It’s fitting to meet Portland outfit Tin Ceilings on a rainy day. Like the unheralded rainstorms of a New England autumn starved for light, Tin Ceilings’ songs have a familiar melancholy to them.

With a voice that recalls a soft Jim James (of My Morning Jacket), singer Randy Illian creates beaten blues like Townes Van Zandt might have 30 years ago, every tune imbued with the reality of hard livin’. Thoughtful and soothing, Tin Ceilings’ music is the perfect soundtrack to a long, gratifying sigh.

Tin Ceilings plays at 8 p.m. Friday with MV+EE and Selbyville at the Oak and The Ax in Biddeford. Illian recently took some time to talk about his group with GO: 

So, what does Tin Ceilings sound like in your head?

I haven’t figure this out yet. I’ve been chasing it for the past 10 years. I’m sure it does not sound like any of my recordings. At the moment, it sounds like Papa Staples singing collaborations by Tom Ze and Joni Mitchell. 

What drew you to music?

I remember loving lyrical songs in grade school. I think I got my first radio/tape deck when I was 10. I sang myself to sleep every night with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I also listened to Casey Kasem’s top 40, MTV, Styx, Queen, and later Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Easy-E and Rob Base. age 14, I had fallen in love with words. 

In the midst of personal changes, how do you stay creative?

In the midst of personal change is the best time to stay creative. Everyday change can bring a new outlook on life. Some days, I find it difficult to accept that outlook and sometimes, just accepting a new outlook changes my viewpoint.

I find myself consistently falling back on the old Townes Van Zandt lyric: “Where you’ve been is good and gone, all you keep is the getting there.” I love keeping rough documentation of the “getting there.” Jeremy Robinson refers to this as “Spare Change.”

But, really it all comes down to making time. I’ve heard a hundred artists say it, even an amateur like me tries to make 20 to 30 minutes a day for practice or writing. 

Whose performances do you admire and why?

My favorite performance I ever sat through was Tom Waits, but I can sit and listen to Erin Sprinkle for hours. Both are mesmerizing. 

What does Maine do to the writing process?

Maine’s performance environment has always been extremely accepting. The people are patient and attentive. This is amazing in at least two ways: One, in the short term, it gives the artist the ability to write from anywhere they find satisfaction. Two, in the long term, it demands reality. It demands that performers share their real talent and shed their egos. 

What does 2011 hold for Tin Ceilings?

I want to put together a recording to honor all of the work that my friends have put into learning my songs. We’ve spent the past few years creating beautiful songs from a few chords and basic melodies. I’d love to bring all of that together and have a record of these collaborations. 

What’s your favorite musical moment, performed or absorbed, from the last five years?

Playing with Hersey State. It is always a joy to sit down and learn other performer’s songs, especially when they are as talented as Dave Noyes, Emily Dix Thomas, Patrick Corrigan, Ed Kniseley and Eric Schwan. 

Mike Olcott is a freelance writer who lives in Portland and Boston.



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