“Only Joni knows how blue I’m feeling now”, sings Zoë Wren on ‘Smoky Sunrise’, the opening track of Reckless River, giving a pretty good indication of one of her major influences, Mitchell’s early albums clearly echoing in the melody, the guitar tunings and vocals of a song that’s basically a bittersweet farewell love letter to London following her move to Lugano in Switzerland.
Following three EPs, the first in 2014, while they were more mini-albums with nineteen tracks between them, this marks her debut full-length release, only one song, a reworked, more darkly musically brooding version of ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’, being revisited with David Delarre on mandolin.
Wren started out as a street busker, and, featuring Martin Ash on viola, the experience forms the basis of ‘Welcome Here’ with its observations of the ‘invisible’ homeless (“the street singer smiles as the coins rain down/Those cheerful tunes ease our guilt and our fear/We all turn our heads from the man on the ground/And he knows he’s not welcome here”) and its call to “listen now”.
People watching and the lives of others also underpin the pizzicato tones of ‘London Town’, be it the overworked nurse (“Sally works the late night shift/On every Friday night/Ten hours at the hospital/Two night buses just to get home/With the morning light/No bed time story for her little girl”) or a fellow busker (“Joe’s a rock and roller /Trying to make it in this town/With ringing ears and fingers sore/He slung his guitar on his back/And pushed on through the crowd”). The verses also tell of Kim whose life’s shattered when her boyfriend breaks up with her rather than presents her with a ring, but then meets a bloke with a guitar, Joe I assume, on the tube.
Reversing the scenario, there’s an engagement ring too in the circling fingerpicked ‘Ring In Your Pocket’, based on the true story of a man who dropped an engagement ring into her guitar case (“So you gave it to a busker/On the underground/Cause you liked the song she was singing/And she smiled at you/And you thought maybe/There’s a way to turn your life around”).
A third song emanating from those early days is ‘Don’t Touch My Guitar’, a bluesier, uptempo number about “certain guys who lack in certain concepts/Like common sense and boundaries and respect” on which, backed by Ash, she demonstrates some particularly skilful work on such instrument, while warning “please think twice before you irritate me/Or you might find the tables turned on you”.
The album title stems from a line in ‘Elephants And Drums’, a deftly fingerpicked number about the trials and tribulations of falling in love (“if I take this chance/Will the morning find me/All alone with horizons in my eyes/And if I take this path/Will the darkness blind me”), on which her voice hews more to the sounds of English folk influences than Laurel Canyon.
A particular highlight in an album painted in them is ‘Cecilia’, a waltzing traditional folk-sounding account of her great grandmother from Slovenia, who gave up her dream of becoming a nun in order to marry a widower and look after his young children. The lines “Daughter, why is your night dress so cold and so wet?’/ ‘Oh mother, I’m soaked in the tears that you shed/ But it’s time, you don’t need to cry anymore” referring to a dream in which her first-born daughter who died young came to tell her to stop grieving.
Another daughter is at the heart of the strummed ‘Come Home’, a song which, marrying a traditional English tone with the sort of Americana folk blues embodied by Gillian Welch could almost be a sequel to ‘She’s Leaving Home’ as, having left “the doubt and slamming doors” behind in search of greener grass, she finds “the trees are bare and the river’s dry”.
The album’s final track, the plucked strings folksy shuffle and catchy chorus of ‘What If’, again draws on her own experiences, namely singing workshops in prisons with the grassroots charity Sing Inside, as, Jonny Wickham on double bass, it speaks of the turns of fate, circumstance and second chances in the poignant imagery of “There are voices still unheard/And there are stories left untold/They are shut inside a chest of drawers/To gather dust as they grow old”.
Steeped in the very best of classic contemporary and traditional folk from both sides of the Atlantic, blessed with a pure, emotive voice that flows across her melodies like a clear stream, Wren is most very definitely welcome here, there and everywhere.
Artist’s website: www.zoewren.com
‘Smoky Sunrise’ – live: