Music Spotlight: While readying for a virtual Ladybug Fest, local acts hope to be back on the road this fall

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times


The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the course of music more than any other event since the spring of 1860.

On April 9, 1860, the French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville created the first sound recording in history. An eerie rendition of the folksong “Au clair de la lune” was captured by Scott’s trademark invention — the phonautograph (which is the earliest device known to preserve sound).

There certainly were landmark changes over the years including vinyl records, live stage concerts for audiences ranging from 15 people to 500,000 attendees, recording tape, cassettes, digital recording, music videos, CDs, live audio streams on the internet and instant downloads.

All made their mark, but none approached the craziness that the coronavirus has wrought.

Everything in the world of music has been turned upside-down including live shows, work in recording studios, album releases and promotional work.

Local musician and veteran rocker ZouZou Mansour and her band Soraia have experienced this big-time – having released their new album “Dig Your Roots” via Steven Van Zandt’s label Wicked Cool Records within days of when COVID-10 shutdown the country.

The Ladybug Music Festival, which is the country’s premier music festival featuring female acts exclusively, has also been slammed. The festival has rocked downtown Wilmington with a wide array of music every summer since 2013 – but Market Street in Wilmington will stay quiet in June 2020.

Fortunately, the Ladybug Music Festival will take place on June 29 and 30 – digitally. Fortunately, Soraia will be one of the featured acts.

Soraia has just released its new album “Dig Your Roots” via Steven Van Zandt’s label Wicked Cool Records.

Soraia – ZouZou Mansour (lead vocals, tambourine), Travis Smith (bass guitar, backup vocals), Nick Seditious (guitar), Brianna Sig (drums, percussion, background vocals) – epitomizes raw power, unrelenting energy, chaos, and freedom.

With a live show that is frenetic and intensely interactive, the band’s chemistry has been cemented through years of fierce, persistent touring from the dingiest dives to the most massive amphitheaters, helping them attract a worldwide fanbase.

“The new album dropped on Friday March 13,” said Mansour, during a phone interview Wednesday evening from her home in South Jersey. “We were in California and were leaving for Vegas. That’s when they told us things were shutting down.

“The show in Vegas was really well-attended. When we flew back from Vegas to California, the flight was pretty empty. The airport was really empty. We did a show in Alameda across the Bay from San Francisco and then we flew back home to Philly.

“Right away, we did a Facebook Live show with all of us together. It was on March 20 to replace our album release show that was supposed to be at MilkBoy Philly but was cancelled. Playing altogether with the four of us in one place was one-and-done because Travis has a 94-year-old grandmother that he sees often.

“We started doing Spotify sessions with us separated. Actually, we then got more listeners than we ever had before. We realized that there was an audience that needed music.”

Soraia’s debut album “Shed the Skin” was released in 2008.

There is one cover on the album that really showed where Soraia is coming from. The track is “Jolene,” which was written and recorded by Dolly Parton in 1974. Parton’s version is light country pop. Soraia’s version is bluesy and drips with the emotion of a desperate woman who is about to lose her man to another woman.

In March 2013, Soriaia released the album “The Valley of Love and Guns,” which featured 10 powerful tracks that were a showcase for Mansour’s expressive voice — tracks that hit you both in your ears and in your gut.

“Travis and I are the core of the band and we’ve been together for over 10 years,” said Mansour, during a phone interview after the release of “Less Than Zero. “We released our album ‘The Valley of Love and Guns’ in 2013, ‘Soraia Lives’ in 2014 and ‘Less Than Zero’ in 2015.”

Soraia had just signed a deal with Wicked Cool Records to release new material as well as the band’s back catalogue

“Wicked Cool Records is owned by Little Steven Van Zandt from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band,” said Mansour. “David Fricke, a senior writer at Rolling Stone Magazine, contacted us out of the blue and said he loved our music. He has a show on Sirius Spectrum.”

Soraia’s lineup solidified four years ago when Brianna Sig took over on drums and added backing vocals.

“A few years ago, I was playing in another band and someone told me I looked like Soraia,” said Sig, during a phone interview. “Our bands shared a bill and I hinted that I wanted to be their drummer.

“Not long after that, Soraia needed a drummer for a tour and contacted me. I played on that tour and eventually, it turned into I was her drummer. That was two-and-a-half years ago.”

Sig grew up in Norristown’s West End and was the daughter of local jazz musician Bill Signorovitch.

“I began drumming when I was about 10,” said Sig. “My dad was a jazz guitarist, so I was exposed to music early. I graduated high school in 2007 and had my first band in 2010. It took a while.”

Sig found a home with Soraia and fit in well with the band’s veterans.

The domino effect had started, and the dominoes continued to fall in a positive direction for Soraia.

The band’s album “Dead Reckoning” was officially released on October 13, 2017 on Wicked Cool Records.

“We recorded the new album in January at Renegade Studio in New York. Our label really wanted to capture our live sound. We did two songs with Little Steven and 10 with producing ourselves with engineer Geoff Sanoff.

“The band just set up and played live in the studio. It was all analog and recorded directly to tape – which was exciting. It was our first time to record analog, so it was really special. It was nice to go in and be our own producer.”

The band’s new LP followed a similar path.

“We recorded ‘Dig Your Roots’ from February 2019 to summer 2019,” said Mansour. “We cut it at the same studio we used for ‘Dead Reckoning’ – Renegade Studio in New York. It was a completely analog recording. Nothing sounds as good as tape.

“We also used the same producer – Geoff Sanoff. He’s a great producer. We’ve grown with him. Geoff understands us and understands our music. He’s a member of the band when we’re in there.”

The team of Soraia and Sanoff has proven to be an effective unit in the studio.

“I look at “Dig Your Roots’ as a continuation of what was begun on ‘Dead Reckoning,’” said Mansour. “‘Dig Your Roots’ is coming to terms with the light and dark inside myself and in the world. 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.

“The new album 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.”

Further nourishing the band’s 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.

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).”

According to Mansour, “I’m all about playing a fun song and throwing myself around — that’’ Rock ’n’ Roll at its heart. But I’m also about telling the stories of resurrection and life and hope and darkness.”

Now, Mansour – like just about every other musician around the world – wants to get back on stage. She is eagerly anticipating playing the new songs for live audiences.

“We’re all in a position where we want to perform live,” said Mansour. Some acts are playing patio shows but we’re not interested in that. As far as I’m concerned, it’s better to play online in a rehearsal space.

“But we have started booking shows for the fall. We were contacted by a venue in Austin, Texas – the Empire Control Room asked us to play a make-up show for our concert there that was scheduled for April and then got cancelled. Now, we have a show there on September 16. We started booking other shows for this fall around that date.

“We actually have a show on August 1 at Dragway 42 which is located near Cleveland, Ohio. It’s an annual concert next to the drag races called ‘Rock’n’Race.’ It’s a big racing and music event that’s been going on for years.

“We start the real touring with a show on September 3 at MilkBoy in Philadelphia. Then we play Union Station in Washington, D.C. on September 4 and “Smyrna at Night” in Delaware on September 5. We have shows scheduled for September in Michigan, Chicago, Austin, Memphis, and Indianapolis.

“On October 1, we open for Joan Jett in Albany (NY) and then play New York City on October 2 and New London, Connecticut on October 3. We’re also finalizing a tour of Sweden for the end of October.

“It’s going to be very different. There will be social distancing. Venue capacities will be reduced. People will be wearing masks.”

Mansour remains aware that visits by American citizens – even entertainers with work visas — might be banned in the fall. She knows that a spike in COVID-19 infections could turn the board showing tour dates into a clean slate.

“I think I’m cautiously optimistic because of the fact that some states are recovering well,” said Mansour. “The way New York State has handled the pandemic – I have faith in that.

“With regard to the tour — if we don’t book it, it won’t happen. If we do book it, there is a chance that the shows will happen. I do ho hope for the return of shows by a lot of acts – hopefully in the fall.”

Soraia is covering all bases – a live tour schedule coupled with internet performances.

“We have one Facebook Live show in June and the Ladybug Festival,” said Mansour. “The Facebook Show, which is on June 25 at 8 p.m. is a live set from our rehearsal room. It will be a one-hour acoustic set.”

Soraia Facebook link —

Video link for Soraia —

“Our performance for the Ladybug Festival is a full-on band show,” said Mansour, who grew up in Bucks County – in Fairless Hills. “We recorded it three weeks ago in our rehearsal room.”

The Ladybug Festival is the largest celebration of women in music in America. Started in 2012 by Gayle Dillman and Jeremy Hebbel (Gable Music Ventures), the idea was to offer an alternative to Firefly Festival that was focused on local independent artists, and free for the community to attend.

Michael and Debbie Schwartz, owners of the popular Shops and Lofts at 2nd & LOMA, engaged Gable Music Ventures to throw a live music block party for their tenants shortly after Firefly was announced. Gable used the timing of the request to put on the first ever “Ladybug Festival” featuring an all-female lineup of artists local to the Wilmington/Philadelphia music scene.

The event was well received so Dillman and Hebbel decided they would hold the event annually. Over time, outdoor stages were used, and more artists were added every year — including eventually nationally known acts. In 2019, the Wilmington event featured 100 artists over two days.

Video link for Ladybug Festival —

With the current pandemic conditions, having crowds of people packed in close proximity to hear live music on Market Street is not a very good idea. So, Dillman and Hebbel and the Ladybug Festival team have come up with an alternative. The largest celebration of women in music has moved online due to COVID-19 to protect the safety of the artists, vendors, attendees, and production and event staff.

“Ladybug – All Digital, All Female – Music Festival” is scheduled for June 29 and 30 – starting at 5 p.m. each day. Admission to the event is $20, although fans can donate more as this event is raising funds for Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, and Downtown Visions.

The event will be hosted by Jamila Mustafa, who is one of the most prominent voices shaping the millennial generation as an award-winning broadcast journalist, actress, and host. She has hosted a variety of shows on iHeart Radio (Fresh Pick Mondays, Live Sessions, Fan Vs. Artist Trivia), ESPN (EBC At Rucker Park), BET Networks (Sound Bite, Pull Up, BET BREAKS, The Break Down, Inside The Lyric, Set Trippin) and MTV Network’s legendary TRL.

Mustafa has been featured as a Forbes “Mastermind,” celebrated by former Vice President Joe Biden, awarded four City Council resolutions and named one of the Most Influential People of African Descent Under 40 by the United Nations. The former Miss Delaware State University and current international HBCU advocate founded HBCU 2 Hollywood in 2017, a University/College speaking tour that highlights the importance of education, health, and purpose.

The headliner is Keri Lynn Hilson is an American singer, songwriter, vocal arranger and actress from Atlanta. One of the featured performers will be West Chester’s multi-talented Nicole Zell.

Nicole Zell

Zell, an alumna of West Chester Henderson High School, has a long history with the Ladybug Festival already.

“The first time I played Ladybug was in 2015,” said Zell, during a phone interview Tuesday evening from her home in Bala Cynwyd. “I did a ‘Wilmo Wednesday’ at the Queen that Jeremy and Gayle host in Wilmington. That was my audition for Ladybug – and it was where I met Alexandra.”

Alexandra March is Zell’s podcast partner.

“I’ve been a full-time touring musician for 10 years so I’m enjoying the break,” said Zell. “I’ve been getting into other things like making jewelry and doing a podcast, ‘Follow Your Art,’ with Alexandra March.”

“Follow Your Art” is a home for art creators and appreciators. Hosted by artists, Alexandra March & Nicole Zell, their podcast promotes collaboration and community through hearing the stories of creatives from all different walks of life. It is available on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube and Buzzsprout.

Video link for Zell/March podcast —

“In 2017, I played Ladybug as a duo with Alexandra,” said Zell. “Then at Ladybug 2019, I played with my band THRILLCHASER at the Queen.

“With THRILLCHASER, we finished making our sophomore album late last year and were looking at a release early this year. We started making the new album in late 2018 and finished it in September 2019. Just like with ‘A Lot Like Love,’ we recorded the new album with Taylor Larson at Oceanic Recording Studio.

“It’s a concept album. Each song will have visuals – a video to tell the story. We have a few singles and some lyric videos. But, with the shutdown, we haven’t been able to make any music videos.

For Zell, pursuing a career in music was natural. Born into a musical family, she grew up singing, songwriting, and playing instruments from an early age. Since then, she has established a successful career for herself as a solo artist – as former guitarist for alternative rock band, American Wolves – and as guitarist/vocalist for THRILLCHASER.

Zell’s songwriting achievements are equally as impressive as her extensive track record as a live performer. She has honed her craft by writing hundreds of songs, co-writing and collaborating globally, and working in numerous genres spanning from pop, indie, alt rock, country, folk, soul, funk, spoken word, to rap.

“With THRILLCHASER, we’re in a holding pattern now,” said Zell. “If the shutdown didn’t happen, we would have had shows booked and been touring the album.

“But, if we had released the album and then been unable to tour, it would have been a disaster. Having a new record to promote and being unable to present it to the fans live would have been a really bad situation.”

Fortunately, there is the upcoming virtual version of the Ladybug Festival.

“The Ladybug Festival is such a great event,” said Zell. “For female artists, it’s really incredible to have something like Ladybug to champion female artists. It’s incredible what Jeremy and Gayle do. It’s the world’s largest female festival.”

The lineup of artists for the spectacular two-day festival also includes Keri Hilson, Larkin Poe, Vanessa Carlton, KT Tunstall, Mary Lambert, Kechi Okwuchi (America’s Got Talent), Evie Clair (America’s Got Talent), Morgan James, Taimane, Lauren Ruth Ward, Asia Sparks, Kalie Shorr, Singing OUT ft. Crys Matthews and Heather Mae, LUANNA, LULLANAS, Tara Hendricks and Alicia Goku.

Also featured will be Victoria Theodore, The Accidentals, Carsie Blanton, Gina Chavez, Eljuri, Lauren Jenkins, Willow Hill, Jessica Latshaw, Victoria Watts, SIRSY, Shannon Arianna, Alisabeth Von Presley, Nya-Jolie, June Divided, Joy Ike, Jenny Leigh, Angela Sheik, Akilah Divine, Aubrey Haddard, Hoochi Coochi, Zookie Baby, Taylor Kelly, Toiné, FRUUT, Maya Belardo, The Upstarters, Lauren Kuhne, Alyssa Garcia, Lefty the Greatest and Eleanor Two.

KT Tunstall

KT Tunstall is a singer-songwriter-musician from Edinburgh, Scotland who burst onto the music scene in 2004 with a live solo performance of her song “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” on the popular British TV show “Later… with Jools Holland.”

In the decade that followed, she released four full-length studio albums, along with a few EPs and live recordings.

Tunstall has had her songs featured in a number of hit movies such as “The Devil Wears Prada,” as well as television shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds.” Her album sales are approaching 10 million and she has been nominated for a Grammy Award, the Mercury Music Prize and several BRIT Awards.

A few years ago, Tunstall thought she was done with music. She had reached a turning point in her life and she called it quits for her music career.

“Why did I quit — it was really the circumstances,” said Tunstall. “My father passed away. I broke up with my ex. I was miserable. I created my own story. I was a success musically, but I didn’t feel happy.”

So, Tunstall halted her career as a rock musician, left the U.K. and relocated to Southern California.

“I realized I could find sanctuary in Southern California,” said Tunstall. “So, I sold everything I owned and moved to Venice Beach. It was the best thing I’ve ever done. I had been defined by music for 20 years. Who I was had become lost in that identity. I wanted music to be what I do not who I am. So, I cut the cord.”

Tunstall relocated to Los Angeles, abandoned the world of rock music and set her focus on writing music for films. She studied composing soundtracks at the Skywalker Ranch and composed and performed the following soundtracks — “Winter’s Tale,” “Million Dollar Arm,” “Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast” and “About Ray.”

“Once I moved to California, I spent a lot of time chilling out and reflecting,” said Tunstall. “I love listening to music in my car. I spent time driving through Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon — listening to the music that was made there by acts such as Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

“I got inspired. I began writing these really big choruses. At the same time, my mind and my body said ‘No.’ I was making very unfettered music that wasn’t self-conscious. I was writing muscular, emotional pop songs that I would be foolish to have ignored.”

Video link for KT Tunstall –

Based in New Orleans, Carsie Blanton is not your typical singer-songwriter. She makes music that focuses on witty, intelligent songwriting.

Her latest album “Buck Up” is a melodic mandate for survival, commenting on the most recent changes we’ve seen in the country. Blanton’s sound is influenced by blues, jazz and pop styles.

On the album, the darker subject matter is lightened by bright, catchy melodies and her engaging vocals. As much as “Buck Up” reflects political and personal catastrophe, these themes are always presented in a humorous and playful way.

Even though Blanton lives in New Orleans – a city with music everywhere a lot of great studios, she came to the Philly area to record her latest disc.

“We recorded it at Pete Donnelly’s studio in Haddonfield, New Jersey,” said Blanton.

Blanton is a talented singer-songwriter whose music spans a variety of genres. She is also adaptable when it comes to finding a place to call home.

Blanton grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountain area in Virginia, moved to Eugene, Oregon when she was 16 and relocated to Philadelphia a few years later.

“I was 21 when I moved to Philly,” said Blanton. “I had a fun and pretty easy time there. I still love Philly.”

Blanton released her debut album “Hush” in 2002 and followed with “Ain’t So Green” in 2009, “Beau” EP in 2010 and “Idiot Heart” in 2012. Her two albums prior to “Buck Up” were “Not Old, Not New,” which was released in 2014, and “So Ferocious,” which came out on 2016.

“Buck Up,” which was just released in February 2019, was produced by Pete Donnelly and Blanton and engineered and mixed by Donnelly at Westmont Station Recording Studio in Haddon Township, New Jersey. Some bass and vocal tracks were engineered by Patrick Firth at The Patty-O in Queens, New York. The album was mastered by Jim Salamone at Cambridge Sound Studios in Philadelphia.

Video link for Carsie Blanton –

Lauren Ruth Ward, who played live at Ladybug in 2018, grew up in Baltimore splitting her time between a bohemian mother and a Republican father.

From a young age, she also had a natural drive for creativity — with the talent to back it. Ward also taught herself to sew clothes, as well as sing and play guitar, taking cues from the music of her childhood — ‘70s rock and her mom’s old disco compilations along with the music of her teens such as Mirah and Elliott Smith.
After graduating from high school in suburban Baltimore, Ward took on hairstyling. By 22 she had a fully booked calendar with cancellation backups at the salon where she worked and was running her own wedding updo business. She was ambitious, successful, and doing work she loved, yet something was missing. That led to a new career and a new hometown.

“There was no catalyst,” said Ward, during a phone interview from her home in L.A. “I just knew I needed a switch. I had been a hair stylist for nine years. I was working six days a week – sometimes seven. I was making great money, but I felt super complacent – and guilty.

“So, I said – I want to quit my job and move to California to be a musician. At that point, singing was nothing more than a hobby. There were times I’d convince someone to play music with me but that was always short-lived. In Baltimore, that dream isn’t really alive. In California, people juggle day jobs and their pursuit of dreams. In Baltimore, they accept their fate.”

Baltimore is great for crab dishes, tourist attractions and festivals like Honfest (when there is no pandemic going on) but it’s a horrible place for aspiring musicians.

So in 2015, Ward packed up her life and road tripped to her new home — Los Angeles. After a challenging, perfectionistic pursuit, Ward came together with a band — Liv Slingerland (bass), India Pascucci (drums) and guitarist and fellow songwriter Eduardo Rivera.

Together, the four new friends created Ward’s debut album, “Well, Hell,” a nine-track sampler of what she calls the band’s “four modes” – heaven, hell, acoustic and pop. The band’s chameleonic moods are punctuated by Ward’s playfulness with her bandmates on stage, dancing with audience and her signature white dotted eyes.

Video link for Lauren Ruth Ward at Ladybug 2018 –

Other acts from the upcoming festival that also played Ladybug in 2018 are Lefty The Greatest, Joy Ike, SIRSY, Angela Sheik, Victoria Watts, Aubrey Haddard, Jessica Latshaw, and Hoochi Koochi.

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