Jenny Lewis opens up, reaches out in album

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LOS ANGELES — 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, Calif. — to her experience as a young actor (in late-'80s artifacts such as "Mr. Belvedere" and "Troop Beverly Hills"). 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, sitting in the dining room of her hillside home in Studio City, as she and her boyfriend, singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice, discussed options for oysters.

"As soon as I bought it, I had a panic attack," she said of the house. "I remember pitching an AeroBed in the living room and thinking, 'This is the worst mistake I've ever made.' "

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.

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.

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. She also seemed uncomfortable with the notion that "The Voyager" represents her conscious bid for a larger audience.

"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 Adams' studio, she said, "I knew that this had that magic."