By Greg Cahill | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
“We try to follow our own curiosities, musical and otherwise, in whatever directions they take us, whether that means onstage at a bluegrass festival, freely improvising with our instruments and voices, or backing up singer-songwriters in the studio,” says fiddler Isabel Dammann, 28, of the violin-guitar-tabla trio Sprig of That. “Along the way, we hope to make a few new friends, encourage some people to pick up an instrument, and hopefully put smiles on some listeners’ faces.”
By combining original compositions with unusual instrumentation and diverse musical influences, she adds, Sprig of That seeks to bring “joy, virtuosity, and musical adventure to audiences and students, resulting in a greater understanding of creativity and forward movement in cross-genre collaborations.”
So far, the trio has grown an enthusiastic fan base. Dammann and her counterparts—guitarist Ilan Blanck, also 28, and tabla player Krissy Bergmark—have been playing together as a band for four years, leading workshops, touring, recording, and building a following on social media. Their debut full-length album, Bloom, is due this winter.
Oh, about that unusual name: “Sprig of That came about when I was on a camping trip with some friends, and we were talking about how fancy restaurants give you a big plate with a little dollop of food and they dress it up with ‘a drizzle of this and a sprig of that,’” Dammann explains. “Someone said, ‘That would be a good band name,’ so it ended up on a list of silly names on my phone and forgotten. When our trio was looking for a band name, I brought out the list and to my surprise there were a few decent contenders!”
Sprig of That topped the list.
To produce the recording project, following a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds, Sprig of That enlisted Wes Corbett (known for his work with the Sam Bush Band and Joy Kills Sorrow) at Sound Emporium studios in Nashville. “Wes gave us critical, yet encouraging, feedback that was exactly what we needed,” Dammann says. “He helped us to sound the best we could, and even throughout the recording session we were making compositional edits to the tunes to help them shine. It was definitely an exercise in flexibility and trust—we had a few ‘kill your darlings’ moments that felt difficult to accept, making changes that we were skeptical about but Wes felt strongly for, and ultimately those helped our tunes to be even better.”
To help with production, Corbett brought along engineer Dave Sinko, a studio ace whose credits have included projects with the Punch Brothers, Béla Fleck, and Dolly Parton. “Dave knew exactly what we and our instruments needed to sound amazing, and the first time we went back to the recording booth to listen, I got chills. It’s like hearing our music with the Punch Brothers filter—a sound we love and have aspired to for years. Ilan also was fortunate to borrow a few guitars from [Punch Brother] Chris Eldridge for the recording session. To play these pieces that we love with such an incredible team at a studio with such a storied history was truly a dream come true.”
The band also brought in cellist Olivia Diercks of the crossover duo OK Factor to enhance the arrangements. “We’ve been playing with the idea of adding cello to our ensemble for a few years, to add a bass element and another possibility for sustained notes,” Dammann says. “We’ve been friends and collaborators [with Diercks] for years. When we asked her to sit in on a rehearsal, it felt like a really natural fit—her groovy yet melodic playing melded beautifully into our trio. We’re very grateful she decided to join us on a few of our newest tunes.”
The results surprised even Corbett and found the young band exploring new tonal terrain. “While recording, Wes said something that really stuck with us: ‘Sometimes, a funny thing occurs. We make an album that ends up being better than us, which in turn forces us to grow to meet it.’ Throughout this project, I really feel like we have grown tremendously as individual musicians and as a trio, and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead for us on our journey. Working with Wes and Dave was also such a treat. Not only was it so cool to hear our music through their ears, but just spending time with them was a joy.”
Dammann’s musical journey started at age four, when she first picked up a violin. That’s when an aunt, who is a Suzuki cello teacher in New Orleans, gave Isabel the first Suzuki book and CD for Christmas and encouraged Dammann’s mother to start her young daughter on violin. “My mom also grew up playing violin in grade school, so she was very involved in my musical education throughout my childhood, coming to every lesson and playing duets with me at home,” she says. “My dad is also a professional blues guitarist, so I grew up with music all around.”
Her first teacher of ten years, Rachel Lambert, adhered strictly to the Suzuki method, so Dammann learned almost everything by ear. “She taught some group fiddle classes and played fiddle in an Irish band, too, so that influence had an impact on me from early on,” she recalls. “I think learning to play by ear from the beginning tremendously helped me to cross over into fiddle genres, jazz, and other improvisational music later on when I was in college.”
During high school, string teacher Clarisse Atcherson helped Dammann hone her classical chops significantly before the then-teen fiddler moved on to Lawrence University in Wisconsin to study violin performance and geology. “There, I studied classical violin with Wen-Lei Gu and Samantha George, improvisation and jazz with Matt Turner and Jose Encarnación, and began branching out into fiddle styles at summer fiddle camps,” she says. “Probably my biggest fiddle inspiration and mentor has been Scottish fiddler Hanneke Cassel, and I’ve also studied with Phoebe Hunt, Darol Anger, Mike Block, Zach Brock, Blaine Sprouse, Brittany Haas, and Alex Hargreaves, among others.”
Throughout her time at Lawrence, Dammann sought out a wide variety of classical and non-classical ensembles to expand her versatility as a musician, including a folk-rock cover band, a Baroque cello-harp-violin trio, an improvised music ensemble, a heavy metal band, a banjo-violin folk duo, a symphony orchestra, and others. “I also helped start Fiddlers of LU, a trad fiddle group that still exists today,” she says. “After moving to Minneapolis, in addition to Sprig of That, I performed with an Americana string trio called Lady Spruce, with Julia Floberg and Aubrey Weger, where I really learned to sing and play simultaneously; an improvised music and movement group called Painting the Room that helped me expand the scope of my creativity; a neo-classical violin-cello-vocal trio with composer Anat Spiegel; and an improvised cello-violin duo with my close friend Mikaela Marget.”
Dammann and Blanck met during their first week at Lawrence University, collaborating on various musical projects, from bluegrass to heavy metal to the music of tango master Astor Piazzolla. A few years later, the pair met percussionist Krissy Bergmark through a mutual friend at the Silkroad Ensemble’s Global Musician Workshop. “When Ilan and I both moved to the Twin Cities after graduation, Krissy reached out and asked if we wanted to jam,” Dammann says. “Our first rehearsal was on February 6, 2018, on a cold winter’s night in Saint Paul, Minnesota. We spent four hours jamming on and tearing apart the fiddle tune ‘Cluck Old Hen’ and felt an immediate musical connection. Afterwards, Krissy popped the question: ‘So… do you want to be in a band?’ We said, Yes!”
Despite the unusual configuration of instruments, Damman says, the band members found common ground in their classical training—Bergmark had even traveled to India on several occasions to receive formal instruction in tabla. “As a trio, we came together with a shared interest in string-band crossover projects, like Punch Brothers and Goat Rodeo, and especially Béla Fleck’s collaboration with Edgar Meyer and [tabla master] Zakir Hussein, 2009’s The Melody of the Rhythm,” Dammann says. “Ilan and I were both interested in delving deeper into the string-band world, and Krissy loves bringing the language of classical Indian tabla into various genres and settings where it is not as common. Musically, the way the tabla can be simultaneously melodic and percussive helps it blend beautifully with the violin and guitar, and it felt like a really natural fit.”
The dearth of repertoire for violin, guitar, and tabla helped to ignite a creative spark for Sprig of That. “We don’t have a preset genre to fall back on—our collaboration has allowed us to really pull from anything that inspires us and create our own genre as we go,” Dammann says. “We love to blend different musical influences and over the past nearly five years together have created a very exciting and cohesive dynamic in which we can seamlessly intertwine composed musical ideas with improvisation. There is always an element of spontaneity, and it feels like we’ve really learned to listen to each other deeply.”
After a few years of playing together, the band members thought it would be fun to get external input about what their instruments could do together. So, in 2019, Sprig of That applied for and received a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council in Minneapolis to commission eight Twin Cities music makers to write pieces for the band. The resulting works ranged from contemporary classical to jazz to pop with a guest vocalist, and even a folk tune in which Dammann sang in Turkish. Eight Threads, as the project became known, was originally going to be a performance series in April 2020, but when the pandemic hit, the band pivoted to create an album, which was recorded in the fall and released in early 2021. “We feel really fortunate to have had that project that year, to keep us focused and motivated during a time that was so tumultuous and uncertain for artists and musicians,” Dammann says.
Eight Threads led ultimately to a pandemic-era podcast. “We were trying to brainstorm ways to make the project reach further that didn’t involve a traditional album release show or tour,” she notes. “Ilan has been a big fan of talk radio for his entire life, so the podcast was really his idea and passion project. Inspired by the podcast Song Exploder, we interviewed each composer about themselves and the inspiration behind their piece, and Ilan edited each episode to include examples from the piece interspersed with the interview, ending with a full run-through of the song. We then released the album, one track and podcast episode at a time, for two months. While it was a lot of work, it was really fun to get to hear from the composers in more detail about their compositional processes, and just to chat and get to know them, too, at a time when musical collaboration was unusually challenging.”
After completion of the Eight Threads project, Sprig of That went full steam ahead for the next year writing, revising, and rehearsing the songs for Bloom. The band members also moved away from Minneapolis. During the 2019 Carnegie Hall and Juilliard School’s joint inaugural Audience Engagement Intensive with Ensemble Connect, the band members—all string educators—had learned to interact better with audiences and performed for elementary school kids, at a home for folks with mental disabilities, and at an interactive performance for the community. In 2019 and 2020, Sprig for That used that training to work with Minnesota Public Radio as Class Notes Artists and traveled to K–12 schools across Minnesota to perform for students. “We’ve also hosted workshops at performing-arts high schools and colleges across the Midwest,” Dammann says.
Community building also informed the crowdfunding for Bloom and allowed Sprig of That to tap the wisdom of veteran Trout Steak Revival banjo player and writer Travis McNamara of the Denver-based Arthouse Consulting firm. “We had each done crowdfunding projects before for other bands and endeavors, but never to this scope,” Dammann says. “We owe much of our success in our campaign to Travis’ guidance. As a professional banjo player himself, who has helped run numerous successful Kickstarter campaigns for his own and other bands, Travis knew exactly how to help us get organized, craft a professional campaign, speak up for this music that we are so proud of, and most importantly reach out to all the people in our lives who have loved and supported us over the years. It was an incredible amount of work but truly beautiful to reconnect with so many people who have meant so much to us throughout our lives and to feel the outpouring of support and love from these folks for us and our art.”
What Isabel Dammann Plays
Dammann’s primary violin and bow are on loan from the family of her first string teacher, Rachel Lambert, who wanted her to play them after Lambert passed away from cancer in 2015. The violin is an unlabeled German instrument, c. 1880, and the bow is by G. Rudi Steinel. While Dammann often experiments with various strings, on Bloom, she used Warchal Timbre violin strings, which she has been enjoying over the past few years.