It's not easy being Beat Poetess of the Pac-Man age, but Rickie Lee Jones is meeting the challenge with minimum effort. The trademark red beret. Unruly blond tresses. Arms-akimbo arrogance, a cigarette dangling from a limp hand. And those highly stylized vocals, now smoky and lethargic, now lithe and fluid in a vaguely jazzy phrasing. From the opening bars of her 1979 debut album, it was clear that hers was a stubborn individualism, and if her hipster-out-of-sync image exuded a casual disdain for social conventions, it was in keeping with her music.
From a hotel in Buffalo, the 28-year-old pop singer reluctantly agreed to a phone interview with an air of civil ennui. It apparently was enough of a compromise to grant an interview; someone else dialed the number, and the TV stayed on in the background.
The former Chicago runaway is well aware that her eccentricities are appealing to her fans: Over a million of them were willing to "stick it into Coolsville," as she urged on her acclaimed "Saturday Night Live" appearance when she was still an unknown.
Jones has been especially adept at unraveling people's expectations during her current concert tour, the first since her debut album was catapulted to platinum by the hit, "Chuck E's in Love." Her present series of concerts finds her striking an easy balance between rock 'n' roll gutsiness and the warm intimacy of a cabaret vamp, spicing her own jazz-flavored originals with straightforward standards like "My Funny Valentine" in a manner that increases the cool tension between performer and performance.
"I was pleased with the reaction to the spring concerts," she said with a bemused tone. "But to tell you the truth, I don't understand why anybody was surprised."
Jones concedes that songs like the girlish "Chuck E's in Love," and the beat-but-breathless "Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking," from her recent and only other album, "Pirates," have helped create an almost 1950s beat image that her live performances sometimes belie. But part of the surprise of her on-stage personna lies in the contrast between her original and interpretive, almost traditional work.
"It makes a big difference when an artist known for doing original work covers somebody else's songs," she said. "It gives you a chance to break away from what's expected. When you're doing your own stuff, you have a character that everyone can identify.
"When you're writing, there's a concept, a certain spirit you want to convey. But a performance is very physical, and you want to get as many angles as you can to work from."
Jones paused, her voice trailing off. "Are we finished yet?" she asked, politely but clearly impatient to have the interview over. Later she interrupted the interview to chuckle over an ad for the film "Young Doctors in Love," but then remembered the work at hand and picked up a stray thread of conversation.
"I've never been able to read music at all," she said. "So when I have something, I call Tom Scott in and sing all the parts to him. But I'm the songwriter, I'm the one who has to control the direction of the music."
Although "Pirates" was doing well before Jones embarked on her tour, her concerts have widened her audience to the degree that she's now considering doing a live record, "maybe an EP (extended play), including some of the standards I do in concert." Her performance tonight at Merriweather Post Pavilion is a slight departure from her earlier dates, which were confined mostly to smaller stages. Her previous visit here in April was at the Wax Museum.
"I chose this tour," she said. "Of course, I prefer a smaller setting. But with a larger band, it's not as comfortable in clubs. There's not really that much difference between a place that seats 800 and one that seats 3,000 because past about 300, you've already gone past an intimate scene."
Does this willingness to play for a larger audience mean that Jones is losing some of her reticence about fame? "Well," she said, laughing and then sighing heavily. "It's a lot better to be successful than unsuccessful. But I don't pursue fame. Success is relative to you. Most people don't really plan for it in terms of how they're gonna act when they get it. Of course, most people don't get it, because they don't want it bad enough. It's a funny little game people play with themselves." Her soft voice trailed off.
Yet Jones has shown impatience with the trappings of fame. On occasion, she's made provocative statements about her superiority to most of pop's current crop, and even now her characteristic coolness seems a bit icy when it comes to a discussion of other inhabitants of the music scene.
"I'll tell you something," she said. "I don't go hear live music too often, although I'm starting to be able to do it more now. I don't go sit and listen to music. Not because I don't like to, but it affects me so much. It's like it's infringing on my ideas about music. When I'm sitting in a club and somebody's playing, I concentrate so much on the music I can't think of anything else. And if it's music I don't like, then I really can't sit there and hear it being done all wrong.
"Some people can just tune it out, have a conversation or something," she said, sighing. "But I can't. It's just so important to me."
There was a slight pause, just long enough for Jones to remember that this conversation was part of an obligation that goes with the territory -- with the hotel rooms and the one-night stands and the endless sea of unmet faces. "Are we finished now?" she asked.