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Arboretum Festival Foliage – Branching into Catriona Sturton

By Alessandro Marcon on September 14, 2012

Catriona Sturton is a musician who seriously and ambitiously digs into her craft. Formerly a member of the band Plumtree, she’s also collaborated with many well-known acts such as Al Tuck, Sloan, Blue Rodeo, and Joel Plaskett. She’s studied musical styles and instruments from both Mali and Japan and has spent time under the harmonica-tutelage of the Cuban-Canadian musical wizard, Carlos de Junco. Always laudable is the artist working hard to progress their expression. This local talent plays Arboretum on Saturday morning.

Apt613: As you know, Arboretum is a festival celebrating both food and music so…If I were to go into a restaurant and order a Catriona Sturton, what would I get?

Sturton: Something with brown rice, broccoli and kimchee!

A: A splash of the cabbage from Korea, eh? Have you spent any time in the East?

S: I’ve lived in Halifax and Japan, and visited Korea and Malaysia.

A: What brought you to Japan and what effect did living there have on your music?

S: I went there to teach, and ended up playing in a garage rock band as well as studying the shamisen, a beautiful traditional instrument. Being in Japan gave me the confidence to write and sing songs and my guitar playing has really been influenced by the shamisen.

A: What exactly is a shamisen?

S: It is a traditional 3 stringed fretless instrument, played with a plectrum.  I studied Tsaguru-jamisen, a folk style from Northern Japan.

A: Very cool. Did you take classes privately or through an institute of some kind?

S: I studied directly with a master teacher named Tanaka Chikusen.

A: Can you tell us a bit about your work with Al Tuck and Joel Plaskett? How has working with those guys shaped your sound?

S: I played bass and harmonica in Al Tuck’s band for 4 years which was a great musical education.  He’s an astounding songwriter and unique guitar player. I can only hope that I’ve learned something about songwriting from him, but he’s very far in a league of his own as far as the quality of his work goes. I can say that I’ve definitely improved as a melodic harmonica player by playing with him, and playing bass in his band kept me on my toes for sure!

I love Joel’s songs. He was one of the first people to encourage me in songwriting so I’m always thankful to him for that. I also got to do a little co-writing with him and learned so much from that experience. My first band, Plumtree, toured Canada a number of times with Joel’s band, Thrush Hermit, so I got to see him play live a lot. He has such a great stage presence. Joel also introduced me to the music of one of my favourite singers of all time, Damien Dempsey.

Story continues below:

A: I’m kicking myself for not going to Al Tuck’s show at Raw Sugar last year. He’s really unique. I’m surprised he’s not more well-known more across Canada. I remember him from back in the 90s when there was all that music coming out of the East­­—Eric’s Trip, Jale, Sloan, Thrush Hermit, Plumtree—in fact I’m pretty sure I caught Plumtree’s inaugural video appearance on MuchEast. MuchEast and MuchWest were pretty decent shows then. Why do think all of that music came out of the East and Halifax? Can you compare the music scene in Halifax versus that in Ottawa?

S: Both Halifax and Ottawa benefit from being smaller cities with more cross-pollination of music and art scenes. When I lived in Halifax it was somewhat unique in terms of how much people supported local live music there. In any city, the live music scene usually has a lot to do with having a few people (or one very overworked person!!) who dedicate their energy towards making great events, supporting other musicians and growing venues. Luckily, both Halifax and Ottawa have a lot of people who work hard to put on shows and events. I think Halifax has the longest running all-ages venue in Canada, which is so critical for developing a great music scene. Sloan and Murderecords had a huge impact in encouraging and providing support for the bands you mentioned. Being out of the way, geographically, meant that not as many touring acts came to the East Coast of Canada, but it also seemed that there was a higher level of support for local bands than you might find in cities that have big artists frequently touring there.

I think that it is a fun time to be in Ottawa. I really admire the work that has gone into Arboretum as a great example of hard work combined with local pride. It will be exciting for everyone who comes to know that they were part of the first Arboretum Festival!!

A: Yeah, it’s certainly a good sign that Ottawa is developing some of its own festivals. The House of PainT this upcoming weekend, alongside Arboretum, also looks like a dope event. I’ve only been in Ottawa for a year and a half, but it’s great to see new alternative venues/parties/events popping up that maybe weren’t here 5 years ago. It seems like Ottawa is trying to stretch itself out a bit. Is there anything that you think is missing or could be improved in Ottawa to progress the area into being a more dynamic environment? For example, I noticed when I road-tripped out to Halifax this summer, that they’ve got an awesome weekly (also online) called The Coast. I don’t just mean that they have one, an empty observation used by many when talking about a place—“(city) has got a jazz-fest, (city) has got _______”— but that their weekly is adventurous, varied, and opinionated – it takes some risks, and has a unique feel.

S:  The Coast is great. I miss it a lot. In general I tend to notice things I like about Ottawa more than think about what is lacking. There are so many good people here. Although lately I was thinking that maybe I should start a harmonica choir in Ottawa. But I don’t think there are many people worrying that what our city lacks is a harmonica choir……..but if anyone else thinks that they should let me know!

A: Haha. I’m picturing a harmonica orchestra, with all kinds of strange harmonicas like the low-end, tubarmonica. Yeah, I agree, a lot of deconstructive energy can fester when focusing on what’s lacking, but by looking at “lack” as an opportunity for potential action is where many amazing projects can start. I feel like Ottawa is moving in some cool directions. This project here, Apt613, is one which I’m happy to be a part of, and which, if I’m not mistaken, grew out of a lack of coverage of events taking place in the city. How about you? What projects do you have in the future? Are you heading back into the studio soon? I see your last album was recorded in 2006.

S:  Apt 613 is great! I’m writing, recording & studying harmonica from an amazing teacher.

A: Well, all the best with all your future projects and have a great day on Saturday. Thanks for taking some time to chat with us.

S: Thank you!!!

Catch Catriona Sturton at Arboretum tomorrow!