With his scruffy beard, plaid shirts and fifth-floor walk-up in Williamsburg, Anthony D'Amato could be any aspiring 20-something musician living in Brooklyn.
But Mr. D'Amato, who graduated from Princeton University in 2010, has studied songwriting with a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, performed onstage with Bruce Springsteen, and already received attention from NPR and Time Magazine for his soulful stamp on American folk rock.
On Tuesday, Mr. D'Amato's label debut, "The Shipwreck from the Shore," will be released by New West Records, which has put out records by well-known folk artists Steve Earle, Patty Griffin and Kris Kristofferson. The album features musicians who perform with the bands Bon Iver and Megafaun.
The release follows two self-produced efforts, the first recorded on a single microphone in his college dorm room.
People might say, " 'You went to Princeton? Why do you want to be a rock star?' " said Gabriel Gordon, 43, an electric guitarist who performs regularly with singer Natalie Merchant and met Mr. D'Amato at Princeton after performing in a class devoted to the music of Mr. Springsteen.
But Mr. D'Amato's background as an English major who studied songwriting with poet Paul Muldoon has paid dividends, Mr. Gordon said. "A lot of people that are in the game of rock 'n' roll haven't checked it out as much as he has—just getting deep and deeper into what things actually mean."
Mr. D'Amato, 26 years old, grew up in Blairstown, N.J. His grandfather was a church organist, but neither of his parents played an instrument. But they were big folk fans, scheduling trips to Canada to catch Gordon Lightfoot concerts.
After becoming serious about guitar in high school, Mr. D'Amato approached his music with a scholarly diligence. He began working as a music journalist at 16, using it as a chance to pick the brains of musicians he admired. After college, he got a job as a music publicist, working alongside colleagues who now represent him. He finally quit to focus on music full-time last month.
"I think you should know as much as you possibly can about everything going on with your music," he said.
While in school, Mr. D'Amato studied Bruce Springsteen in sociology class—but he also sang with him onstage in a New Jersey charity concert that same year. "It felt like extra credit," he said with a grin.
Still, "at the end of the day my primary interest as a songwriter is telling a compelling story that rhymes," Mr. D'Amato said.
To that end, he credits an independent study on songwriting he created with Mr. Muldoon, who encouraged Mr. D'Amato to write the words before exploring the music.
Mr. Muldoon, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and became poetry editor of the New Yorker in 2007, might have seemed like an odd choice. But the Irish poet also played in a band, performed on campus and in New York City and penned songs for a range of musicians including Warren Zevon. He estimated he has written some 200 songs.
Over the course of several months, Mr. D'Amato and Mr. Muldoon met periodically to discuss and dissect fresh batches of songs and lyrics. The professor encouraged his student to study lyrical masters like Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen.
They grappled with the distinct writing challenge of penning songs. Unlike a poem, lyrics are "always missing something," Mr. Muldoon said. That can be anathema to writers, who generally hate leaving things out, he said. "To leave room for what music might do is sometimes a little bit of an issue."
Mr. D'Amato's songs are "telling stories in almost a storybook form or storyboard form even," Mr. Muldoon said. "That's at the heart of a lot of very effective songwriting."
As for Mr. D'Amato, studying with Mr. Muldoon was "kind of an invaluable experience," he said, because he learned to "really focus on why every word is there," rather than being content with a clever rhyme.
For his third album, Mr. D'Amato used his life savings to hire an outside producer—despite not having the backing of a record label. At the same time, the theme of the next album was taking shape: a break-up record.
Parting ways with his girlfriend had a distinctly New York dimension: "The end of the relationship didn't quite match up with the end of the lease," he said.
While sleeping in his living room and on friend's couches, Mr. D'Amato wrote down his feelings on the breakup.
Those songs—which grapple with loss, but avoid anger—form the core of the new album.
Producer Sam Kassirer expanded Mr. D'Amato's folk-centric sound, steering the record away from strict acoustic guitar by adding trumpet, organs, and a vibraphone, a kind of electric xylophone.
"He was really open to sort of a wide sonic spectrum," he said. They tried to strike a balance between sadness and moving forward.
"The songs don't dwell on the negative," Mr. D'Amato said. "They're really more focused on coming out the other side."