Who better to fund a folk album than the folks who will be listening to it?
This was the thinking of singer/songwriter Ellis Paul.
Paul performs this Saturday at Peterborough Players Theatre.
The 48-year-old has had plenty of experience working with recording labels, having released 20 CDs over the past 20 years.
His newest album, set for release this summer, is being produced by Kristian Bush, half of the Grammy Award-winning duo, Sugarland, and Paul has raised $80,000 so far. The album is his second funded by his fans. Paul wanted to own the master recordings, which artists who have a recording contract have to turn over to the label. By the time he’s ready to record his next album, he’ll be doing so at the home studio he is now building.
It’s all about artistic freedom for Paul, whose career began by happy accident. He grew up harvesting potatoes on his family’s farm in Fort Kent, Maine. He was also a state champion distance runner and went to Boston College on a track scholarship, majoring in English.
When an injury put him on the sidelines, he picked up a guitar to pass the time while he recovered.
“I just love the sound of the acoustic guitar played well,” said Paul, who lives in Virginia, in a recent interview with The Sentinel. “It’s still my favorite instrument. I play it and get lost in it — it fits my DNA profile, I guess.”
He originally played the trumpet in his high school jazz band, but it was the guitar-driven songs that first drew him to folk music. He lists Bob Dylan’s version of “House of the Rising Sun” as an early favorite.
“I could write about anything I wanted — love, war — nobody boxed me in a corner,” he said.
After graduating from college, he began playing at open mike nights at Boston coffeehouses. He is now considered a key figure in what has become known as the Boston school of songwriting, which spawned a group of artists responsible for a folk revival.
“It was this period of time in the ’90s when literate, lyric-driven folk music was going on,” he said. “It was music for people who loved books.” He lists artists such as Dar Williams and Patti Griffin as being part of this movement.
The music from this school of songwriting was also designed for close listening. In a loud, crowded space, he explained, artists had to rely on other things to get the audience’s attention. But the music coming out of the coffeehouses and other such “listening rooms” became a draw itself. “You could hear a pin drop, it was so silent,” he said. “So the lyrics could be as dense and heady as you wanted them to be — you can’t get away with that in a bar.”
Since then, Paul, who also plays piano and keyboards, has won an unprecedented 15 Boston Music Awards.
His songs can be heard on television and movie soundtracks — they appeared in three different movies by the Farrelly Brothers — “Me Myself and Irene,” “Shallow Hal” and “Hall Pass.”
His face has become synonymous with the memory of Woody Guthrie, one of his greatest influences. Among his performances recognizing his musical hero were at a Woody Guthrie tribute show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and as a headliner at the first Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Guthrie’s Oklahoma hometown.
Paul’s two young children are his latest influences. They both sang on his 2012 family album, “The Hero in You,” centered on such historical figures as Guthrie along with Martha Graham, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson and Benjamin Franklin.
“I wanted to write music for them and that they could be a part of,” Paul said of his kids. “They also play the music when I’m gone so they can keep my presence with them.”
Paul’s next project will be a children’s book he’ll write and illustrate — it will be his second book. His first included his lyrics, poems and drawings.
Paul is proud that he can’t be categorized as an artist.
“I haven’t found that perfect thing,” he said. “Like how every James Taylor song sounds like the last James Taylor song. ... Some of my songs are pop-y, some are rock-y, some are folk-y. In this age of iPod shuffling, I’m surrounded by God knows what else. My song could be sitting next to a Lady Gaga song, I don’t know.”
An evening with Ellis Paul happens this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Peterborough Players Theatre. Rebecca Loebe will open the evening. Loebe, of Austin, Texas, was a contestant of the first season of the NBC vocal competition program, “The Voice.” Tickets are $18-$21 and can be ordered online at www.ticketstage.com.