Jenny Lewis vowed she'd never return to the San Fernando Valley, at least not to live.
The area was too closely linked to her childhood in Van Nuys — to her experience as a young actor (in late-'80s artifacts like "Mr. Belvedere" and "Troop Beverly Hills") and to her complicated relationship with her parents. And it was too far from the Eastside neighborhoods where Lewis later established herself as an important figure in L.A.'s music scene, first with her band Rilo Kiley and then on her own.
Yet there she was on a recent afternoon, sitting in the dining room of her hillside home in Studio City, the place that lured her from Silver Lake a few years ago, as she and her boyfriend, singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice, discussed options for oysters on Ventura Boulevard.
"As soon as I bought it, I had a panic attack," she said of the house, a stylishly woodsy number filled with books, records and vintage musical gear. "I remember pitching an AeroBed in the living room and thinking, 'This is the worst mistake I've ever made. I'm back in the Valley.'"
It's nerve-wracking, perhaps, but confronting old troubles is precisely what Lewis, 38, does on her superb new solo album, "The Voyager," which came out Tuesday to rave reviews. Failed romances, Rilo Kiley's breakup, the death of her estranged father — the singer addresses them all in songs that blend bruising introspection with a sly sense of humor.
But though the material can be heavy — "When I look at myself, all I can see / I'm just another lady without a baby," she sings in "Just One of the Guys" — the music shimmers with weightless melodies and grooves that recall classic California pop by the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.
"Jenny's songwriting skills are right up there with the best," said Lenny Waronker, the veteran producer known for his work with Randy Newman and James Taylor, among others. As an A&R executive at Lewis' label, Warner Bros. Records, Waronker helped oversee "The Voyager," which to his ears sounds like a breakthrough.
"This could be a record that reaches out to lots of kinds of people," he said.
Lewis built a devoted following almost immediately with Rilo Kiley, which she formed in the late '90s with another former child actor, Blake Sennett. Beloved by indie rock aesthetes for its crafty hooks and brainy lyrics, the band went on to release four albums and even toured with Coldplay. During breaks, though, Lewis dabbled with other musicians, singing on the hit debut by the Postal Service and putting out her first solo record, "Rabbit Fur Coat," in 2006. Her next one, 2008's "Acid Tongue," featured collaborations with Elvis Costello and Zooey Deschanel.
"Everybody loves Jenny," said Benmont Tench, a member of Tom Petty's band, the Heartbreakers, who plays organ on "The Voyager." "You can't mention her in town without getting a positive response."
And yet mainstream stardom never quite materialized, even as younger L.A. acts Lewis had clearly influenced — such as Haim, whose Danielle Haim once played guitar in Lewis' live band — began catching on at Top 40 radio.
At her house, Lewis dismissed the idea that she'd blazed some kind of trail for artists eager to move beyond indie rock's famously disheveled vibe. She also seemed uncomfortable with the notion that "The Voyager" represents her conscious bid for a larger audience.
But there's no denying the care she put into the record. Some of the songs on "The Voyager," she said, date back several years to right after Rilo Kiley's dissolution in 2011; she'd recorded "tons of versions" in various settings but wasn't satisfied with the results. (During this time she was also suffering from what she called severe insomnia, an experience she describes in the album's opener, "Head Underwater.")
Finally, Lewis took up with Ryan Adams, the alt-country singer-songwriter, at his Pax-Am Studio in Hollywood. There they remade the tunes, working quickly but attentively with a crew of top-notch L.A. players in an effort to capture a wide-open quality that didn't feel generic.
"I needed an outside person to help me get there," Lewis said, in part because (unlike her previous solo records) "The Voyager" had no clear-cut recording concept. Rather than taking pains to differentiate the music from Rilo Kiley, she was simply trying to "make the best possible record I could make." And within minutes at Pax-Am, she said, "I knew that this had that magic."
"The Voyager" also contains two tracks Lewis and Rice co-produced, as well as "Just One of the Guys," which she recorded with Beck. But even as the songs move through styles and tempos — from the soulful strut of "She's Not Me" to the folky strumming of "Late Bloomer" —they hang together, united by beautifully detailed lyrics about growing uneasily into adulthood.
The album's rollout, too, seems more grown-up than in Lewis' past, with television performances and a music video for "Just One of the Guys" that features Anne Hathaway and Kristen Stewart — exposure that helped drive "The Voyager" to a top 10 debut Tuesday on the iTunes album chart.
Next month she's scheduled to play high-profile festival dates at Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, and she'll stop at the Wiltern on Aug. 9 for a headlining show with the new live band she recently assembled from musicians who'd auditioned for the gig. For the first time, she said, she's playing shows without people from her inner circle. That might seem like a strange choice given the revealing nature of the songs on "The Voyager," but Lewis doesn't see it that way.
"I felt like onstage I have to have a certain amount of anonymity, like, personal anonymity, to feel loose and free. When you're up there with people who've known you for a decade and you make a bad joke and you hear the cackling behind the drums, it's hard to get lost in the moment," she said with a laugh. "Basically, I just want to be able to make mistakes and not be judged for it."
Twitter: @mikaelwoodCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times