TRACK REVIEW: Zoë Wren - She’s a Highway Man



Zoë Wren


She’s a Highway Man





She’s a Highway Man is available via:




London/Cambridge, U.K.


17th November, 2017


THROUGH the course of this review...


I will look at a range of different topics. I want to talk about change and creating differences – as well as looking for that in other people; the young and aspiring artists that receive reward and opportunities very early in their career; the importance of strengthened social media to connect with fans; artists who can mix education, awards and natural intuition; creating songs that differ in terms of themes and lyrics – the next step for artists who have created impressive foundations. I want to start off talking about myself a little – before I come to assess Zoё Wren. Wren is someone I am excited about but, looking at the way she is doing things, it has compelled me to rethink and re-evaluate things. In terms of writing; I am going to be, going forward, looking for review subjects off my own back. That is no slight to the talent I am being emailed – certainly not the case here – but I crave diversity and depth as my blog gets bigger and bolder. I am getting a lot of request from male artists and musicians who sound similar – to what I have already reviewed and assessed before. The deeper I get into music – and take my mind around the world and into different avenues – the more excited I get. There are limitations when it comes to opening the doors to others – the quality and originality can wane slightly. This new proclamation will take effect in a couple of weeks: it is a risk that might fail but I have a hunger to spread the genres and approach artists further up the career ladder. It makes me excited looking at someone like Wren. She is young but has already accomplished a lot. I am at the stage where the need for transition and improvement is paramount. In terms of living situation, job and happiness; the yearning and desire to better things and live life in a desirable manner has reached a palpable high.


There is a temptation, in me, to relocate and go somewhere else; take a huge gamble and make a big break – where I am now, and what I am doing, is creating nothing but unhappiness. I guess writing is not as flawless and desirable as one would imagine. It is great seeking out artists and helping them get their music to a larger audience. The greater the hunger and ambition, the more time I am spending on the laptop. Spending that much time in isolation fosters depression and makes me withdraw into my own world – and keep cloistered away from the wider world. I have the need to detach from the digital-heavy workload and spend less time on the laptop. Seeing artists like Wren perform and grow makes me want to get out into the ether and connect on a personal level. I feel she has real potential and is someone doing much the way she wants to. That is a rare quality to find in music: most new artists follow the herd or follow a really rigid course. Before I come on to ladle compliment and raise her spirits: a little on things that can help her going forward. One of the reasons I am taking a more autonomous approach to reviewing is the need for more artists with great visuals and a stock of images. I realise I have flogged this horse to death but, as my blog gets more focus and praise; the craving to make it a professional outlet means the visual quality needs to grow. The majority of the review requests I have received have lacked a certain something – most of them concern photos and/or biographical information. There is plenty of information about Zoё Wren but, when it comes to images, one would like to see more. She is very photographic and, seeing as her music is reaching more ears, it is the time for her to get some professional shoots done. It is no coincidence the artists I go after have an array of wonderful photos and terrific music.


There is a link between the two points: those who produce great music, and it proves popular, take a serious approach to the visual aspect and know the importance of visibility and exposure. There is nothing cheap and shallow about getting your images out there and making yourself stand out. Zoё Wren is a young woman who is entering music at its busiest and most competitive time. I have reviewed a lot of Folk artists who, on paper, have very little to distinguish themselves from the competition. If artists making similar music and seem alike; there are going to be few who will know how to separate them and detect the stars from the average. The Folk artists I have assessed have all been great but many I have had to dig deep in order to inspire words. That is not the case with Zoё Wren. She has an allure and photographic quality that would inspire some great images. I am not suggesting she spends an inordinate amount of money and has dozens of photos on the page. She is in a new phase of her career so people like me – and D.J.s, fans and venues – will search social media and take all this into consideration. It is one of my gripes for a very good reason: music is visual and the more images someone has online; the better a journalistic piece will look. The images in this review are good but, seeing how natural she is on the page, makes me want to expand that and see more. I know Wren will consider this in 2018 but she would benefit from a few shoots that see her in various locales. Not only will that update her snaps – a lot of her images are older - but it would show she is willing to spend money on her career and attracting the senses. The music she is producing is wonderful so it warrants serious acclaim and focus.

Matthew Allen.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Matthew Allen

In addition to the images; getting more music videos and updates to the people would be great. Catered for by Folkstock; there is a safe-bed and professional body putting Wren’s music to the right people. Wren has a very visual dynamic to her songwriting so, backing her singles with music videos, would be a way of getting more celebrity on channels like YouTube. Visuals as crucial so one cannot limit themselves to audio platforms. Songs as impactful as She’s a Highway Man provoke filmic inspiration and it seems like there will be a video down the line. I am not sure what her 2018 has in store but I predict more music and gigs. Getting all these ingredients thrown into the pot means there is less chance of a culinary disaster – it’s a lazy image but you know what I mean! The artists I go after are those who have that blend of visual and audio; they have all the contours and layers cemented and firm – one is hooked and tempted to write about them. Wren is someone who understands this but one suspects her time and heart have been fully committed to the music and getting that right. Wren is one of the recipient of the 2017 PRS Lynsey de Paul Prize for emerging female singer-songwriters. She has played the Main Stage at Folkstock Festival – the youngest artists to do so; she was sixteen – and been championed by a certain Bob Harris. These honours would seem daunting to someone in their thirties: the fact Wren is nowhere near that age means the music is already connecting and fully-formed. With a new single fresh out to the world; I believe there are whisperings of an E.P. This is a very hot and productive time for the young songwriter. I have mentioned image and building the social media stock but, actually, when it comes to updates – Wren is doing very well and keeping her fans engaged. She has won that prize and taken to some big stages. One wonders what she can achieve in 2018.


I know Folk is a genre that wrestles for appeal but, when you see artists like Zoё Wren emerge; one knows Folk will get the attention it has always deserved. Before I go on – to highlight how far she has come – I want to quote from her biography:

Zoё’s growing reputation has seen her invited to perform at Cambridge Folk Festival by Hitchin Folk Club in the summer or 2016, having previously been invited to perform on Stage 2 in Brian McNeill’s Festival Session at the festival after her floor spot in the Club tent the day before. In the final year of a music degree at Cambridge University, Zoё is certainly attracting attention having supported various artists including Peter Knight's Gigspanner at Cambridge Folk Club and Jim Causley at Hitchin Folk Club, where she has been booked three times in one season, as a result of winning the Best Newcomer award at Folkstock's Love Folk Live Awards. FATEA Magazine featured Zoё in their Autumn Showcase 2014 and her first headline gig was a sell out at Redbourn Folk Club in the summer of 2015”.

It might seem daunting accomplishing that much so young but it is a natural progression for someone who is striking the right chords. I have talked about education and how it can be beneficial mingling academia with a more conventional route into music. Some might see the Cambridge credit on her C.V. and wonder whether privilege and financial advantage has found Wren get the sort of education many of us will never be able to obtain - they would be wrong; it is her talent and drive that has got her there. Wren’s intelligence and aptitude that has brought her to our finest university. In addition to her academic success; she won a bursary for her music course at Cambridge, her parents are stall holders in Camden market - quite a varied background! The sort of thing she has studied will link with her upbringing and peers. Wren has been afforded a great chance to explore music and get an education from some incredible professionals. Many feel the best way to get a career in music sparked is to follow their own path and learn as they go along. There is a lot to be said for self-education and intuition. I find, if one wants to expand their horizons and bring more technicality into their sounds, pursuing education is beneficial.


Wren is someone born into music and destined to follow it to its natural limits. She has always loved the form and her desire to get a degree in Music was only a matter of time. I have studied in Cambridge – but not at Cambridge – and know what the people are like there. It is an eclectic and fascinating city with a large student population. When I was up there (2002-2004), things were different. There were not that many music venues. If one wanted to see a musician up there, they would have to go to a local bar. Things have changed and local events like the Cambridge Folk Festival are invaluable for artists like Wren. It is a wonderful environment for someone who wants to take music by the horns and learn as much as she can. I know London will be a natural base for Wren because Cambridge provides fewer chances in the long-run. What it does do is give that prestigious educational platform and a great and vibrant Folk scene. Wren can assimilate what she has learned (from Cambridge) and bring that to the capital. I feel London still places other genres ahead of Folk. Perhaps Folk is not the most immediate and rousing display of musicianship but, in a time when the world needs something beautiful and refined; it seems Folk’s role will be heightened next year. Wren has an affinity for music and is a rare songwriter. One need only look at the title of her new single to know she is not like everyone else. Although I am detaching from Folk music for a long time – as I take my own route and seek different sounds – I know the beauty and magic one can hear when artists push boundaries. A lot of modern artists still focus heavily on love and are unable to understand the refined listeners wants something different and deeper.


I know relationships and love are commodities that we can all relate to. If that is all you are hearing then it can be very tiring and uninviting. Wren will have experienced heartache but she knows the way to get her name above everyone else’s is to write music with a unique soul. That is the case when one hears She’s a Highway Man. When looking at that title I was, oddly, reminded of an old episode of Blackadder; where Edmund was fooled by a highwayman (played by Miranda Richardson) into robbing the Prince Regent (played by Hugh Laurie) and running away with her. Blackadder was tricked and robbed at gunpoint in the end. After receiving a cunning suggestion from Baldrick; the roguish highwayman/woman was hanged and the devious Blackadder was victorious. That is the last time I have heard the term ‘highwayman’ in the popular arts. Maybe Adam and the Ants – Stand and Deliver – have found success with this sort of theme but nobody has written about the topic since. It is a very old-time and historical image that one would think is devoid of musical potential. That is what makes Zoё Wren such an appealing artist. She has taken a subject that does not get exposure and provided her own take on it. Not only are her lyrics captivating and picturesque: the music backing it does not plod and drag: it is a spirited and nuanced blend that makes the song a winner. In fact, I have mentioned Wren’s upcoming E.P. – it will be called Gold and Smoke – and it seems there is an important gap in her latest song title. I have mentioned the image of a ‘highwayman’ but it seems Wren’s new single could be called She’s a Highway, Man.


That might seem like a trippy and blissed-out image but it is Wren’s reimagining of a traditional number. When speaking with Acoustic Magazine - she explained the song’s origins:

The song is a twist on the story of the traditional song ‘The Female Highwayman’, in which the protagonist Silvie dresses up as a highwayman and robs her lover in order to test his loyalty,” explains Wren. And she should know a thing or two about that, having just completed her music degree at Cambridge University, which included a dissertation about the voices of women in folk.

“It’s a great example of an independent and intrepid heroine in folklore,” Wren adds. “However in the original story, everything works out fine and goes back to normal. So I wondered what might really happen when Silvie gets her first taste of true freedom, and whether a humorous swapping of gender roles might, in fact, reveal something a bit more interesting.”

That explanation shows what she has learnt from her studies. Engrossing herself in the roles of women in music and Folk greats; Wren has found a traditional song and skewed its gender roles. By reversing the gender roles, and showing perceptiveness, it has opened up a whole new world. In a way, She’s a Highway Man is a cover version - albeit it, one that Wren has put her stamp on! An incredible achievement from someone who has been in the music industry only a few years. I am excited by the E.P. and will take a listen to it when it comes out. I believe there were plans to release the E.P. this year but it seems like we have to wait a little longer for it. The reimagining of Folk stories gives the Folk musician a chance to show what she is made of. Her previous E.P., Pandora’s Box, was released in 2014 and gained a lot of love. Her music has been supported by Bob Harris and got under the skin of some big names. Next year will be a pivotal one for her. I cannot wait until the E.P. comes out and she has a chance to take the songs on the road. Right now, Wren is intoxicating crowds wherever she goes and proving herself one of the best new talents in the Folk world. I know how busy and bustling Folk is - so that is no small honour. I will wrap this point up – as I am keen to review the song – but I am interested in Wren’s songwriting approach and how she can reinvent traditional songs and give them a modern turn. It seems gender and parity are important to her. In a song where the central character met a somewhat unfortunate end: Wren’s approach was to provide a happier outcome; one that keeps the listener engrossed and engaged. There are some great songwriters out there but I wonder how many of them have the same imagination and considerations as Wren?


The new track, She’s a Highway Man is a twist on the traditional song, The Female Highwayman. The protagonist, Silvie, dresses as a highwayman and robs her lover – in order to test his loyalty. The original song works out fine and everything returns to normal. This version keeps the story going and reverses gender roles. When Wren steps to the microphone; her voice is raw and exciting. The production means the recording sounds live and homely. One can imagine being in the same room and hearing the song unfold. It is a dramatic but levelled performance that builds on sprite strings and a warm, yet firm, voice. Wren talks about the hero spending long nights out and no coherence between night and day. Many might think there is an affair taking place but our heroine has suspicions. Wondering whether her man would stray; our girl has found a solution and retribution for his lack of attention. At first, there are suspicions without much concrete proof. Again; one might listen to the song and think the man is spending nights out with another woman. Knowing the inspiration behind the song – and looking at the title – we know things are different. From the tension and suspicions of infidelity; things see the heroine take her own path and flee the man. Rather than plot vengeance and wait for him to slip up; she adorns highwayman clothing and gets out on the road. Maybe there is a horse involved – or a modern equivalent? – but one can imagine the wind whistling through her hair. On the road, there is nobody to answer to and a lack of responsibilities. That freedom is provoking a surge of excitement and ambition in the heroine. Rather than see it is as a chance to emancipate herself from domestic shackles: one feels the highwayman/woman seek something more thrilling and dangerous. Part of her heart wants the risk and the chance to enter a more meaningful life. That meaning comes at a price it seems.


When the heroine comes back home, she yearns for the road and, whilst she was undercover, rode to her lover and put a gun to him. Amazed at the powers “that came with the trousers” – a marketing strapline for Marks and Spencer, perhaps?! – that humour and revelation surge through the blood. The heroine is in a new frame and role and loving the exhilaration. Rather than approach her lover directly: the anonymity and subterfuge is a perfect masquerade. One hardly hears any tales that look at revenge and retribution in such an interesting setting. Equalling the score is usually a tense and cliché thing in music. Wren takes a different angle and provides something fascinating and funny. It is a way of providing the listener familiarity – cheating and the need to get equal – with something historic and based on fantasy. Maybe the need to detach from a rather rigid and boring life has led her to take this way of life. The thrill of danger and the illegality means the addictive quality gets into her blood. The fact she manages to rob her boyfriend is a huge reward. The boy trembled and gave her his things. When she is done; she asks for the wedding ring – or an engagement ring? The man clings onto it so one is not sure whether she got it in the end. Regardless; that thrill has taken effect and the highwayman role is hers now. That contrast between the home and road is really exciting. The man finds out about the deceit and discovers her web of lies. He begs the girl to stay and not succumb to that way of life – it seems she prefers dressing in a shirt and succumbing to the dangers before her. Maybe her has caused this recklessness but it is subverting gender roles. Many assume women should be in the home and obey the man. Instead; we have a woman who takes the opposite assumption and gives herself to the road. This new life is her identity and, as such, she has no time for romance and the old ways. She’s a Highway Man seems apt given the fact the girl is a racing and free spirit. She is not a ‘highwayman’ – that would be sexist – but she is someone who craves the adrenaline and shadiness of the tarmac. Maybe this is a modern reinvention of the highwayman tale but I find myself remaining in older centuries. It is an extraordinary song from a young Folk artist doing things very differently. She’s a Highway Man is a song that could gain a lot of love from Folk champions like Bob Harris and Mark Radcliffe. I am excited seeing just how far it can go!


I have spoken a lot about Zoё Wren and what she has achieved so far. I maintain my opinions on her music – the fact she is captivating big sources means she is on the right path! I maintain my opinions about social media/images, too. It would be great to see more of Wren in photographic terms. One of the reasons I almost turned the review down – and delayed its publication – was the limit of photographs. Not that I am trying to get a beautiful woman to show her face more: every musician will want to get exposure and interviews etc. Visuals and photos are so important now; no artist can really expand and survive with very few photographs online. Zoё Wren is a talented and upcoming artist so I am sure this is something that will be addressed in the coming year. Wren has played The Song Loft and Cambridge Acoustic Nights. According to a Facebook update; this is what Wren’s weekend has in-store:

I've got a great weekend coming up - I'll be performing at Celebrate Christmas with Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery alongside the wonderful Minnie Birch and Emily Aldrich, followed by a live session on the Terry Krueger Folk Show on Saint FM Radio Station (94.7).

Then on Sunday I'm playing at Art? or Politics? It's a riot: Female Voiceswhich looks set to be a super - and very interesting - evening. Would love to see any London friends there!

Although Wren’s studies have recently completed: she is keeping her hand in the Cambridge market and taking advantage of the venues/events there. It seems the city is perfect for a Folk artist who wants to embrace a blend of pastoral surroundings and the buzz of a university city. Step a few miles away from the dreaming spires – or is that Oxford?! – and you get the countryside and rural retreat. That is why Folk is a big business there. London has a growing market and there are many labels/venues that would love to see more of Zoё Wren. I know her E.P. is being worked on right now - it will be out in February, I understand. She is working with Lauren Deakin Davies on it and that combination will lead to great results, for sure!


It is an E.P. that has Wren excited and hopeful. That is understandable and, as we approach Christmas, she is not slowing down. She will play St. Pancras Old Church (London) on 22nd before doing a few radio performances/interviews before the year is done. It seems this weekend is a busy one and will get her music to new faces. If you can see her in London, make sure you do. There is a rooted and lovable quality to Wren that means she gets into the heart before a word has been spoken. She is a modest talent but someone with a big future. I am not sure whether there are any other plans apart from the E.P. next year. I guess she will situate herself in London and spend less time in Cambridge. That is a guess but, as her career grows, the need for relocation and attention will grow. There are so many Pop and Rock acts out there: a chance to see Folk artists take some spotlight is much-needed. Make sure you investigate She’s a Highway Man and follow Wren’s progress. She keeps her Facebook/Twitter pages updated so you can get the latest insight and decisions from those sites and follow her progress. I know 2018 will be a huge one from an artist that has achieved a lot the last few years. She is a prize-winner and played festivals; released an E.P. and studied at Cambridge. All of this provides foundations for a musician who has a lot more to say. I will follow her career and see where she can go next. It is an exciting one for Zoё Wren and her music. Take a listen to her latest single and get dragged into a wonderful world…


YOU will not want to escape from.


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