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From Halifax to Dollywood

From Halifax to Dollywood

Catriona Sturton, Ed’07, has been studying music since high school. While  studying education at Queen's, she also became a champion of community literacy, through her work with a foundation started by Dolly Parton.

Back in 1995, Catriona joined Plumtree, a Halifax indie band, as its new bass player, and wrote the bass line for the group’s song “Scott Pilgrim.” The song made it onto the band’s 1998 album, Predicts the Future, which received national airplay.

[photo of Catriona Sturton]Catriona with a harmonica, one of the many musical instruments she plays.

Plumtree’s music also caught the attention of a young comic book artist, Bryan Lee O’Malley, and Scott Pilgrim became the hero of a series of graphic novels. Catriona says, “In 2004, we got an email from Bryan, wanting to send us some copies of the first Scott Pilgrim book. He used to come to Plumtree shows, and he referred to a lot of Canadian indie bands in his work.”

This summer, the Scott Pilgrim story also became a major motion picture, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and starring Michael Cera (Arrested Development). For Catriona, even hearing the news that Bryan’s work was being optioned for a movie was exciting. “We weren’t ever counting on it being made,” she says. With the release of the film, Plumtree, which broke up in 2000, experienced a resurgence of interest in its music. Not only does the movie follow the story inspired by the original song, but Plumtree's music is used in the soundtrack. Michael Cera, in the title role, also sports a “Plumtree” t-shirt. And, like the graphic novels, there are several visual references to Plumtree songs in the film. There’s now a tribute album to Plumtree in the works.

From 2000 to 2003, Catriona lived in Japan, where she studied the shamisen with a master teacher. (Catriona likens the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument, to a “cross between a banjo and a sitar.”) She also sees some similarities between the Japanese instrument and the harmonica, the first instrument she learned to play in high school. “The shamisen is a really bluesy instrument,” she says. “I’ve studied with teachers who are masters at their instruments, and, learning at that level, you find more similarities between instruments than you would expect.”

In Japan, Catriona also discovered a new musical outlet -- karaoke. Since her voice didn’t have the “weight” of the blues singers she idolized, she had always refrained from singing in public. “In Japan, I got a fresh start. If my songs weren’t great, well, I could always leave the country! It was incredibly freeing. It made me more confident in my voice.”

Catriona came to Queen’s in 2006 to study in the Artist in Community Education (ACE) program of the Faculty of Education. The program is geared towards practising artists in music and other fields. Encouraged by two of her Queen’s teachers, Katharine Smithrim and Aynne Johnston, Catriona pursued a placement opportunity at the Dollywood Foundation, based in Dolly Parton’s home state of Tennessee. “They don’t tend to take interns, but for some reason, they took me,” she says. Catriona received a bursary from the Queen’s program to go to Tennessee to work with the foundation, which promotes community-wide literacy. After she finished her Ed degree, she went back to the foundation to work for the summer. Today, she is the foundation’s Regional Director, responsible for the Imagination Library program across Canada.

“The Imagination Library aims to give a book to every child under five on a regular basis. Dolly wants children to be excited to read by the time they get to school. The child becomes the advocate for reading.” Catriona works with community champions who identify the scope of the program needed and the children to be involved, and then raise the funds to buy the books. “The program is often paired with other community initiatives, like adult literacy or early learning programs already in place.” One of their partners is CFB Esquimalt, which has adapted the program so that parents stationed overseas receive the same books that their children do and can read to their kids by video conference. The program is a boon for small communities that may not have local bookstores or libraries. In 2009, the Yukon government joined the program, ensuring that all children in the territory were eligible to receive books of their own.

These days, Catriona keeps busy juggling her work at the foundation with her music. She’s recording an album of pop music in collaboration with Rolf Klausener of folk group The Acorn. And in November, she’ll give a performance on the shamisen at the Japanese Embassy in Ottawa. You can hear more of Catriona’s music at http://www.myspace.com/catrionasturton.