— Soraia Mansour is headed to the big time. The Northeast rocker recently collaborated with Jon Bon Jovi on her band’s latest album, ‘In the Valley of Love and Guns.’
Soraia Mansour stood barely an arm’s length from rock ‘n’ roll immortality.
For an instant, she envisioned reaching out to touch it, to touch him. Jon Bon Jovi, the platinum-selling front-man and transcendent heartthrob, sashayed across the Meadowlands arena stage and perched above Mansour’s front-row seat.
It was about seven years ago. The ex-Nazareth Academy High School English teacher and aspiring rock queen had brought her demo tape to the show, which she attended as a guest of longtime Bon Jovi sound engineer and friend, Obie O’Brien.
She wanted to deliver the disc to Jon personally, but quickly realized that the performer and his band’s 20,000 frenzied fans probably wouldn’t appreciate her interrupting their concert like that.
“I really contemplated reaching out and trying to haul him off stage to give him the CD,” Mansour recalled during a recent interview at the Hop Angel Brauhaus in Fox Chase, not far from her Rockledge home.
Her discretion paid off in the long run. Yesterday, Mansour and her own band, also named Soraia, released their latest 10-track CD, “In the Valley of Love and Guns.” Jon Bon Jovi co-wrote five of the songs, donating his unfiltered creativity and worldwide name recognition to a project that Mansour hopes will launch her group into the big time.
“I’m not star struck. I’m not one of those people,” said Mansour, whose given name is Arabic in origin and means, perhaps prophetically, “bright, guiding star.” Friends know her by the nicknames “Sue” and “ZouZou.”
“There were times I was like, ‘This is Bon Jovi,’ but that was never when we were writing,” she said. “I was more worried that there wasn’t going to be chemistry between us.”
Mansour’s direct collaboration with Jon began soon after Soraia performed the opening set for a March 2, 2011, Bon Jovi concert at the Wells Fargo Center. O’Brien helped set up that gig, too. The Springfield, Delaware County, native has been Mansour’s producer and mentor since soon after she formed the first version of Soraia in late 2004.
Bassist Travis Smith has been involved from the beginning, while lead guitarist Brian Cassidy, rhythm guitarist Anthony Renzulli and drummer Jason Miraglia were added within the last year. More than a half-dozen guest musicians and vocalists contributed to the new album, which the band recorded primarily at Sine Studios in Rittenhouse Square as well as at Jon Bon Jovi’s personal studio in Red Bank, N.J.
Mansour first crossed paths with O’Brien in 2005. She was recording demos in a North Delaware Avenue studio next to one owned by the longtime Bon Jovi sound guru. After hearing her soulful, power-packed, but untrained voice for the first time, O’Brien was convinced he had found a diamond in the rough — even though her demo CD, the one she wanted to give to Bon Jovi at the Meadowlands, was more like a train wreck.
“It was bad. I mean it was bad,” O’Brien said in a recent telephone interview between stops on Bon Jovi’s yearlong world tour. “They didn’t know how to write, how to produce. Sue knew that she didn’t know. [But] she has something you can’t manufacture, like Aretha Franklin [has], or Janis Joplin or John Lennon on Twist and Shout. It’s a power, but it’s something that was masked by a terrible CD.”
Mansour also had a willingness to learn, and O’Brien a willingness to teach. Mansour began listening to the aforementioned vocalists and many other legendary performers. She studied under vocal coaches and learned to harness her talent.
The new product is a singer and a band that harken to the authentic blues- and soul-inspired rock of the 1960s and ‘70s, while inviting comparisons to popular 21st-century artists like the late Amy Winehouse, Adele and The Black Keys. O’Brien, who produced, engineered and co-wrote the new album, describes Mansour’s delivery as “punky” and “garagey.”
“I sense that Sue has a timelessness about her voice and her delivery,” he said.
That’s what piqued Jon Bon Jovi’s interests.
“He heard a couple of demo tapes I was listening to and said, ‘Play me some more,’ ” O’Brien recalled. “It’s very garagey and ‘60s and he said, ‘You know, I never get to write stuff like that.’ And I was like, ‘Well come on board!’ ”
Last year, Mansour and Jon met at his palatial Soho penthouse for about five lyric-writing sessions, a few hours each time. Nine of the songs on In the Valley are original, with Dolly Parton’s 1974 classic Jolene the lone cover track.
“Some [songs] we rewrote totally, others just needed another part that he helped me with,” said Mansour, who writes poetry for personal pleasure and taps into some of that material when songwriting.
“I don’t share my poetry, but I write a lot,” she said. “Writing is a very personal experience, so when you share that stuff, it’s difficult. It was nice that [our collaboration] worked from the second I got there. He was receptive to my opinions and views.
“After working with him, I had a new admiration for him. He wasn’t like, ‘Here are the tricks’ [for a good song]. There was no set formula. He not only understood [me], he raised my writing to a new level.”
Bon Jovi also wrote music on half the songs, while Smith and Nashville-based Billy Falcon wrote several others. O’Brien was the common thread on all of the tracks.
“I don’t consider myself a songwriter, by any imagination,” O’Brien said. “I’m much better at fixing stuff that people bring to me. We didn’t try to make a certain type of record. It’s just the things that have influenced me all my life and Sue all of her life.” ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org