Katherine Paul. Photo by Jason Quigley

 

Identity and Tradition Color the Music of Black Belt Eagle Scout

Rising indie star is doing it all her own way

Katherine Paul, who performs under the name Black Belt Eagle Scout, was raised on Puget Sound in the small Swinomish Indian Tribal Community about an hour from the Canadian border in Northwest Washington. Steeped in musical and spiritual heritage from an early age, her family taught her Coast Salish music, drumming, and jingle dress dance, while other indigenous music often filled her house.

Paul traveled to pow wows across the region throughout her childhood with her family’s drum group, the Skagit Valley Singers. In third grade, she started learning piano and played flute in her school band. Then as a teenager, she fell for the Pacific Northwest’s regional music scene, going so far as to teach herself to play guitar from bootlegged Nirvana VHS tapes.

A decade ago, Paul moved to Portland for college and entered its burgeoning indie music scene. She started out playing drums and singing for various local bands before discovering her own particular talents. After the release of her first self-titled EP in 2014, Paul released Black Belt Eagle Scout’s debut LP, Mother of My Children, on Good Cheer Records in August 2017. Saddle Creek then widened her audience when it re-released the album in September 2018.

Katherine Paul. Photo by Jason Quigley

Katherine Paul. Photo by Jason Quigley

 

“A lot of the stuff on the album is just stuff that popped out of my mouth … I don’t really write lyrics. I use voice memo on my phone a lot.”

The record draws on themes of mourning, love, and hope. Written during a rough patch in her life (a romantic relationship was nearing its end, a lifelong mentor and friend had passed away, and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock were unfolding), its songs largely deal with loss and heartbreak, often getting both personal and political.

“It was a hard time to be Native,” she says particularly of Standing Rock. “Imagine hearing on the news that the government doesn’t support you as a human being and never has …

“ ‘Indians Never Die’ (a track from Mother of My Children) is a call out to colonizers and those who don’t respect the Earth … Indigenous people are the protectors of this land. Indians never die because this is our land that we will forever protect in the present and the afterlife.”

Paul’s writing process focuses heavily on personal experiences, life history and relationships, but she doesn’t start off writing a song with a particular theme in mind. “Most of the time I’ll just start singing. A lot of the stuff on the album is just stuff that popped out of my mouth … I don’t really write lyrics. I use voice memo on my phone a lot. I’ll record what I’m singing and then I’ll listen back to it and then I’ll write down what I said. Then maybe I’ll tweak something a little bit. That’s how I write out the song.”

 

The album’s opening track, “Soft Stud,” is defined by Paul as her “queer anthem.” “There are a lot of songs on this album that are about a heartbreaking time in my life” says Paul. “The song is actually about this person that I was dating. I was in this open relationship, and those can sometimes be hard because you’re sharing a partner with somebody. There’s jealousy involved.”

Now, Paul is excited for the next adventure. “My music that I’m working on now is about community and love and how people in your life can lift you up and create support for you,” she says. “It’s about how love is really special, all kinds of love: love for your family, love for other people, your friends. So that’s where I’m coming from. How I’m living my life right now is just trying to create a loving community around me.”

The idea of being pigeonholed as a strictly Native American artist doesn’t seem to phase Paul one bit. “You know,” she says, “it doesn’t bother me. I want to be the Native musician because there needs to be more Native musicians and there needs to be more visibility. So if you call me the Native musician, that’s totally chill.”

Paul is now paying it forward as her music, which reflects her identity, gains wider exposure: “I want more people who are like me, who have similar identities, to feel like they’re worth something—to feel like they’re validated and that they can see representation of themselves in music and art.”

Black Belt Eagle Scout is a showcasing artist at the SXSW Music Festival.

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