drummer Brianna Sig with her first Soraia co-write, the enchanting “Don’t Have You.” “Her melody for the choruses reminded me of how The Sirens would lure sailors in Greek mythology,” ZouZou relates. “It was haunting and beautiful – and if Soraia isn’t both of those things, then I don’t know what we’re doing here.”
The band faced an unexpected challenge when guitarist Mike Reisman, who co-wrote four Dig tracks, including 2019 single “Evergreen,” left the group. “Mike can’t tour for longer periods of time anymore,” says ZouZou. “It hurt. He still works with us and we still connect. But you grow closer with who remains, and grow yourself.” Going forward, Nick Seditious is handling guitar duties.
Further nourishing their roots is the continued support of Wicked Cool’s Stevie Van Zandt. The label head has been an advocate ever since naming their breakout track “Love Like Voodoo” the Coolest Song in the World on his syndicated radio show and SiriusXM channel Little Steven’s Underground Garage in 2013. In January 2020, Dig Your Roots’ opening cut “Dangerous” becomes the tenth Coolest Song they’ve earned.
Van Zandt has even become a creative collaborator, penning “Why” for Dead Reckoning and co-writing two Roots tunes: 2019 Coolest Song “Still I Rise” and forthcoming single “Darkness (Is My Only Candle).” “I trust him more than anyone in knowing what I’m trying to say and who I am,” says ZouZou.
Complementing them in the studio once again is producer/engineer Geoff Sanoff, whose credits include notable work with Bruce Springsteen, Fountains Of Wayne and Dashboard Confessional. “He’s a member of the band when we’re in there,” ZouZou acknowledges.
Soraia has come a long way since their punked-up cover of The Kinks’ “(I’m Not) Like Everybody Else” hit #1 on Rock radio in South America in 2015. Their independently released debut album In The Valley Of Love And Guns from 2013 features five songs co-written with Jon Bon Jovi.
“I’m all about playing a fun song and throwing myself around, that’s Rock ’n’ Roll at its heart,” ZouZou remarks. “But I’m also about telling the stories of resurrection and life and hope and darkness.”
And now, the songs of ‘Dig Your Roots’ in ZouZou’s own words…
I was listening to a ton of Jet and The Vines at one point, and just loved the recklessness – especially in the screams on those songs – and the pure Rock eruption of it all. It’s less than three minutes and explodes the entire time. “Dangerous” was born from that specific decision to write a song with those kinds of explosive dynamics and lyrics – and as always – easy and passionate conversations about the things we love.
2. Wild Woman
I had been listening to this female preacher talking about being “born inside the wild” and not knowing where you were – but that strong women thrived in the wild. I fell in love with that idea of birthing yourself – which is one way to put it – over and over when you enter into situations you’re uncomfortable in, or have never been in. An added bonus is the notion of being a “wild woman” in that way was a different take on the idea I think social consciousness has on being a “wild woman.” Empowering instead of denigrating. Travis had written this swampy, mysterious riff, so we took that and made it the forefront of the song, and took the subject matter – pieced them together – and VOILA! WILD WOMAAAAAAN!!!
Mike played this riff that became the verses and said he heard this drumbeat like “Howlin’ For You” by The Black Keys for it. I had been watching the movie Black Snake Moan and heard this line that the main female character “had the devil in her.” That conjured up this old South feeling for me, so I wanted to put that in and give it that vibe. The story is told with a sometimes playful and teasing attitude, and sometimes aggressive and frustrated tone. It really felt freeing and gave the speaker the power back she didn’t feel she had in the first place.
Travis had this intriguing idea of “foxfire” for a title line. I didn’t know what it meant, so he told me all about it. It’s this phosphorescent light emitted by certain fungi on decaying timber. It’s beautiful when it glows, but it isn’t real, it’s a momentary thing. And when people would see it in the woods, many got lost being guided by it. We thought it would be interesting to write a song about depression from the standpoint of “foxfire” – or these glimmering thoughts that lead you astray and only give the illusion that everything’s alright. The struggle to believe in any one thought, to characterize the confusion of that type of struggle from the speaker’s point of view.
5. Darkness (Is My Only Candle)
Again, a song written almost together in a room. There’s a line of a Rumi poem, “Darkness is your candle.” At the time, there had been the Charlottesville riots, and lots of violence that seemed horrifically reminiscent of the racial injustices of the ’60s. I remember thinking “Where are we?” and being really upset about all the hatred and racial slurs. This song came as a result of anger, pain, sadness, worry, and ultimately the idea we can’t be separate anymore or stay quiet. It took a few sessions to write because Travis and I were both so impassioned about making sure we told the truth and stayed with the times as we saw them.
6. Nothing Compares 2 U
I had always felt so strongly about the Sinéad O’Connor version of this song. But despite being a big Prince fan, I had never heard his version. When I did, and heard the first line lyric change – “It’s been seven hours and thirteen days” – I knew immediately this was the one. Those numbers alone and the darker, more soulful approach he took to the lyric and melody spoke to me in a different way than the more popular version by Sinéad. In the studio, Geoff Sanoff really wanted to bring this Mott The Hoople vibe to it like “All The Young Dudes” – which added a lot more to our style of approaching it.
7. Superman Is Gone
Another Travis and I song, this one was specifically about the idea of being high and feeling like “Superman” when you did that first line of anything. I’m a recovering person, so it was important to me that I also tell the story of the anger I had at my father over being absent when I was going through that. I have already forgiven him and me about that, but I wanted to tell the story honestly. And there’s a part of me that still questions where were a lot of different people in my life when I was busy getting high. That idea that you wonder where people were and what they were doing when you were hardcore in this addiction – with no feeling attached to it – just a human curiosity.
8. Way That You Want It
It’s really just about this guy who is frustrated by a girl he digs but can’t have. It’s based lyrically off the same idea as “I Hate Myself For Loving You” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, but from the viewpoint of another character – where I’m singing as the storyteller/observer instead of the person it’s all happening to.
9. Still I Rise
Based on a Maya Angelou poem. I live my life in no particular time, almost in a time vacuum. And no matter what, you get up. Mike and I had originally written the song, and called it “I Am (Rise).” But Steven Van Zandt got a hold of it and loved the story of the song, so we rewrote the lyrics, and he rewrote the music to it, to really tell the story of people getting up after falling. I had taken a few lines from actual conversations or experiences I had. Then, Steven and I tried to pay homage as much as possible to the original poem. We rewrote it together in an afternoon – one of the best experiences I’ve had with him.
10. Don’t Have You
This was officially the last song written for the album. Brianna sent me two separate song ideas that ended up becoming “Don’t Have You.” This was also the last song recorded for the album, and Geoff knew right away the approach to the piano. It became something really beautiful, and I wanted to keep it simple and stripped in the front end, so the lyric could pull in the listener. This was about my own heartbreak, and that little feeling of hope and possibility still inherent in the relationship is really powerful in the middle of the song. It was Geoff’s idea to speak that part instead of sing it, and I was thrilled with how it came out.
“Euphoria” was written by myself and Travis. I loved the bluesy and spacious riff he came up with. I felt it left a space for some sort of testimony – so I told the story of all these experiences smashed together. Though each line seems to stand alone in some parts, they weave a truthful story of this woman coming back from the dead. I love the lyric in this one. Brianna had this great idea to end it in a church-y way, since it’s mainly about wanting this high experience in life. And what a great way to end the record!