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"Last night in Philadelphia, I had a new experience," Anna Padgett says by phone from her home in Brooklyn, New York. "We played to one person. One girl was the audience. I don't know what happened -- I think someone even wrote about it beforehand. It was an all-ages show, and it started really early, like 6 o'clock, and you couldn't drink in the room where the bands were playing. Actually, I think the bartender came in briefly, so at one point there were two people there in the audience. When it was just her, I said, 'If you have something else to do, don't feel like you have to stay just because no one else is here.'"
Whether out of guilt or genuine interest, the lone audience member stuck around until the bitter end, even buying a CD afterward.
Padgett laughs at the memory. She's been performing live a scant three years now, and her band, the Naysayer, is taking a brief rest between gigs during a month-long tour in support of its second album, Heaven, Hell, or Houston, released this spring on the Chicago-based indie label Carrot Top. The Naysayer's first album, Deathwhisker, came out in 2001, barely two years after Padgett formed the band with her friend Cynthia Nelson. Unlike Nelson, who'd already made a name for herself in indie-rock circles with the Louisville, Kentucky-based Retsin and Ruby Falls, Padgett was a complete amateur. Though she took piano lessons as a child, she lost interest when she discovered ballet and modern dance. For years, she hung around with musicians without wanting to be one herself, but somewhere, deep in the recesses of her subconscious, songs were taking shape. One day, about four years ago, she picked up her eight-year-old brother's child-sized guitar and, strictly for her own amusement, knocked out a few originals. After a few margaritas and much coaxing, she played them for Nelson, who was so taken with them that she offered to play drums.
The two first met in the early '90s, at Wesleyan, where Padgett studied dance and art history. They knew each other in school but didn't become close friends until after graduation, when they started working together at a restaurant in New York. Padgett, who grew up in Houston, soon moved to Los Angeles, where she made her first tentative steps toward learning guitar. "I took maybe three lessons from my friend's husband. I learned how to play 'Blue Moon of Kentucky,' 'Your Cheating Heart,' 'I Never Will Marry.' I took those chords, and then I went to him and said, 'I just want to learn a few more chords so I can make up some songs.' And he was like, 'What? You want to make up songs?' I guess that was the extent of my formal training."
Apparently it was enough to win over Nelson and their friend (and Nelson's Retsin bandmate) Tara Jane O'Neil, who recognized the gifted songwriter behind the rudimentary technique. When Nelson and Padgett met up again in New York, they had no real intention of starting a band, but before they knew it, the Naysayer was born. "For a long time, we had a lot of fun practicing together, but I really didn't want to play shows," Padgett admits. "Really it was just because I was so embarrassed. Once I get onstage, I often like it, but the whole business part of it can be depressing. You're supposed to try to get really popular and stuff, and I was afraid that if I started looking at it that way, it would ruin it for me. When you start performing, it's like you're in this league of competition, almost -- or that's what I feared, so I resisted it for a long time. Then I don't know how I broke down, but I did. I guess I don't regret it," she says with a self-conscious chuckle.
Though Padgett is refreshingly candid about her inexperience as a musician, it hasn't prevented her from making two albums' worth of simple but sturdy bedroom-folk gems, odd, evocative songs that are at once delicate and deadpan, pretty and astringent. With her elliptical, droll lyrics and sweetly mordant phrasing, Padgett sounds like a minimalist, not a novice. What she lacks in proficiency, she more than compensates for in ingenuity, creating wily, wiry little songs that slither into your gray matter without bludgeoning you with flashy hooks or obvious showmanship. Her bandmates -- Nelson's a constant, and O'Neil is an honorary third member -- contribute spectral chamber-pop fillips and shimmering ambient flourishes, augmenting her narrow but carefully crafted melodies without overwhelming them. Padgett has a thin but resonant drawl, tuneful and plain, and she never overreaches or overemotes. Make no mistake: She may be a beginner, but this is no naïve, primitive, so-awful-it's-funny outsider crap. She knows her limitations, and she works not so much around them as with them. Call it taste, call it intuition, but it's a skill that's rarer than mere virtuosity, and it's no doubt served her idiosyncratic gifts better than years of formal training might have.
"People sometimes say, 'Why don't you take some lessons and learn how to do more stuff?'" Padgett sighs. "I guess I could. But I guess I like how I play. I mean, I am limited. I don't really write searing guitar solos or anything, so if I want one, I have to ask someone else to do it. But it's probably a similar thing to my resistance to playing out. In a way, I don't really want to learn the exact, proper way to do things. I don't know the names of any chords I play. Sometimes it's frustrating, and I'm embarrassed. It's not like I don't want to know -- I just can't remember.
"I'm not a hotshot by any means," Padgett continues, chuckling at the understatement. "For me, it's just about writing songs."
In keeping with this philosophy, the Naysayer doesn't play many covers, although Padgett confesses that it's more a function of her inexperience than a conscious decision. In fact, the title of the new album originated in Padgett's desire to cover a ZZ Top song, only to find that she couldn't do it. "They're from where I'm from, and I really wanted to learn one of their songs, but I'm really bad at figuring out covers," she says. "I was at this used-record store in Louisville, and there was this ZZ Top record with a song on it called 'Heaven, Hell, or Houston.' I liked the way the song title puts Houston on a level with heaven or hell, almost like it's Purgatory or something. I was like, 'No matter what that song sounds like, I'm covering it!' So I brought it home and listened to it, and it's totally insane. It may be a good song, but it wasn't a song I could cover or would even want to cover. So I made up my own 'Heaven, Hell or Houston.'"
A good thing, too: Padgett's version is a hushed, dreamy dirge, punctuated with ethereal harmonies, chiming bells and the bare scrape of a cello. Luminous and fragile, it hovers over the borrowed title like a butterfly circling a dung heap. It's about as far from the gutbucket roadhouse boogie of her hirsute fellow Houstonians as it's possible to be and still qualify as music, but it makes a weird kind of sense.
Whether it's heaven, hell, Houston or some amalgam thereof, Padgett makes it sound inviting.