Jenny Lewis is a Los Angeles native, but she doesn’t write songs about the glitz and glamour of Hollywood: her vision of the city is sun-bleached and a little melancholic. “I feel most comfortable walking through a mini-mall in the San Fernando Valley,” Lewis, 38, says. “For some reason I find that inspiring.”
As the front woman of the ’00s indie-rock band Rilo Kiley, Lewis emerged as the patron saint of hip Angelenos, a former child actor (she starred in the 1989 cult classic Troop Beverly Hills) turned alt-music icon. Her intimate, finely detailed lyrics and light, lilting delivery earned her a devoted following and rapt critical acclaim. She went on to expand her range with other musical projects, including a solo album that sounded like blues, another that sounded like ’70s singer-songwriter pop and collaborations with artists like Elvis Costello and the Postal Service, with whom she spent a year touring. Now she’s back with The Voyager, out July 29, a shimmering set of wry, introspective songs with production from fellow rockers Ryan Adams and Beck. It’s arguably her strongest work to date.
But despite the seeming effortlessness of the final product, Lewis says it was her hardest album to make. After Rilo Kiley split in 2010 and her estranged father died, Lewis found herself struggling with crippling insomnia. “Two or three days in and you’re like a completely different person,” she says. “I did not recognize myself in the mirror. I aged a decade in that time.”
It was out of that tossing and turning that Lewis began writing the songs for what became The Voyager. “I finished them in my mind over the course of two years and many restless nights,” she says. “So there’s really no stone unturned in the lyrics. I knew by the end of it what I wanted to say, because I’d thought about it so much.”
With Beck, she completed “Just One of the Guys,” a sunny little tune that becomes a quietly devastating ode to Lewis’ ticking clock: “I’m just another lady without a baby,” she sings.
“I’m always so surprised at how quickly time passes,” Lewis says. “It seems like just yesterday I was in my mid-20s in a van with four dudes touring the U.S.”
In later sessions with Adams, a new sound emerged, with a grit that Lewis says felt right. “Ryan heard these songs as rock, and he wanted to play the guitar on them, so they have a harder edge than some of my previous solo recordings,” she says. And certain tracks do, jangling cheerfully with delicious guitar licks from Adams. But Lewis shines on mellow songs like “She’s Not Me,” which is so warm and breezy, you almost miss the withering put-down in the chorus: “She’s not me/ She’s easy.” The title track, meanwhile, is grandly emotional, with big strings and a soaring vocal performance.
Although she has always been a witty songwriter, on The Voyager, Lewis is more reflective than ever. It makes sense: “I’ve been working since I was 3 years old,” she says. “I never had the luxury of reflection. The insomnia made me stop for the first time in my life.”
And now? “I feel really good,” she says. “I can sleep at night.”
This appears in the July 28, 2014 issue of TIME.