Ricky Berger’s big hopscotch

The pains of being pure of heart:
“I just about peed my pants,” says Ricky Berger after her set at The Refuge last Friday.

Producer Gordon Raphael ducks his head down. He is standing next to Berger on the stone steps of St. John’s Lutheran Church. It was his email that caused the Sacramento songstress to nearly wet herself, but he appears a little abashed to hear about it. Raphael, who has produced rock darlings the Strokes and singer/songwriter Regina Spektor, was working in San Antonio when friends insisted that he check out Berger, who had come through Texas on her recent stateside tour with Adrian Bourgeois. The songs he heard via the Internet impressed him, so he sent Berger an email asking her to meet with him in San Antonio.

“But then she played for me, just sitting at the piano,” says Raphael. “That took the songs to another level.” A classically trained keyboardist himself, Raphael marveled at the technique of Berger’s playing. “I’ve never seen anyone self-taught play with such method.”

Berger will join Raphael this summer at his studio in Berlin to continue working on her sophomore album. Three songs have already been recorded. Berger put them on iTunes, though she hopes to land a record deal soon. Raphael estimates that the album will be wrapped up by October.

“I’ve never worked this long on a record before,” Raphael confides. He says he is used to recording an album in matter of weeks. It took 213 tracks to record Berger’s first song. “And 200 of those were vocals.”

Berger’s girlish delight at working with a world-class producer is indicative of her irrepressibly effervescent personality. Her red lipstick smile rarely leaves her face. During Autumn Sky’s performance Friday night, she stretched out prone on the floor like a kindergartner watching a puppet show. (How exactly she accomplished this feat in a dress, without compromising her modesty, awaits further scientific investigation.)

Yet the songs Berger showcased Friday were much moodier than those on her debut album. She acknowledges the change in tone.

“There is one big change between my first album and this thing I’m working on now,” she says. “I’m in therapy, and that really got me in touch with my emotions and comfortable with expressing them.”

On the sidewalk in front of the church, someone has chalked a hopscotch. Berger walks past it, but on second thought goes back to hop the squares. Such sweet innocence seems congenial in Berger, so it is hard to imagine her having emotional issues to work out in psychotherapy.

On the other hand, being pure of heart in a brutal world is probably quite traumatic at times.

Berger drove to San Antonio by herself on the coldest day of the year. “It was something like minus 2 degrees,” she says. Raphael recalls that Berger phoned from the road to update him on her ETA.

“And she said, ‘Well, I’m getting very tired, and I could take a little shortcut through a place called Juárez, Mexico.’” Raphael and Berger both laugh. “And I told the people in Texas that she was going to do that, and they said, ‘Tell her not to go there. It has the highest murder rate in the world.’”

Sacramento will have to thank the good people in Texas for looking out for the town’s most talented ingénue.