With the Tarbox Ramblers, the rollicking band he put together 20 years ago with a revolving cast of musicians, Michael Tarbox has been a historic preservationist of sorts. He writes and records original music, but the group’s style has been rooted in decades of American music, from primitive blues and barroom rock to unvarnished Appalachian folk and countrified soul. As its raucous ringleader, Tarbox established a reputation for being a raconteur who wielded a wild guitar.
It was a surprise, then, to hear him turn so introspective on 2009’s “My Primitive Joy,” his debut solo album, which turned down the volume and revealed a more tender side to Tarbox’s songwriting. Mostly acoustic with the homespun feel of demo recordings, it presented him as Tarbox the troubadour.
“I don’t think anybody expected me to make a solo record, but I wanted it to be quiet and different,” Tarbox, 57, says recently over lunch at Café Pamplona in Harvard Square. “[That first album] has more of a folky feel, but they’re all original songs.”
Next month Tarbox, who lives in Waltham, returns with another solo effort, “Works and Days,” which he’ll release on his own label, Soul Panther. This time he fan-funded it through a Kickstarter campaign that raised a little more than $10,000 spread among 177 backers. That was well beyond his initial goal of $8,000, which is lower than what most musicians ask, but Tarbox simply didn’t know how much he could get.
“It was nervousness. I thought to myself, Maybe I can make $6,000 or $7,000, but realistically to make a record — including essentials like hiring a publicist, which I can’t do — you need $8,000 to $10,000,” says Tarbox, who will celebrate the new album with a show at Johnny D’s on April 13.
This album splits the difference between that first solo album’s quietude and the hard-charging elements of his work with the Ramblers. “Night Train to Chelsea” has an after-hours weariness reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.” On “The Tower of Works and Days,” landing somewhere between Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen territory, Tarbox waxes rhapsodic about the birth of his daughter, who turns 2 next month, and imparts “a sense of wonder that she had arrived.”
At this point, Tarbox says his focus is on his solo work, which is just different enough from his output with the Ramblers to feel like another project.
“The Tarbox Ramblers is a particular format and type of music that certain things can be brought in to, but still I think of this solo album as a separate thing,” he says. “Making it, writing it, and creating that space for myself somehow helps me realize the songs a little bit.”
It does not, however, require a dramatic shift in the way he writes.
“I think the themes on this record are things I would address with the Tarbox Ramblers anyway,” he says. “Part of it is trying to maintain a sense of faith and optimism in the world — despite the world. That’s a Tarbox Ramblers thing, too.”
If anything, the greatest leap of faith was one Tarbox himself had to accept: from bandleader to solo artist.
“After the first album, suddenly I was on my own, and somehow I wanted to forge an identity that was beyond what the Ramblers and I had established in the supportive realm of a label [Rounder Records],” he says. “It was a good move. I love playing old and traditional music, but I really do feel like it’s important to try different things. For better or worse, that’s what I’ve done.”
With the arrival of spring – it will actually feel like spring at some point, right? – comes a bounty of new albums by several of Boston’s most high-profile folk musicians. Anaïs Mitchell, the creatively restless Vermont-bred singer-songwriter, has returned with “Child Ballads,” a seven-song collaboration on which she and Jefferson Hamer put the centuries-old art form in a contemporary light. Mitchell and Hamer celebrate the album, which was released on Tuesday, with two performances at Club Passim on April 10 (the 7 p.m. set is already sold out). Stoughton native Lori McKenna will unveil “Massachusetts,” produced by Mark Erelli
, on April 23 and give a sneak preview with two nights at Passim, April 4-5. (A few sets are already sold out.) Laura Cortese, the virtuosic fiddler and songwriter who turns up on many of her peers’ albums, has a new one coming in May. “Into the Dark” is a graceful collection of chamber-folk with Cortese’s fiddle front and center. Looking ahead,
Melissa Ferrick’s “The Truth Is,” recorded at Somerville’s Q Division Studios, is set for June 4 and features a full band and backing vocals by Paula Cole, Anne Heaton, Rose Polenzani, and Natalia Zukerman. Aoife O’Donovan will finally make good on a year of ramping up her national profile with the release of her first solo album while Crooked Still, the band she has fronted as its singer, is on hiatus. “Fossils” is due June 11 on Yep Roc Records.