BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT Unearthing and externalizing grief.
Black Belt Eagle Scout is the musical alias of multi-instrumentalist/producer Katherine Paul. She’s a member of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and grew up on a small reservation outside of Anacortes, Washington, where she returned last winter to record a solo debut at the Unknown Recording Studio.
“The album is called Mother of My Children,” Paul says. “It’s about my best friend. We dated for a really long time, and I thought she was gonna be the mother of my children, quite literally. And so this past year, I just realized that was never going to happen… I had to let go.”
Paul’s loss was twofold: “Two months before, one of my mentors and friends died. Her name was Geneviève Castrée. She was somebody who was really important to me as a musician.”
Mother of My Children aches in all the emptiness Paul experienced last year following the death of Castrée and the end of her relationship. It’s an exercise in unearthing and externalizing grief, and in making it, Paul fully allowed herself to experience its hollowness. During that time, she notes that she felt like she was going crazy, swinging between anger, frustration, and sadness. She says making this record was a cathartic but difficult process: “I felt like I was breaking up with her all over again. I felt like I was losing somebody.”
Paul moved to Portland 10 years ago for college, played in indie bands around town (like Forest Park and Genders), and released a self-titled solo EP as Black Belt Eagle Scout in 2014 in a spur-of-the-moment decision to record with a friend. But she hesitates to call herself a songwriter—these new songs weren’t planned or designed; they were purged, and the recordings preserve their original rawness. Paul played every instrument on Mother of My Children herself: guitar, vocals, drums and percussion, bass, synth, vibraphone, organ, and piano. The result shape-shifts between post-rock, electronic, and grunge.
Paul started playing her own music in high school, when she developed an interest in Pacific Northwest grunge bands. She studied bootleg Nirvana VHS tapes to learn how to play power chords, and the first song she ever taught herself on guitar was Hole’s “Doll Parts.” But Paul says the root of her style is still the Coast Salish music she grew up with. “I sing in the way I was brought up singing Native songs… I went to powwows, and my family was always around. I grew up in a very traditional lifestyle.”
With complex rhythms unfolding next to epic guitar solos on the opening track, “Soft Stud,” and closing track, “Sam, a Dream,” Mother of My Children is among the best local releases of 2017. One of its most interesting songs is “Keyboard,” which Paul recorded after finding a working Casio keyboard in a free box. She plays a haunting melody over drum machine loops, and sings about the tendency of sadness to find you when it’s dark. But the title track is the album’s standout and centerpiece—it’s understated and electric, as Paul coos over acoustic guitar and percussion that vibrates like insects at night.
She says the beat in “Indians Never Die” is “reminiscent of hand-drumming.” In the bio on Black Belt Eagle Scout’s Facebook page, Paul describes the song as “a call out to colonizers and those who don’t respect the Earth; they don’t care about the water, they don’t care about how they are destroying what is around them. Indigenous people are the protectors of this land, and others need to wake up and get on the same page.”
“One thing that I’m not really afraid of is that I’m very open about my identity, and the fact that I’m Native and queer,” she says. “I’m definitely okay with having people know that about me… I want to be able send a positive message to people who identify like me or people who are allies to support people who identify like me. That’s why I’m being very open. I’m queer, I’m indigenous, this is who I am. That’s where my art is centered from.”