HOLLYWOOD &

When Mandy Moore steps out of her black Prius and bounds into a tiny speck of a neighborhood restaurant, not a hipster on the block flinches. Sure, her toffee bangs are partially covering her eyes &

but you would expect someone might make a correlation between the girl on the street and the photo of her plastered on a giant billboard just a few yards away.




But clad in her flowy indigo Mayle dress and little yellow sweater, the truth is that Moore, now 23, scarcely resembles her former self. In 1999, she was a shell of a 15-year-old, timidly staring out from the cover of her first album, "So Real."




That was the Mandy Moore who hit the pop charts with "Candy," the catchy but empty single that branded her as just another sugary tween act. The same Moore who, in her other career as an actress, has appeared in a string of clean, "aw, shucks!" movie roles.




"I find it funny that people are like, 'Wow, this is such a departure for you,' " she says, discussing her fifth album, "Wild Hope," the first for which she's written the songs herself. "For someone to question the authenticity of where this record comes from is kind of mind-boggling to me. I am 23 years old. I think it should be acceptable that nine years after my first record I'm doing something else musically." The album isn't as squeaky clean as her youthful following might expect: "I'm the one who likes to make love on the floor," she sings in "Gardenia," raising the question: Will audiences accept a grown-up Mandy Moore?




"She's certainly weathered all sorts of idiotic criticism about being too wholesome or bubble-gum," says Ken Kwapis, director of "License to Wed," which also casts Moore in a more mature light. The romantic comedy, due Tuesday, costars Robin Williams and "The Office's" John Krasinski. In "Dedication," hailed at Sundance and arriving in theaters later this summer, Moore plays opposite Billy Crudup.




"She's finding herself in public in a graceful way," Kwapis adds.




Moore seems to dismiss anyone's interest in her as unwarranted. Instead, she focuses her attention on a list of the dozens of things she is "ob-sess-ed" with. And one fascination recently has taken top billing: A 1920s house veiled by the Catskill Mountains where she spent two months last fall recording "Wild Hope." "I'd get up, drive my rent-a-car down to Woodstock to drink coffee and read the paper alone at this cafe," the New Hampshire-born, Orlando, Fla.-reared singer says. "Then I'd take these secluded drives in the mountains. It was ideal."




And why not? Last autumn marked the first time Moore could assume the musical control she had relinquished going back to "Candy."




"She was definitely No. 4 in the pop world. It was Britney, Christina, Jessica and then little Mandy," says Jon Leshay, who has managed Moore since she was 14. "She was the one who didn't know how to walk in heels and wasn't going to wear a rhinestone bustier." Moore shakes her head just at the mention of those days. Told that "Candy" wasn't half bad &

a song that spent 20 weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 &

she grimaces. As she grew older, Moore found it more difficult to keep mum when she was offered uninspiring tunes. Her label, Epic Records, begrudgingly obliged her whims and released her third album "Coverage" in 2003, in which she recorded favorite songs from the '70s by acts such as Elton John and Carole King.




After scant promotion for the album, however, Moore moved from Epic to Warner Bros./Sire, where she immediately made it known she was interested in songwriting. But when she suggested the quirky co-writers she had discovered on iTunes &

among them indie girl Rachael Yamagata and folk duo the Weepies &

things began to go awry.




"They were pitching the songwriters du jour," she says. "Not other artists, but professional songwriters who made me feel like it was an obligation for them to sit down with me."




So when Leshay suggested Moore jump on the bandwagon of a new venture between his entertainment talent management company, the Firm, and EMI Records, she and Warners parted amicably. The deal allows Moore to split revenue 50-50, simultaneously giving her that coveted creative freedom.




"Each time we wrote, I'd be blown away by how honest ... she was," says country musician Lori McKenna, who co-wrote three songs with her.




"Wild Hope" is her bid to join the earthy-crunchy singer-songwriters she admires, and it carries the feeling of someone coming to grips with her past. Her more organic-sounding pop tunes are fueled by lyrics Moore scribbled into her Moleskine journal, stories that allow listeners to see the world through her rose-tinted glasses and beyond, past what appears to have been a severely broken heart.




"I hope that people give her a fair shake because where she's at now is a very rich place," says Steve Tannen, half of the Weepies, another of her co-writers.




"Maybe this record will sort of shift people's perception of me," Moore says, biting her lip cautiously. "Or at least the effort will be applauded. But I don't even expect that from people. I'm just happy and proud at the end of the day. And I guess that's all you can be, right? That's all you can hope for."