Thinking about the course of her career this week from her home in western Maine, folksinger Carol Noonan says things seem to be reversed, like they would be in a mirror.
“I’m the odd folkie,” she said in a telephone interview from the circa-1810 farmhouse she and her husband share in Brownfield, near Bridgton. “I started with a band, and am working my way down.”
Noonan performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Camden Opera House, her first appearance at the hall known for its fine acoustics and intimate atmosphere.
She first recorded as a member of the critically acclaimed folk-rock band Knots and Crosses, then formed her own group, the Carol Noonan Band, and now finds herself – for the first time – standing on stages armed with just an acoustic guitar and her rich, pure voice.
And instead of finding herself backed by a major record label – as she did with Knots and Crosses, and her own group – Noonan sells CDs released on her own Noonan Music label, relying on the wonders of the Internet and a toll-free telephone number.
But there is no self-pity associated with this retrospection. Rather, Noonan’s assessment is suffused with gratitude to be playing and recording music from the heart, and a sense of wonder about how things have worked out for her.
Born and raised in Peabody, Mass., Noonan, 44, moved to Maine 25 years ago after a summer job as a “singing chambermaid” at a resort, after graduation from the New England Conservatory of Music.
“I just fell in love with Maine,” she said.
Knots and Crosses earned a regional reputation in the early 1990s for mixing folk and rock in a way that was reminiscent of the English band Fairport Convention. While the male members of the band listened to pop and even “jam bands” like the Allman Brothers, Noonan contributed her folk influences to the mix.
“I listened to tons of English and Irish ballads,” she said, as she first learned guitar, followed by the records of Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, as well as former Fairport Convention member Richard Thompson, and his one-time wife and recording partner, Linda Thompson.
Noonan recommends the Knots and Crosses compilation “There Was A Time” for a sampling of that era of her career. The band split up, as did her marriage to its keyboard player.
Forming her own band, which landed a contract with Rounder Records, she recorded three albums, “Absolution,” “Noonan Building Wrecking,” and “The Only Witness.”
But then times got hard for both Noonan and her new husband, who makes groundfishing nets. She had to put down her guitar and take on two jobs to make ends meet. When the fishing industry rebounded, so did her husband’s work, and Noonan decided to record again.
The result was “Self-Titled,” an album she says reconnected her to her fan base, and brought in new ones.
“It went crazy on the West Coast,” she said.
The approach to the songwriting was different than on her Rounder efforts, she said, getting away from the kind of singing she did as part of a band.
“It’s a more innocent album,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry about a record company.” And she found herself singing in a high voice, as she did when she first started playing, developing the nuances in her approach to a song, rather than belting it out to be heard over a group.
“Self-Titled” is a collection of four originals, four traditional songs, a Richard Thompson tune and the wonderful chestnut, “Sonny.” Despite the disparate sources, the album has a consistency in its sound.
“I loved Emmylou Harris’ ‘Wrecking Ball,'” Noonan said. “One of the things I loved about it was it kept you in the same mood,” a quality friends have assigned to “Self-Titled.”
An appearance on National Public Radio spurred thousands of sales of the album through her Web site, a phenomenon Noonan had not seen before, but which encouraged her to believe in the viability of a one-woman production when it comes to promoting CDs and performances.
In November, she released another album, “Big Iron,” which is a collection of western standards like “Red River Valley,” “Down in the Valley,” and “Shenandoah,” each of which she learned as a fledgling guitar player.
“I just wanted to do something light,” she said.
And the Old West holds a place in her heart.
“I’m a big horse person,” she said, “and I’m a cowboy freak.”
Fans have embraced the record, especially those in the older, baby-boomer bracket. Noonan said her mother loves the album, telling her it’s because she knows the songs, a compliment Noonan as songwriter isn’t quite sure how to take.
The wry humor, seasoned with a dash of the sense of the absurd Noonan betrays in conversation is in full flight in a book she is selling through her Web site. “Dear Mr. Was… Letters from Maine,” is a collection of e-mails she wrote to David Was – brother to famed producer Don Was – after he contacted her after the release of “Self-Titled.”
The letters are full of descriptions of the quirkiness of life in rural Maine, seen through an outsider’s eyes, but with affection. She has plans to republish the book with photos by Maine’s Tonee Harbert.
For now, Noonan is happy to have an audience for her music, which finds her at the top of her game.
“I got really lucky,” she said of her revived career.
Joining Noonan in Camden will be guitarist Kevin Barry.