This interview originally appeared in the print version of She Shreds Issue #16, which was released in December 2018.
In an era that demands increased visibility, Katherine Paul (who goes by KP for short) channels her own autonomy as Black Belt Eagle Scout. Paul is a spokesperson for both herself and the histories that she embodies as a queer indigenous woman. She is adamant about using her newfound musical platform to encourage a dialogue about indigenous resistance, climate change, phases of grief, and most importantly, acknowledging the struggles of those around you.
Surrounded by the waters of the Skagit Bay, Paul grew up 68 miles north of Seattle in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. This landscape, a major influence in Paul’s life and music, is one that feels the effects of climate change through its waters and serves as a historical home and meeting ground for several tribes and bands that are native to the area.
Mother of My Children, Paul’s debut album that was re-released on Saddle Creek Records in September, is a window into a particular time in her life. After a series of heartbreaks, including a disconnection with her best friend and the passing of her mentor Geneviève Castrée, Paul used songwriting as a tool to both heal and document her experience of sudden loss. Paul admits that she plays music less for the product of a finished song and more to release her most intense feelings.
She Shreds: When did you first become passionate about songwriting?
Katherine Paul: I was interested in songwriting in high school but I didn’t quite know how to do it or know that I could do it. It was mainly me just messing around. I don’t think I found that passion until I was in college and playing in a post-rock band called Forest Park. The music was really emotional, and my best friend and I played guitar together. I felt like I was good at guitar. Before that, I felt like I was okay at guitar but wasn’t feeling like I could master it. I wasn’t quite there yet. When I started playing in Forest Park, that’s when it happened.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
When I was in high school, I was really into Nirvana, Hole, all the riot grrrl and grunge stuff from Washington, because that’s where I’m from. I learned to play guitar because I loved those bands. They inspired me to pick it up. My parents bought me a guitar and I started trying to play. I’d look up chords on the internet. I’d watch videos of the bands to try to piece it together.
Do you remember the first songs you learned how to play?
The very first song I learned how to play was “Doll Parts” by Hole. It’s really easy, like three chords. I remember trying to do it, [and] it worked out, and I was really excited. I was like, “Whoa, I can play a song.” [Laughs.]
How did Black Belt Eagle Scout develop as a project?
After Forest Park, I joined another band called Genders where I played drums. I had stopped being a guitarist in a band and I really missed playing guitar and creating music that way. I would [eventually] play guitar by myself. I would write and it would sort of be what Forest Park was, but not totally.
This is probably the fourth year that I’ve been putting energy into Black Belt Eagle Scout. It started out as me just playing my own songs. I tried to play with people but it always seemed more like a solo project. It wasn’t up until two years ago that I decided I was going to focus on it seriously. I wasn’t really having a good time playing in Genders; I was just drumming and I was missing songwriting, missing having more of a melodic role in things. That’s when I decided to focus on my own stuff. I kept writing songs and it turned into Mother of My Children.
One song [on Mother of My Children] was written before 2016, but the majority of them were written in a small chunk of time. I just wanted to play music and write songs, but I didn’t really know that I wanted to put out an album until I had those songs. I felt really strongly about them; they were really meaningful to me and I knew they were really good. It made me emotional when I played them. I thought, “I want to record this, to have a physical [collection] that could be an album and have other people listen to it.”
Do you see songwriting as a healing process?
Totally. I don’t really play music to write songs; I play music to get feelings out. What comes of that is sometimes a song; sometimes it’s not. Mother of My Children is all therapy. It’s all feeling coming out through music. I just kind of happened upon the songs. I’ll sit down, strum something, and start singing, and it will morph into however I’m feeling. It’s not like, “Here are the chords, here are the words.” I don’t go at it like that; it’s more natural.
What was the recording process for Mother of My Children like for you?
I loved it. The place where I recorded, [The Anacortes Unknown Recording Studio], is really peaceful. It’s this big, old church that’s now used as a recording studio, a storage space for a bunch of records, and a venue. It’s beautiful, really echoing, and it’s right near the water of the inlets of the Salish Sea. Anacortes is about a 15 minute drive from my parents house, so I stayed with my them while I was recording. It helped me a lot financially. I paid for the whole thing myself so it was a lot to save up for.
I booked the studio ahead of time because I wanted to give myself a deadline. I had all the songs. I felt really strongly about them, and I needed to be in the process of recording and documenting them. I tracked the drums first on this really old tape deck. We recorded the other instruments on top of that. The studio is full of gear: there are a bunch of organs, drum machines, and all this old stuff that was at my fingertips to use. There’s a vibraphone and a weird wobbly piano on the record.
It was exhausting. I’d come home every day after recording physically and mentally exhausted. We’d work for eight hours, sometimes 10, recording and trying to figure out the right sounds and the right take. I felt like I needed to go through that experience and strain what I had. I gave it all in that time period, and then it was done. I’m proud of what happened there.
Were there any guitars or pedals that you used during the recording that you were excited about?
For the distortion I used a Blues Driver, which I wasn’t using at the time because I wanted to experiment with other pedals, but I recently brought it back into my set-up. I like the overdrive sound. I played through one of the studio’s amps. I can’t remember what kind it was but it was a Fender tube amp. The guitar I used was my own, [an Ernie Ball Music Man St. Vincent in Polaris White].
What does the intersection between indigenous identity and indie rock of the Pacific Northwest look like for you?
I only know a handful of indigenous musicians in the Northwest who are playing in bands. Recently, I’ve met some folks in Albuquerque, New Mexico and they were telling me that there’s more of a scene down there that includes a lot more indigenous and Diné musicians. I want to go there and experience that community. Growing up, I felt like I was the only native person playing music. And when I would meet somebody who was native, it would be this really amazing thing. It wasn’t totally disheartening because I had a really big group of friends.
I sort of gained this perspective, like if I would have grown up [in Albuquerque], it would have been different because of the culture. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was surrounded by native people, but I felt like there weren’t a lot of native people playing music. I had this community that was super supportive of me, but never could totally see who I was. I’ve always been around white people who play [this kind of] music, and I have to try and find my own community of people of color within that.
Was there a specific message you were going for in the imagery of the music video for your song “Indians Never Die”?
I really wanted to point out how beautiful the land is, how beautiful Mother Earth is, and how much we connect to it as indigenous people. There’s a lot of terrible stuff happening in the world right now. I felt like what’s happening with Black Belt Eagle Scout—getting signed to a record label and getting a publicist and booking agent—those are privileges that I could take advantage of to try and do good indigenous work.
With the video, I knew someone was going to write about it. I knew people would ask questions about it. I knew it was going to be visible. I wanted to have a representation of what I am trying to portray in my music, which is to care about the environment, to care about indigenous people, to stand up for them and to stand up for who we are.
I am from the Swinomish Indian Reservation; that’s where I grew up, and that’s my dad’s side. My mom is Iñupiat, from Alaska. I basically grew up on a really big island surrounded by water. The coastline is very special to me. That’s where I feel the most at home, the most comfortable. I chose that as the representation for the video because it’s a part of who I am. It was land that my ancestors traveled through and traded with. It’s supposed to be a protest song, a political song saying, “Hey, pay attention to what’s going on right now. Pay attention to what’s happening to the environment.”