Black Belt Eagle Scout is shaking up the sound of Pacific Northwest sadness
The Portland songwriter’s debut album, Mother of My Children, is a robust soundtrack to queer heartbreak.
 Black Belt Eagle Scout is shaking up the sound of Pacific Northwest sadness Jason Quigley

When I meet Black Belt Eagle Scout at a cafe in Southeast Portland, she warns me that she hasn’t had her first cup of coffee yet. She speaks softly, but breaks into a laugh easily and often. Sometimes I can barely hear her over the indie rock humming from the cafe speakers, and other times, like when she is talking about social injustice or the joy her friends bring her, she inches up to a shout. I get excited when, every so often, I hear her voice reach the sandy, whispery tone she slips into throughout her debut album Mother of My Children.

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Katherine Paul was raised in the tiny Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and bordering town of La Conner about an hour from the Canadian border in northeast Washington state. As a teen, Paul fell in love with the rock music scene that grew out of the region, Pacific Northwest grunge and riot grrrl bands like Nirvana and Hole and, later, newer artists like Gossip. Around age 13, Paul taught herself to play guitar by watching how-to and music videos. She’d soon learn the ins and out of being in a band via attending D.I.Y. shows in nearby Anacortes, WA, and summers spent at Rock and Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, where she played the drums and got to sample the city’s music scene. “Imagine you’re in this big open room and there are little girls sitting on the floor in circles eating their like sack lunches and Peaches is playing,” she says. “That was my introduction to to the queer community here in Portland.”

Eleven years ago, Paul moved to Portland permanently and began her journey through its D.I.Y. music scene, playing drums and singing in various bands. Initially started as a side project in 2016, Black Belt Eagle Scout’s Mother of My Children was originally released on Good Cheer Records in August 2017. Today, Paul and her album have a new home at Omaha-based label Saddle Creek, which is re-releasing the album on September 14.

As a whole, Mother of My Children has that unmistakable cozy melancholy that Pacific Northwest rock music has long been known for, but without feeling redundant, tired, or devoid of hope. Drawing on themes of love, longing, and loss, Paul’s delicate instrumentation — on everything from her guitar and cymbals to vibraphone and an old Casio keyboard she found on the side of the road — and stark but vivid lyrics makes for a debut album that is as comforting as it is haunting. “Need you, want you,” she sings, almost pleading, on the album’s first single “Soft Stud.” Later, after a minute-long introduction of crunchy guitar on “Just Lie Down,” Paul moves into an exploration of the yearning for comfort outside forces can’t seem to satisfy. “You aren’t yourself, what’s wrong, it’s in your head,” she sings. “There are a lot of songs on this album that are about [a] heartbreak time in my life,” she tells me over her mug of coffee. “It’s about feeling like you don’t have somebody’s support.”

 Black Belt Eagle Scout is shaking up the sound of Pacific Northwest sadness Jason Quigley

I read that you come from a family of musicians.

Kind of, yeah. My family had this drum group growing up called the Skagit Valley Singers. By drum group I mean, have you ever been to a powwow?

No.

So a powwow is a gathering, a celebration with Native people, and there are groups that will drum and sing. Maybe 10 or so drum groups show up to a powwow and everybody gets their turn. They’re all in this circle and the dancing happens in the middle. So my family had one of those drum groups up in the area where I’m from, the Skagit Valley. I grew up going to powwows and dancing; I was a jingle dress dancer. That was the type of music that I was surrounded with. My grandmother, they called her Lady of the Drum. She was a really strong singer and a strong part of the drum group. She passed away when I was really young, but she was a huge part of the drum group and she would lead, essentially.

Was that where you learned you have good voice? When did you realize, “I can sing”?

I remember always being really into music, any sort of song. Even when I was driving around in cars with my parents, they would play music and I would sing along to it. I didn’t really think that I could sing until in the past 10 years. I had some confidence issues, like I feel like all kids have. When I was in high school, I remember like thinking, I kind of like my voice. I can do this.

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You’ve been part of a few bands in Portland, drumming and singing. What made you decide to do Black Belt Eagle Scout?

I wasn’t really feeling fulfilled in the band that I was in. All the other people in the band were pretty much white people. The songwriting was essentially by white people and I was having a hard time having to explain myself, who I am as a person of color, as an Indigenous person, as a queer person. I was in that band for four years or so, and it was my top priority. I started writing Mother of My Children in the fall of 2016. I had worked on this record, but Black Belt Eagle Scout wasn’t a serious thing. Finally there was this moment where I was like, OK, I’m going to focus on this other thing that makes me feel more fulfilled. And then I really put a lot of energy into it, so much of myself.

Tell me about the album opener “Soft Stud.”

For a bit I was really afraid of doing chords for songs. I felt like they were too simple, like maybe if it’s too simple [the song] won’t be good. [For] “Soft Stud,” I was playing along to some Cat Power songs and I realized that Cat Power has this really pretty chord. And I was like, I’m gonna try and play that. 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. So a lot of the lyrics are about being a secondary partner, I guess. There is a lyric, “I know you're taken.” But "soft stud" is a term, I think, of endearment for somebody who is studly but also in this soft way. So that’s why I named it that.

You’ve said that “Indians Never Die” is about calling out colonizers. Can you talk more about that?

I can talk forever about that. I’ve just been getting so mad lately. I’ve had this idea that I want to do with some of my Native friends, [to] make these signs that say “Indian Land” on them and then also have a little section of whose land it’s on. I walk around Portland and some people have like things in their driveway that are like, “Don't park in my driveway. If you park, I’ll get you towed.” I’m just like, Fuck this. It’s all these colonizers on stolen land.

In the past several years or so Portland has been developing and there have been so many spaces that have been knocked down and built up to be these apartments that are really expensive that some people who’ve lived here for a long time can’t afford. There are people of color being pushed out of their neighborhoods. It’s just disgusting and it’s heartbreaking to see. So I wrote this song during a time when I was just really upset about that.

Standing Rock was happening and I had such an emotional experience with that. It’s colonization, re-colonization, happening over and over and over again. I remember crying like reading about it and just crying in my bedroom in my bed, just being so hurt. Native people experience so much trauma in their lives, from generations. This country is still so young. Two, three generations ago in my family, that’s when all of the boarding school stuff was happening, killing people was happening, all this genocide. That’s not long ago. And so this song, I was trying to... I mean, it’s a pretty song. I just felt like I was sad for the earth, it felt like it was like being wasted, like all of the people who are here on this land, they’re wasting it.

It’s interesting, the way that I talk about the songs versus what the songs actually are. Like, the song is really beautiful and it’s really melodic, but behind that I have this anger. The lyrics are like, “Wasting, wasting, wasting away. Do you ever notice what’s around you?” I feel like some people are so like tunnel vision, they don’t really see where you are, what land you’re taking up, what your environment is.

When I play shows normally I talk about this song and I talk about the importance of caring for your environment and also bring up that this is colonized land. Sometimes those statements at shows are hard to make. But I think it’s really important because people need to be reminded. And then the title of it, “Indians Never Die,” I was trying to say how Native people, we’ve always been on this land and we will always continue to be on this land. No matter what. In this land, in the beginning, we cared for it. There’s so much genocide that happened. We still cared for it.

So I have to always say this, "Indians Never Die." I’m not trying to be disrespectful to Native people, because there are a lot of ceremonies for death and how people die. When I say “Indians Never Die,” I mean it as a metaphor in the way that we’re gonna always care for this land. Even though you kill us, we’re going to be here caring for the land.

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“So many people in United States think that Native people don’t exist. So many people think that Native people are all dead.”

Do you ever have anxiety about being tokenized in the music industry?

No. And it’s because so many people in United States think that Native people don’t exist. So many people think that Native people are all dead. I don’t have a problem with being identified as a Native person because that’s a counter to people’s views about Native people like they’re something of the past. No, we’re here, present. So that’s why I don’t have a problem with if someone is like, “Oh, you’re sort of being tokenized.” Like, I don’t care. I’m showing up for my people. I’m here for us.

A lot of people will wear headdresses or a Native costume for Halloween as if we’re something that doesn’t exist anymore. I actually was talking to some publicists before I chose my publicist, and one of the publicists brought that up. I thought about it because at that time I didn’t have formed opinions about it. But afterwards I was like, You know, it doesn’t bother me. Yeah, 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.

How do you go about writing your lyrics?

Most of the time I’ll just start playing either guitar or this small Casio keyboard thing, but mostly guitar, and I’ll just start singing. A lot of the stuff on the album is just stuff that popped out of my mouth. Sometimes I’ll sing a poem, but sometimes it’ll be these weird words. I like the aspect of having the origin of the song be present; having the very first time I played it, the very first thing I sang, having that stick. I’ll keep those things just because I think it’s a beautiful moment, when you’re creating, the very first time that that happens. Sometimes it won’t really be comprehensible. But there’s this beauty in that moment and carrying it forth. So, 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.

That makes me think of hearing you singing, “Without you” over and over with this longing on the song “Mother of My Children.”

Yeah, that song is the name of the album. “Mother of My Children” is a pinpoint of this is actually a person. It's like a heartbreak song. I wrote it about a person who the album’s about who I always for the longest time thought [was] going to be the mother of my children. In those lyrics, there’s something about lightness and darkness, having a good time in your life and having a bad time in your life and having this person always there. And so I think that song is trying to come to terms that this person wasn’t going to be the mother of my children but they’re always going to be there in my life. And they still are, in real life. But in terms of the song, [it’s] having having that moment of, My desire is to have you as the mother of my children. But that’s not happening and it’s OK because you will always be there no matter what.

But then there’s also “I Don't Have You in My Life.”

That’s an angry song. I think there’s a lot of anger in being sad. There are a lot of songs on this album that are about that heartbreak time in my life. A lot of the stuff is about sadness. And I say that laughing because I don’t feel that way anymore. I wrote it a while ago and time has passed and my life has processed in a different direction.

What does your music that you’re working on now sound like since you’re in this other phase of your life?

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It’s different. 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. [It’s about] how love is really special, all kinds 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.

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Black Belt Eagle Scout is shaking up the sound of Pacific Northwest sadness