Northeast Times

Rock queen

Show­time: So­raia Man­sour, lead sing­er for the band So­raia, per­forms at the band’s CD launch party at The Le­gendary Dobbs on South Street. ABI RE­IMOLD / FOR THE TIMES

— 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 wkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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