Catriona Sturton
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Catriona Sturton

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Band Pop Blues


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This band has not uploaded any videos


The best kept secret in music


"Deep Love for Harmonicas and Cat Skin"

When I first ask Catriona Sturton if she has always gravitated towards unusual instruments, she pauses. I had to ask - not only because she seems to play everything, but also because she had recently confessed to the XPress her deep love for the harmonica as well as for a strange Japanese instrument made of cat skin.

"They've always seemed pretty normal to me," she laughs.

She compares the Japanese instrument, a shamisen, to a cross between the banjo and the sitar, mentioning that she was lucky enough to study the shamisen with a master teacher in Japan, where she played in a punk band. Again, she says, perfectly normal.

But for such an eclectic musician this kind of response is par for the course. Sturton has lived and performed all over the world, and has picked up new instruments and influences along the way. She played with Halifax indie outfit Plumtree and Japanese punk band The Secret, and is now a solo act backed up by her band, The Screaming Elks. Sometimes she teaches harmonica workshops to seniors. This, she would say, is also completely normal.

Her love for the harmonica started at Lisgar Collegiate when her affinity for blues music prompted her to learn the instrument. When I point out that not all high school kids love the blues, she points out that they really should, since most high school kids have the blues. Suddenly her desire to learn harmonica makes a whole lot more sense. She has since studied with world-famous teachers, and has backed up an impressive list of musicians with her talents, including Neko Case, Matt Murphy and Al Tuck.

Ladyfest Ottawa was wise enough to nab her for their musical lineup, but also for their impressive roster of workshops. She will be teaching the Howdy Harmonica workshop on Sunday at University of Ottawa (For room information visit the LFO information table at Bar 1848 in the Unicentre Building of the University of Ottawa (room 205) and playing the festival Friday night at Club SAW (8:30 p.m.). Since her regular band won't be able to join her, she'll be accompanied by her gold sparkly accordion and local songwriter John Carroll.

Sturton happily admits that her path as a musician has been unique, pointing to her time living in Japan as a fine example of musical exploration. She says that before she moved there she was too shy to sing. After a certain amount of karaoke, though, nothing seems out of reach.

"My musical career has been pretty Gemini," she says. "I've just been about the luckiest person I can think of."

Catch Sturton's workshop and show, and don't stop there. This year, Ladyfest is offering some of the most interesting workshops yet, including tips on growing veggies in small places, knitting for boys, bike safety, body modification and fat politics. And don't forget the famous Ladyfest craft sale that takes place on Saturday and Sunday. Visit for a full schedule, and get your fest on.

Andrea Simms-Karp
- Ottawa XPress

"Harmonica Is The Difference Maker For Catriona Sturton And The Elks"

Catriona Sturton has studied traditional music in Japan, mastered the blues on harmonica and was part of the Halifax pop explosion. But, until now, she's never fronted her own project.

"It's sort of a funny place to be coming at, doing our first show, because obviously I have a lot of experience in certain ways," says Sturton. "And then there's other ways where it's a new experience.

"I think that being a frontperson is different, having that attention on you, than being a smiley side player."

But Sturton is more than prepared at this point. She got her musical start as a teenager in Ottawa, where she learned harmonica. "I used to go to the Rainbow [Bistro, a blues club] a lot, and that's pretty much where I started performing," Sturton says.

She played harmonica for Mighty Popo and other blues-based acts, and then university studies took her to the east coast.

"When I moved to Halifax, I initially didn't know anything about indie rock," Sturton confesses. "I was playing with all the blues musicians."

But she caught the attention of indie popsters Plumtree "by accident" ("I think they thought I played more guitar than I did," Sturton says) and was soon playing bass with the band. That gig took her across Canada and the U.S. with Maritime peers like Sloan and Jale.

When Plumtree broke up in 2000, Sturton headed off to Japan, where she "played bass and harmonica with different bands, from teenage boy punk rock to reggae." She also formed a pop band called The Secret and began to hone her singer/songwriter chops.

"If I had been in Canada, I think I might have been a bit intimidated to sing songs, because a lot of my friends are good musicians or good songwriters," says Sturton. "In my awkward developing stage, I might not have wanted to do that in public. But in Japan it was always like, 'Well, these people might not ever see me again.'"

Now back in Canada, Sturton has built up her confidence and recruited a two-piece band called The Screaming Elks that features Dana Snell and Andy Lloyd. The Screaming Elks songs' aren't dissimilar to the catchy, sugary indie pop of Plumtree. But more of Sturton's ace harmonica playing comes through, which both sets her apart and gives her a little boost.

"I think harmonica totally grounds me right off the bat," says Sturton. "I think, 'Awesome, people are going to be totally distracted from my guitar playing.'"

Those in Ottawa can check out Catriona Sturton and The Screaming Elks at Zaphod Beeblebrox on Saturday alongside The Parkas. The rest of the country can watch for more of the Elks later this year.

—Caitlin Crockard


"Plum Instrumentalist"

While Catriona Sturton is most familiar as the bassist from beloved '90s act Plumtree, her skills with another instrument pre-date the band. Sturton's first experience performing was with a harmonica and she'll return to teach a beginner's workshop on the topic at the Halifax Public Library on February 10.

"I studied it when I was a high school student, and when I was in Halifax I got to play with Dutch Mason and Rick Jeffries," says Sturton from Kingston, Ontario, where she's completing a degree in education. "When I moved to Halifax I was like a blues nut, I didn't know indie rock at all. I heard about Sloan, I think I read about it in Macleans magazine? Yeah, cutting edge."

The afternoon engagement will be followed by a performance accompanied by Andrew Glencross at Gus' Pub. She says her set—and that of a rare support performance by Bryan Lee O'Malley—will include some old favourites, as well as a recently completed piece inspired by memories of people close to her.

"I wrote this song about my brother who passed away suddenly, and I when I was mixing it in January I kinda caught the news about Helen Hill," she says. "It's kind of like a New Orleans-based song. I think being in Halifax with that song it might be a whole lot more emotional. People might cry. People usually cry when I play, but not in a bad way."

The Stolen Minks join Sturton and O'Malley.

by Chris McCluskey

- The Coast (Halifax)

"Finding Inner Silence in the Shamisen"

When Catriona Sturton first arrived in Japan in August 2000, she knew very little about Japan or its culture. Little did the 24-year-old assistant language teacher know that she would become a skilled shamisen player. But that is exactly what happened -- her musical performances were recently broadcast on television in Hiroshima Prefecture and featured in an Asahi Shimbun article.

Water is an important element of the music played by (from left) Chikuzen Tanaka, Catriona Sturton and Soken Danjo.

"It all started with Yoshio Watanabe, the English teacher at my high school here in Fukuyama, [Hiroshima Pref.]" Sturton says. "He invited me to get involved in a local old-houses restoration project. It was through this group that I met Danjo-san and Tanaka-san."

Buddhist priest Soken Danjo and local shamisen master Chikuzen Tanaka were producing a nonprofit CD recording of traditional Japanese healing music, for distribution to hospice programs around Japan. When he heard that Sturton had been a member of a popular indie rock band in her college days, Danjo invited her to join the chorus featured on the CD recording.

"That was the first time I visited a Buddhist temple," says Sturton. "It was a cold winter night, and the room was dark and mysterious. People involved in the recording were huddled around stoves, and when I heard Tanaka-san playing the shamisen for the first time, the experience left a profound impression on me."

It took another eight months for Sturton to pick up the three-stringed Japanese instrument for the first time.

"At the time I was busy playing bass guitar with a punk rock band in Fukuyama," says Sturton. "I was also jamming regularly with local country music, reggae and blues groups. Because I couldn't speak Japanese, I thought it would be too difficult to learn the shamisen. But when I heard a young performer at a local festival the following summer, I knew I wanted to give it a try. As a bass player, what I found really powerful was the lower tone of the shamisen."

Danjo, a skilled guitarist, sometimes invited Sturton to join blues sessions at his home. He suggested Sturton talk with Tanaka, who offered her a good deal on a used shamisen and began to give her lessons in the Tsugaru-jamisen tradition.

"A Japanese friend had warned me about studying shamisen," Sturton says. "They said most teachers were strict and expected their students to be serious. I was worried about that, but my teacher later told me that the relationship between teacher and student is like that of a mafia boss and his underlings. He suggested I watch yakuza movies to understand this. When we were not practicing, his wife and he were very lighthearted. They have a good sense of humor."

Music has been a part of Sturton's life for as long as she can remember. She started violin lessons at age 6, followed by piano and then harmonica at age 16.

"That was a turning point for me," says Sturton. "I fell in love with country and blues music and started reading every book in the library on the history of blues and its influences. That was the big reason I ended up majoring in American history at university."

At Dalhousie University in eastern Canada, Sturton played bass guitar and harmonica in two bands. One of them, an indie rock group named Plumtree, enjoyed remarkable success on the Canadian independent music scene.

Plumtree toured regularly and one of their three CDs topped Canada's college music charts. The band appeared on Canadian television, and their music video was highlighted on the Much Music program, the Canadian equivalent of MTV.

"In my senior year, we talked about going further with the band," Sturton says. "But two of our members were offered great grad-school opportunities in the U.S.. It felt like the natural thing for us to move on with our lives."

Immediately following Sturton's graduation from university, Plumtree set out on a seven-week odyssey from Halifax to Los Angeles. It was their last concert tour together and the climax of the band's career.

Two weeks after the band's return to Halifax, Sturton flew to Japan as a participant in the JET program. Her musical connections with Japanese youngsters made her teaching job easier.

"Joining a local punk group was a unique chance to learn about Japanese teenagers' interests," says Sturton. "It's helped to build a bridge between myself and the high school students I teach."

In the English language club at Fukuyama Ichiritsu Senior High School, Sturton also teaches the members to play the guitar and shamisen. Her frequent shamisen performances at school and at local events have boosted the enthusiasm of her students.

Sturton comments: "I think that kids here in Japan are under a lot of pressure. Music can be a really important outlet for them."

How has the shamisen influenced Sturton?

"It's pretty difficult to describe how I feel when I play. In Japanese there is a word, mushin, that means 'nothing heart.' It's a kind of inner calm that I experience when I play the shamisen. As for studying with my teacher, anytime you meet somebody who is doing what they love for a living, I think that it is a great positive influence. It reminds you that there are so many paths to choose in life. After finishing the JET program, I'd like to study with him full time for at least six months and then create the opportunity for us to go on concert tour around Canada."

Friday, Oct. 4, 2002



Catriona's songs have been played on CBC and Numb3rs (CBS)

Catriona Sturton and The Screaming Elks – Catriona Sturton and The Screaming Elks Demo – Modern Soul Records, 2006 (vocals, guitar, harmonica, songwriting)

“Digger” (Catriona Sturton) – Ladyfest Ottawa 2006 Compilation – Ladyfest Ottawa, 2006 (vocals, guitar, harmonica)

Sharon Coward – This Time – Make Tea Not Love, 2005 (bass, harmonica)

The Secret – Himitsu EP – Himitsu records 002 – Japan, 2003 (vocals, guitar)

Chikusen and Soken Danjo – Nembutsu – Aikoto 05 Japan, 2001 (chorus vocals)

Al Tuck – The New High Road of Song – Brobdingnagian Records, 2001 (bass, harmonica)

Plumtree – This Day Won’t Last At All – Endearing Records, 2000, bass, harmonica, backup vocals, songwriting

“I Love You When You’re Walking Away” (Plumtree) - Moshi Moshi: Pop International Style (Compilation) – March Records, 1999

Plumtree – Predicts the Future – Cinnamon Toast Records, 1998, bass, backup vocals

“Scott Pilgrim” (Plumtree/The Inbreds) – North Window Split 7” – PF Records, 1996


Feeling a bit camera shy


A strong songwriter with a genuine delivery, Catriona Sturton " seems to play everything" (Ottawa XPress) including the harmonica and the shamisen (a traditional three-stringed instrument made from a cat skin).

As a member of Halifax indie-rock favourites, Plumtree, Catriona toured Canada with Thrush Hermit and The Weakerthans

Her alter ego as a blues harmonica player ("ace harmonica skills" - Chartattack) has seen Catriona play with Neko Case, The late Dutchy Mason, Guy Terriffico and Al Tuck.

She was a founding member of Hiroshima's garage-pop band, The Secret. Catriona received national press coverage in Japan for her study of the traditional Japanese blues instrument, the shamisen, with a master player in Hiroshima.