Polly Jean Harvey is positively giddy – all 90-odd black-knit-clad pounds quivering like proverbial jelly. Rita Coolidge's signed menu, hanging directly above the wraithlike 23-year-old's single hoop earring and jet-black coif in the old coffee joint in New Orleans' French Quarter, is just not exciting enough to make her dump her chicory home-brew in her lap. Nor is the news that Rid of Me, the second album by Harvey and her band, P J Harvey, is topping the college charts as the group kicks off its biggest American tour to date later tonight at Tipitina's, home of Polly Harvey's childhood hero Professor Longhair.
After all, the tiny young Englishwoman, named Best Songwriter of 1992 by Rolling Stone, ignored numerous accolades that greeted Dry, her band's startling Island debut, almost as icily as she brushed off recent invitations for a prime Lollapalooza spot as well as chances to open for Neil Young, Morrissey and the Cure. So her sudden attitude about-face – from the brooding kid who shot off the family farm on the southwest coast of England in late '91 to the gigglepuss rapidly dissolving in a puddle at our table – is profound, to say the least. So profound, you'd almost swear the ancient mojo spells of Marie Laveau, witch queen of New Orleans, are very much alive and working overtime, as is the incense wafting in the tropical breeze from the voodoo museum around the corner.
And perhaps they are, as Harvey breathlessly confides that between her now-half-a-cup-of-coffee breakfast and sound check, she's expecting what Tennessee Williams, well acquainted with this town's myriad desires, once described as a gentleman caller.
''But,'' Harvey says cautiously, ''don't say too much. We don't want to put a stop to things before they even get started!'' She will allow, however, that she's been ''smiling quite a lot lately . . . The first three weeks are always the best, aren't they?''
Where only six months ago, Harvey's severe mien, black turtlenecks and prim bun made her look like the Generation X version of Jules Feiffer's modern dancer, her playful new radiance is now also manifest in the colorful costumes and makeup she's performing in for the first time. She had so much fun clowning in what she describes as the ''Fifties housewife gear'' that allowed her to assume the identity of a man-eating horror-movie giantess on the video set for the single ''50 Ft. Queenie,'' she incorporated the loony sunglasses, leopard-skin coat and gold lamé pumps into her stage wardrobe and ordered other get-ups, including a sparkling Lurex gown and feather boa that reflect her improved, if varied, moods.
These costumes aren't sexy,'' Harvey explains. ''They're ridiculous. They're funny. And that's why I like wearing them. When I was younger, I used to dress up all the time – in Mum's clothes. Then I got serious. And wore black.''
More important, perhaps, than her current fashion statement is her musical one. Shortly after completing Rid of Me last fall, Harvey produced and recorded, live, with jumping horns and pumping organ complementing the working power duo of drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan, four songs she calls the ''first things I've ever done that make me feel like dancing'' for DJ John Peel's legendary BBC radio sessions.
''They show I've gone on a huge change since doing the record,'' says Harvey, who rarely makes any point in conversation by modulating her deceptively gentle speaking voice but rather by jerking her head and appearing to focus her startlingly luminous eyes directly into your brain. "I"m just allowing myself to enjoy music again and not be so precious or so worried about it or how people are going to take it. I did those songs purely for my own enjoyment and had a great time doing them.''
The Peel sessions' uncharacteristically joyous cover of Willie Dixon's ''Wang Dang Doodle'' and astonishing new tunes – suggestively entitled ''Claudine, the Inflatable One,'' ''Naked Cousin'' and ''Primed and Ticking'' – may be the most cohesive and seductive showcases yet for the continually stretching vocal range and slash-and-sting musicianship that immediately distinguished Harvey as the lone wolf among the grrrl pack. The four cuts, at least one of which, ''Wang Dang Doodle,'' will appear on the flip side of a forthcoming British single, all make the rather spotty Rid of Me seem like a preliminary sketch for the masterpiece that's been expected of Harvey since she stormed out of the tiny village of Yeovil (population: 600) with the startling singles-cum-fertility rites ''Dress'' and ''Sheela-Na-Gig.''
With Harvey's Chrissie Hynde-like vocal timbre, Dylanesque command of language and pure natural fury, ''Dress'' and ''Sheela-Na-Gig'' (both of which would later reappear on Dry) catapulted the reclusive country girl and aspiring sculptor to the top of England's indie charts and the covers of its music press almost overnight. Like the classic early work of Elvis Costello more than a decade earlier, these first releases, born full-bodied and steaming from one so young, so obsessed and so out of nowhere, immediately separated an entire generation of postpunks from an entire world of losers.
And yet as eager as fans and the press were to crown her, Harvey was as reluctant an alternative nation role model as her punk-blues juxtapositions and poetic images – of dry vaginas, fetishistic lovers and women who want too much – were bold.
I felt very young then,'' she says, her Keane-painting-size eyes switching to low only for as long as it takes to search the tablecloth for clues as to how much difference a year and a half makes. ''It was too much, and I didn't know what was going on. I was doing something that I originally started out doing just for the enjoyment, and suddenly that was gone – there were so many extraneous pressures that took it away. I was expecting every night for it to be really special or meaningful like it always had been up till then. You just have to treat it much more like a job, just something you get through. Some nights you do have blinders, and other nights it's just hard work.''
Still, however hard she's forced to work, it's difficult to reconcile the slip of a thing who could use a booster seat to keep her from being swallowed by her cane chair with the 50-foot queen-size who prowls the stage cold-bloodedly wielding her ax rather less like a real royal than a real man.
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