RBC Ottawa Bluesfest: Making it work with Catriona Sturton

Catriona Sturton

A few years ago Catriona Sturton had an epiphany.

“I was in this hotel room in Fort MacMurray reading an interview about Neko Case, who I have loved for a long time. I got to play harmonica for her once at a show in Halifax. And this little thing clicked in me.I was travelling for my job and I realized I could handle being by herself, I could handle the travel. Maybe I could do it.” And be a full-time singer-songwriter.

Four years and six months later, she’s doing it for real. On Tuesday night, at Bluesfest, she’ll step onto the biggest stage she’s ever played on, the same night as the Foo Fighters.

This is her third appearance at the festival, but the Claridge stage show definitely represents a step up, she said in an interview.

“It’s first time I have had a full band. That’s very exciting. This show will be very first time some of us will play together” on a stage like this.

Sturton has started to perform more regularly with drummer Ben Deinstadt. And she’ll be joined occasionally by bass player Kristy Nease and guitarist Ben Nesrallah.

She’ll be playing some new tunes that will likely end up on a record that will come out this fall.

The band experience is a new and enjoyable one for Sturton, who has been a one-woman band for almost five years. It frees her up, she said. And her music is evolving, or is that returning to her ’90s roots with the band Plumtree, which toured in Canada in the 1990s and is best known for the song Scott Pilgrim.

She will certainly be rocking on Tuesday night.

“I’m not nervous, which is a nice feeling. The first two times I played Bluesfest I was nervous.”

But she is trying to step up her show with a bit more pizzazz, so be on the look out for an eight-foot hot pink inflatable heart.

“I was brainstorming with an artist in Montreal and we were trying to think about ways to dress up my show. In hindsight I probably should have made a video, but we have gone too far down the road. We’ve ordered 50 feet of material. We made a prototype. It worked inside, but I don’t know how it will work outside.”

The perils of the music biz.

Still,  “to me it was important for girls going to a festival to see a woman playing with a band. But I wanted to have a lighthearted feel. too. It’s such a big stage that it might not be that big of an effect but it has been fun to make. And it definitely the sort of thing I can use in a house show. An eight foot inflatable pink heart should have an impact there.”

The heart has become a bit of a signature for Sturton.

“I have been doing a lot of little drawings to encourage people on Facebook and elsewhere. A lot of times I’ll draw a heart with a face on it so, yes it has become sort of a signature.”

As her music evolves to include more possibilities, one constant remains for Sturton.

“Songwriting is still the most important piece of the puzzle of anything I would do.” That and the harmonica.

It’s not an instrument that a lot of women play, and yet she’s even done a residency at the German Harmonica and Accordion Museum which just happens to be in Trossingen, Germany, the town where the Hohner factory is. So what gives?

“I wasn’t a singer for many years. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of singing. Most people have a desire to express themselves and when I found the harmonica there was a feeling that any passion I had for singing was channelled into harmonica.

“It’s the feeling you get breathing in through the harmonica, the way you can bend the notes.”

Sturton was 15 and at Lisgar High School when her affair with the harmonica began.

“I didn’t skip much but this one day I left school and ended up at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. I picked up a harmonica and I went down to the Ottawa River, sat and looked at the river and tried to figure how to play it. I got really into it.

“I don’t know if I would have gone much further, but at one point, there was a workshop at the Folklore Centre and that’s how I found Larry Moothan. He gave so many musicians their start. He fully changed my life. I don’t know I would have even been a musician without him.

Sturton was acquainted with music having taken violin lessons (an instrument she still plays). But she knew there was more to learn.

“My brother and I would sneak into bars to see (Moothan) play. And because of Larry I started meeting all these blues musicians. And the hook was set.”

There were musical moments in her future first with Plumtree in the 1990s. That band broke up essentially because everyone started pursuing other opportunities. She went to Japan and taught English as a second language before coming back to Canada with an all-girl garage band that also toured.

After that, Sturton considered a teaching career when along came a job with Dolly Parton, yep that Dolly Parton.

Parton runs a foundation that mails out free books to kids every month and Sturton was the one Canadian employee of the program.

“I went everywhere. I worked with service clubs, schools, universities, united ways. I worked with a lot of First Nations. I didn’t do a lot of music at that time. That job taught me that I could work harder than I ever thought I could.” It was a valuable lesson.

She also got to meet Parton who is “the most beautiful person you will meet.”

These days Sturton is inspired by people such as Parton and colleagues in the Ottawa music community such as Lynn Miles.

“I look younger than I am. It was a risky thing to do, to quit my job in my 30s. It’s working out now and I am really glad I did. I play a lot of shows with 20 year olds. I used to feel more self conscious about it but now I’m just doing it.

There are setbacks however.

A year ago, just when she was preparing to start recording the album, she was in a car accident.

“I got rear-ended and I hit my head on the steering wheel and had a concussion. I couldn’t tour or play. It took until May to start feeling normal.

“I got some money from an insurance settlement. And I ate at Mom’s.” You learn to live on a tight budget when you’re a working musician.

“I’m a lean machine.”

Catriona Sturton
Where: RBC Ottawa Bluesfest Claridge Homes Stage
When: July 10 at 6 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawabluesfest.ca

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.