Underscore News/Report for America
As a kid, Katherine Paul loved traveling with her mother, who spoke at anthropological lectures around the world. This year, the Swinomish tribal citizen is hitting the road once more — to launch her first European tour in support of her third album.
Paul grew up among the songs of her Coast Salish culture. She says the songs and teachings built a strong foundation for the role music would play in her life. Today, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Black Belt Eagle Scout, is the only Indigenous musician signed to the Saddle Creek record label.
On Friday, Feb. 10, Paul performed at a sold out show at Portland’s Aladdin Theater.
The rumble of the waiting crowd transformed to a roar as the opening act, the all-Diné band Weedrat, took the stage.
Among the 600 audience members was a young boy with a mohawk, who adjusted his earphones as he weaved through the crowd. In the front row sat two elderly women, both wearing Dr. Martens. Gleeful with pride when the band took the stage, they jolted in unison as lead singer, Becki Jones, opened the show with her signature sound, driving punk rock and politically charged lyrics.
“I could not pass up opening up for my sister,” Weedrat front woman Becki Jones said after the show. “We connected over music, especially being Native frontwomen in a band, [because] you don’t see that often.”
Friday’s show doubled as an album release party, where Paul launched her third album, “The Land, the Water, the Sky.”
Paul wrote the album after moving home to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in LaConner, Wash. in 2020. Now 33, she often revisits the same trails she did as a child, this time with a deeper understanding of her connection to the land.
Paul said she could feel the land calling her home, to a place of islands lush with Western red cedar, where verdant forest meets the deep-blue waters of the Salish Sea. The curving coastlines remind Paul that the land holds the memories of her ancestors. She thinks about her grandmother, who once looked out at the same islands.
“I was supposed to be here,” Paul said. “I was supposed to walk along these paths and this hiking area on the islands. I was supposed to be here because there's a specific kind of healing that takes place.”
Paul, who identifies as queer and uses she/they pronouns, says the songs on “The Land, the Water, the Sky” are reflections on the collective trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the healing she found by returning home.
“Paying attention to all of the sounds and the feelings I get when I am immersed in trails of cedar trees and canoeing out on the water deeply grounds me and strengthens my bond to my lineage of the Swinomish tribe,” Paul said. “I wanted the delicateness of these moments to meet the intense reality of the history of my people. I like to imagine my blood — all of my ancestors — running through our homelands freely and powerfully.”
Becoming Black Belt Eagle Scout
Paul began her music career in third grade, playing piano and flute for her school band. As a teen, she gravitated to rock, teaching herself to play guitar by watching bootleg VHS tapes of Nirvana. She attended the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland and performed at DIY venues and festivals in Anacortes, Wash.
After graduating in 2007, Paul moved to Portland to attend Lewis & Clark College. She double majored in anthropology and sociology and minored in gender studies.
“I moved to Portland mainly because of the music scene there,” Paul said. “At the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, I had a huge fan base of musicians. A lot of the musicians were also trying to figure out their identities as queer people.”
She then went on to teach and work at the camp, eventually becoming co-chair of the organization’s board of directors.
Over her 13 years in Portland, Paul built a community of music enthusiasts. She went on tour with bands like Y La Bamba, Forest Park, Genders and Helvetia. She also worked at local music venues Mississippi Studios and Revolution Hall, where she learned the practical details of the music industry.
After playing with other bands, Paul decided to settle down and form Black Belt Eagle Scout. The band came at a pivotal moment in her life. Paul’s lifelong mentor, the musician Geneviève Elverum, died from pancreatic cancer in 2016. As a way to process the grief, Paul channeled her feelings into the raw songs that would become her 2017 solo debut, "Mother of My Children." She released her second album, "At the Party With My Brown Friends," two years later.
Creating "The Land, the Water, the Sky"
At first, Paul says, she didn’t even realize she was writing a third album. At the beginning of the pandemic, she started writing and recording songs in her bedroom in Portland. When she moved back home to the Swinomish reservation, she kept writing.
Still, Paul says, “I didn't think anything of it.”
“I would play songs here and there; I would just record them in my voice memos on my phone,” Paul said.
In January 2021, Paul participated in a conversation for Portland State University about music production and gear with Divide and Dissolve band member Takiaya Reed, a Black and Cherokee producer and musician who, like Paul, identifies as queer.
The pair meshed well, and the creative juices started flowing. Before they knew it, they were working on a five-song EP. But that didn’t seem like enough.
“We came to this moment where we're like, ‘Should this be more than a five-song EP?’” Paul said with a chuckle. “We were both like, ‘Yeah, this should be more than a five-song EP — this should be a full-length [record].’”
Paul dove into songwriting, plotting out which songs would help tell the overall story of the album.
“I started going back into my voice memos,” Paul said. “And I started finding all of these gems where I was like, ‘That's a song, that's a song, that's a song.’”
Over the course of six months, the pair recorded, mixed and mastered the album. Through this process Paul realized that she was exploring who she was. It was the first time she was living back home full-time as an adult.
When she was a kid, everyone called her Kathy. Then when she moved to Portland she went by KP, which is also her dad’s nickname. People back home began to ask who she was. That started her journey of self-discovery, healing and exploring the connection she has to place.
Paul said when the land calls, you listen. Her album, "The Land, the Water, the Sky," is a story of hope, and her response to being called home.
“I'm seeing this bucket of water and when this bucket of water just dumps out, it's all me,” Paul said. “I'm trying to heal within my own, and discover who I am as an adult. And I'm fortunate enough to have this grounding feeling of my homeland here to help me in that, and that's what came through in the songs.”
Looking for more Indigenous representation in music
When she was growing up, Paul says she didn't have many Native role models in pop culture. Instead, she found inspiration from elders and community members on her reservation.
Even as Indigenous representation is growing in TV and film, Paul said she still wishes more Indigenous people were prominent in the music industry.
“I don't really know any other Indigenous musicians who are on major indie labels,” Paul said. “I don't know if lonely is the right word, but it's challenging because I want there to be more representation within music.”
Paul hopes her story can serve as proof that if other Indigenous musicians want to make music their career, they can.
“There should be opportunities for Indigenous musicians to establish themselves, and to be working artists and working musicians if that's what they want to do,” Paul said.
Today, Paul is part of that representation. Her music has appeared on award-winning shows like “Reservation Dogs,” “Rutherford Falls” and “Sex Lives of College Girls.”
After the Feb. 10 performance in Portland, Black Belt Eagle Scout will embark on the European leg of their spring tour. Upon her return to North America in late March, Paul will make stops in Eugene, Toronto, Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
“The Land, the Water, the Sky” is due out Feb. 10 via Saddle Creek.
Lead image: Katherine Paul, who goes by KP, said she wrote her latest album after moving home to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington state. Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News / Report for America