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Catriona Sturton and her harmonica: An unfaltering love affair


Diatonic. (Photo supplied)
Diatonic. (Photo supplied)

The product of teen angst can often be summed up in a few Hilroys filled with adjective-heavy journal entries and a faded Nirvana t-shirt. For Catriona Sturton it was a different story. She describes her long-term love affair with the harmonica beginning as a result of a bad day at school, in grade 11.

An Ottawa native, 16-year-old Sturton left class early and wandered over to a music store where she bought a harmonica on a whim.

“This sounds really silly,” Sturton says, “but I went down to the Ottawa River to play my new harmonica, and it made me feel a lot better.”

Sturton’s teenage bad day burgeoned into a long-term career in music. After spending hours practicing in the depths of her parents’ laundry room, she took lessons at the Ottawa folklore centre. She cites her teacher, Larry ‘The Bird” Mootham, as her greatest mentor.

Sturton and her mouth organ moved to Halifax upon her high school graduation in 1995. She describes the city as “the most formative place I’ve ever lived.”

In a Foundation Year Programme tutorial at University of King’s College she met Amanda Braden, picked up a bass and joined the quirky female punk band Plumtree. The band’s song “Scott Pilgrim” sparked a graphic novel series and film of the same name.

Though Plumtree officially dissolved in 2000, Sturton’s career continued to evolve. After graduating from Dalhousie with a history degree in 1999, she headed to Japan, where she played in a punk band and studied the shamisen, a traditional Japanese instrument that she says “kind of looks like the thing you scrape the ice off your car with in the winter.”

All the while, Sturton’s harmonica retained a place in her heart. In Halifax she fondly recalls taking harmonica lessons in the back alley behind Your Father’s Moustache. She also played harmonica and bass with Prince Edward Island native Al Tuck for four years after returning from Japan.

Sturton plays solo now, but she says she misses playing in a band.

“Playing with good musicians makes you a better musician,” she says. She does admit her solo career allows for more flexibility, though, and describes her newer songs as “sparser” than before. Her folk songs are bluesy and compelling, and always laden with rich harmonic layers.

Aside from her many musical incarnations, Sturton has devoted much of her time to the literary arts. For past five years she has worked for the Imagination Library, a non-profit started by Dolly Parton that provides children with a book each month from their birth until their fifth birthday in order to foster literacy. For Sturton, cultivating and celebrating the imagination is of unparalleled importance.

Sturton says she is excited to be playing In the Dead of Winter Festival in Halifax at the end of January. In the Dead of Winter was founded by a small group of female acoustic musicians, and its aim is to showcase North American acoustic musicians who are both emerging and established. “It’s such an amazing festival” Sturton says.

She is also holding a harmonica workshop at the public library on Spring Garden while she’s in town. This will be her third workshop in Halifax, and is open to anyone with a diatonic harmonica (10 holes) in the key of C. She’ll be teaching some harmonica fundamentals, such as how to properly hold the instrument. She will teach single notes as well as effects with hands and breath.

Sturton also gives harmonica lessons over Skype to those who may be interested, and hopes to integrate more workshops into her near future. Sturton loves to teach.

“[The harmonica] is a little thing that I can share with people. There’s a lot gong on in the world and we all feel it in different ways. Being connected to your breath is so important.”

Catch her mouth organ prowess for yourself on Jan. 25 at the Company House at 9 p.m., and on Jan. 26 at Cempoal at 9 p.m. Surton’s free workshop is open to the public and will take place on Jan. 26 at 3 p.m. at the Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library.

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