Katherine Paul’s music — performed under the moniker Black Belt Eagle Scout — is born of different worlds. On the one hand, there are the Coast Salish traditions of her childhood. Paul grew up on the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community reservation, just outside Anacortes, Washington. As a small child, she would sit in her father’s lap as he led drum circles at powwows. Her grandmother was known as “Lady of the Drum.” Later, Paul became a jingle dress dancer, wearing regalia decorated with metal cones — the lids of chewing tobacco tins, curled into a funnel-like shape.
On the other hand, there’s the grunge and riot grrrl music Paul discovered in middle school, after her family bought its first computer. “That’s when I decided I wanted to be a guitarist, that I wanted to play loud music,” recalls Paul, who’d already been learning piano and flute.
Becoming Black Belt Eagle Scout
But unlike most pre-teens who nurse rock ‘n’ roll dreams, Paul acted on her ambitions. She got a guitar and began teaching herself to play, studying bootleg footage of Nirvana and Hole, repeatedly pausing the VHS tapes to examine the musicians’ fingers.
The work paid off, crystallizing into a one-woman musical project within a few years. As Black Belt Eagle Scout, Paul makes atmospheric and often haunting songs that draw on post-rock, grunge and the rhythmic pulse of tribal drumming. She moves easily from aching, minor-chord moments to impassioned clamor, spurred along by woozy vocals and complex instrumentation. Next to lyrics of heartbreak, there are defiant guitar solos and rallying cries to protect the earth.
Mother of My Children
Now, Paul — who moved to Portland in 2007 to study anthropology at Lewis & Clark College — could be poised for a national breakout. Her debut album, Mother of My Children, was released on Portland label Good Cheer Records in 2017. The album will be reissued in September 2018 on Saddle Creek, a venerable Omaha, Nebraska label that represents such heavy-hitters as Bright Eyes, Big Thief and recently disbanded Portland institution the Thermals. (Visit Black Belt Eagle Scout’s Bandcamp page for upcoming tour dates.)
It’s quite the turn of events for an album that had a modest (and difficult) start. In 2016, Paul went through a painful breakup, and she lost her mentor, visual artist and musician Geneviève Castrée, to pancreatic cancer. Waist-deep in grief, Paul turned to music.
“The way I process a lot of feelings is through playing music,” Paul says. “I feel like that comes from my upbringing of Native American music. When you sit around a big drum and sing, it’s supposed to be a very spiritual and healing time. That’s how the album started — I was singing all these songs to figure things out. I sat in my bedroom and would play guitar, and I would end up feeling better. There was the raw sadness, but I could also see this beautiful thing happening.
Paul laid down Mother of My Children in a single week at the Unknown, a recording studio in a converted church in Anacortes, where Castrée also worked. She stayed with her parents on the reservation, a 15-minute drive away.
The material wasn’t set when Paul began recording, so she took the time to mess around on the studio’s dizzying array of instruments and gear, from effects pedals to vintage reverbs to vibraphone (featured prominently on “Indians Never Die,” an indictment of those who don’t respect the land around them). On the resulting album, Paul plays every instrument herself: drums, guitar, bass, piano, organ, all variety of percussion and a Casio keyboard. It’s a remarkable show of force, creating a portrait of independence and resilience.
It’s also, Paul notes, a snapshot of the past. A few years removed from the losses of 2016, she notices a shift in her approach to making music. While it remains a way for her to work through pain and to express her identity as a queer Indigenous woman, her music’s sense of scope has broadened.
“I’m still playing music to express feelings, but the intention is different,” she says. “It’s also about community. The intention is to bring people together.”