It's hard not to notice Bruce Springsteen quietly fretting in the corner during an April showcase for Patti Scialfa's new solo album, ''23rd Street Lullaby.'' ''He was cute, wasn't he? He was like a papa bear,'' says Scialfa a few weeks later, sipping white wine at a cafe in Chelsea, her former Manhattan hood. It's even harder not to assume Springsteen, her husband of 13 years, heavily influenced Scialfa's first release since 1993's cultishly adored ''Rumble Doll.'' But no -- other than adding guitar riffs to three cuts, he was hands-off. ''Bruce is very supportive,'' she notes, ''but he doesn't intrude.'' Instead, Scialfa, 50, brought in an old pal, drummer Steve Jordan, to coproduce.
So why 11 years between releases? Oh, there were three young Springsteens to raise. There were two world tours as a singer-guitarist with E Street. And there was a would-be second CD that she shelved. ''It didn't quite tell the story I wanted it to tell,'' she shrugs. So she returned to her home studio for a fresh start and applied her Ronnie Spector-meets-Dusty Springfield voice to a rock & roll snapshot of the characters she hung with in the '70s and '80s. But she still needed a title song. ''Bruce said, 'You should write something called 'New York Lullaby.' I said, 'People who live in New York don't write songs with that title.''' A day later, she reconsidered. ''I changed it to '23rd Street Lullaby' and realized, 'Oooh, I can write this. I lived on that street for 15 years.'''