Photo: Nate Lemuel of Darlisted Photography

Interview: Black Belt Eagle Scout guides us through her homeland and its influence on her new album

Black Belt Eagle Scout’s new album The Land, The Water, The Sky finds the artist reflecting on the way she’s reconnected with the terrain and the history of where she was raised. Rob Hakimian speaks to her about the musical and literal journey to this release.

To a lesser or greater extent, most of us reconnected with the natural world during the pandemic. However, for Katherine Paul (KP to her friends), it was a much deeper and more spiritual connection. Moving back to her native Swinomish land in Washington state, not only did she get the benefit of being surrounded by some of the most awe-inspiring natural scenery on the planet, she was back among the land of her ancestors and the teachings she was brought up with. 

Overwhelming in a multitude of ways, this return to her homeland and reconnection to her roots formed the undercurrent of her third album as Black Belt Eagle Scout, The Land, The Water, The Sky. An expansive, inspiring and powerful work, the album finds KP forming a metaphysical connection with the environment and alchemically turning that into sounds, melodies and words that gives us listeners an idea of the depth of feeling between her and her world.

We had the pleasure of speaking to KP all about her gorgeous home and the way that The Land, The Water, The Sky came together. She was full of laughter and positivity as we spoke, but always clear and serious when speaking about her ancestry, resulting in a joyous and fascinating conversation. Read on, below.

The Land, The Water, The Sky was greatly inspired by your move back home to the Swinomish Reservation in Washington, did you move because of the pandemic?

I was gonna do it anyway, but not so soon; I wasn’t planning on doing it right away. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, maybe in like a year or two I probably would have moved back.

Why did you want to?

Well, my parents live here, and they were experiencing some health issues. My mom had this frozen shoulder situation, and they just needed some extra help. It was one of those things where we’re just sitting in our little kind of shitty apartment in Portland thinking ‘What are we gonna do?’ 

I got married in 2019, right before the pandemic, and my partner, he has two kids. And so we were just envisioning, ‘what do we want in our life? What is it that we want to do next?’ And I brought up the option like, ‘well, you know, we could move back to where I’m from.’ It’s something I always wanted to do. It’s something that would bring a lot of relief to us, because it’s really beautiful in this area. There’s a lot more space, I’m connected to my community and to my culture, and to my family here. And so we just sort of started like that.

I guess a lot of people, during the pandemic they kind of reconnected with nature and outdoor spaces a lot, but I feel like everyone’s experience pales in comparison to what you have out there.

I mean, it is really beautiful here. I’m not gonna lie. It’s incredible. Washington has so many different climates and different types of nature. It’s like a rain forest, there’s a mountain range, there’s kind of desert area, there’s the islands, the water. So there’s a lot of access to different kinds of nature where I’m from and the surrounding areas. I live like right on the water, in the inland island areas. And so it was a lot of hiking around island scenes and being able to reconnect in that way.

So two and a half years since he moved back, are you getting itchy feet, or do you feel like you’ve put down roots now?

I’m still starting to put down roots. I’m still trying to find my way through my community as an adult. When the pandemic was happening, my tribe didn’t do a lot of events – and usually there’s events every week – so there just wasn’t a lot to be a part of, to connect myself back to my community. So I’m still going at it a little bit and trying to get to that space, but I don’t know, I feel like maybe I’ll still always be trying to do that.

Interesting. So at what point did work start on this record? When the first seeds sprout?

In January of 2020, She Shreds magazine had this thing called “1 Riff A Day”, and so I started playing guitar every day and just was in the zone of playing guitar. Then I went on this tour and I went to a songwriting residency in early February of 2020. So I was sort of working on songwriting, in general. I didn’t really know that what I was working on was going to be an album, I was just working on things and playing guitar and singing. Doing just kind of what I would count as just fun. 

It didn’t really come into existence as an album until about two weeks or so before the first recording time. My friend Takiaya Reed, who’s in the band Divide and Dissolve, she produced the record with me. We were just going to do like a five song EP, but then we slowly were starting to realize like, ‘if we’re gonna work together and create something, maybe we should do something bigger’. And I was like, ‘I guess I could make a record. I guess so…’ So that just sort of turned into, ‘okay, we’re gonna make a record’. 

I had to look back at like the last year and a half and think like, ‘do I have enough material for something?’ And I was realizing I do; there were times when I was writing and I was documenting things that were happening in my life, and I did have really meaningful riffs that I loved; I documented it on the Voice Memo app on my phone. So I was looking back and listening and thinking ‘Yeah, this all sort of comes together and makes sense in a way’. And I picked out a bunch of things and was like, ‘these could be cohesive, these could tell some sort of story’. And that’s sort of how the album came to fruition.

That sort of story that you’re talking about is that of you reconnecting with your home?

I think so. There is that through line of connecting back to my homelands, and with that intention of trying to be grounded. I’m trying to feel the support of this area through what I create on guitar, or through what I sing in my melodies, or even in some of the lyrics.

Nice. So when you came to record it, did you want the sound to also be a bit more rugged, like the landscape? Because that’s definitely the impact I get, especially on the opening track, “My Blood Runs Through This Land”.

I definitely relied on Takia to help create that atmosphere. I was really excited to work with her because she’s in a metal band. I definitely think that she has so many incredible sounds that she creates, out of the amps that she uses and the effects pedals that she uses. That helps really create this atmosphere that I think really aligns with what the area looks like. If you saw the music video for “My Blood Runs Through This Land”, all of that is shot here in Swinomish. There’s some eeriness to it, there’s some darkness to it, but then there’s some really beautiful serene feelings in there. 

We used the Strymon “Blue Sky” pedal and we used another Strymon pedal “Sunset” a lot on this record, and they gave it this kind of lifted atmosphere, almost kind of fogginess, mistiness, as the foundation.

Yeah, I can hear that, especially with all the backing vocals as well. They always sound like wind whipping across the landscape, to me. Did you did you have a conversation about what kind of sound you wanted?

We definitely had a conversation that was about sound. We started working together because we did this talk on on Zoom during the pandemic for Portland State University. It was supposed to be like a talk about like, I’m indigenous and Takia is Black indigenous, but we just talked about gear, and we just nerded out about all the sorts of gear that we like. 

We have shared visions for what the sound is. And I think it was more so it was that connection and that feeling that we’re in alignment that we brought into the record.

“My Blood Runs Through This Land” starts with the line “I feel you’re watching me,” which is about the land around you. How does it feel to have it watch you?

Blessed. Mot like not like ‘hashtag blessed’, but spiritually blessed. Blessed to be able to have the land see me in this world.

The second track is “Sedna”, and Google tells me that’s from Inuit mythology? 

Yeah, so from my mom’s side, I’m part Iñupiaq. She was raised in Alaska. So I’ve started connecting to that side of my culture, and I’ve written about Sedna before. I wrote about these Sedna lines, which are these tattoo markings that I have on my fingers. I wrote about it in the song “You’re Me and I’m You” and I sort of wanted to continue bringing that side of myself into my work.

I grew up in Swinomish, but I also have this other part of myself, and I wanted to honor that side of my culture. Sedna is a big part of that culture, in that she made a sacrifice to bring a lot of sea creatures and food and resources to Iñupiaq people. So I just was kind of fixated on her for a bit. There had to be some sort of song about Sedna because there are also correlations with creation stories. There’s one here in the Coast Salish territory, in the Sammamish territory, of a woman sacrificing herself and going to live under the sea so that her people can thrive.

The story of Sedna seems quite dark.

Yes, it does seem dark. I think that there’s different versions where it seems like she’s happy to go, but then also, maybe she’s not. What I wanted to focus on in the story is a part that’s in every version of the story, where her dad cuts her fingers off. I love my dad so much, I can’t imagine him doing that. And so I was thinking about that connection between father and daughter. I was trying to bring forth those feelings that Sedna may have had. I don’t know if they’re true or not, but that’s just my imagination.

So the lines on your fingers are where hers were cut off? That seems like a pretty dark thing to be reminded of.

Well, I mean, she brought food to our people. It was a sacrifice, but she’s a reason why we have food.

Interesting. I wanted to ask what is a “Salmon Stinta”?

The word “stinta” means “love” in the Klamath language. So there’s a painting on one of my seven inches called “Swinomish Stinta” and it means “Swinomish love”. t’s a painting that my husband made for me. I wrote “Salmon Stinta” about that painting and what I saw within the painting. One day I was looking at it and playing guitar and I saw salmon and all these different… I was trying to kind of like interpret what I saw in song and lyrics and melody.

The second verse about “all I see is driving me away / screaming in the distant sea”, that doesn’t sound so peaceful.

That specific time, moving home, sometimes it can be challenging, sometimes it can be beautiful. Those lyrics I think were about feelings of having challenging times and trying to figure out still who I am. It’s to kind of represent a feeling of frustration and challenge.

And then you’ve got Phil Elverum singing on there!

Yeah! I’ve known him for a long time because he lives on my homelands. His family has lived here for a bit, so I grew up seeing him around at DIY venues in Anacortes, and I’ve known him for a while. And I just was like, ‘I want him to sing on this’. I was like, ‘I’m just gonna ask him if he would sing on it, because I hear him seeing what I’m singing’. So he recorded it, and sent it over to us and it sounds really beautiful. I loved inviting him in to sing on the song and making it something a little special.

Yeah, I know what you mean. There’s something perfect about his voice for that song. It’s very soothing, in a way. 

On “Nobody” you say “nobody sang it for me like I wanna sing it to you”. Is singing, for you, the ultimate way to express your feelings?

No, it’s a piece of something, I think. You can sing through an instrument. I think that you can sing through the drums. So maybe it is; I think that singing is not just through your voice. I think it can come through in other forms and mediums. 

I always like think back to this thing. I’ve said this a lot, but I think it’s important message to share with people. A teaching from my family is that you sing through your heart, sing from your heart in a good way. And that’s the way you’re supposed to do things when you share. 

So is that the kind of thing you’re thinking about in that line? Singing it with the right intention?

Yes, for sure. Singing it from a good place and with that right intention. I didn’t grow up with a band like the band that I’m in. There was Buffy Sainte Marie and there was Redbone, but they were from a previous time. So those lyrics are kind of like that honest, like, well, “nobody sang it for me, but I want to sing it to you”, because I recognize that I have this opportunity to play music, and to be uplifted by various publications, labels, and other things. I feel incredibly honored and privileged to be able to have this and I want to do it in a right way. 

I don’t see a lot of other native musicians with the same opportunities I have. And sometimes, it feels lonely; I wish there were more people to help share whatever messages that they want to share. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about who they are, it could be about whatever, but just more representation of indigenous people playing music. And so there’s an element of that too, in that line, but also in the other lines like, “I feel it in my bones / like the lines you carve for me”. All those are about my community. Because even though there wasn’t really anybody that I could see that looked like me playing music, growing up, there are people still in my community that were setting positive examples, being role models. And those are the people that I looked up to, that I still do, that bring me inspiration and bring me this sense of, ‘keep going on’, you know, ‘you can do this in life’. 

Since we’re on this stuff, I was wondering, do you think that there is more representation like yourself, that people can look up to now? Or do you feel like you’re still quite alone in that?

There’s definitely a lot more representation in things like TV, and I see a lot of musicians getting opportunities. But when I say a lot, it’s probably like, 20. And to me, that’s a lot. It seems like a lot because it’s exciting, but in comparison to other people, it’s not not a lot at all.

I wanted to ask about the line “Wanna see me tear up the fancy dance?” What does that look like?

Oh, fancy dance is a form of dancing at a powwow. There’s a there’s a shawl and all this really beautiful regalia. I was just trying to envision the coolest looking girl on the powwow floor just dancing away, feeling just blissful and whatnot.

I think that works because it’s a fast song; it’s heart racing exciting. What does “snagging on my birthday” mean?

Oh, snagging it’s kind of like a native slang. It means making out.

Okay, almost like snogging?

Yeah, snogging! Just replace the O with an A.

The next track is “Sčičudᶻ (a narrow place)”. Why was this place special enough to be commemorated in this song?

It’s an island, but it’s connected to the land. I think at one point it was like a disconnected island. It’s this wooded area, there’s trees, there’s berries, and if you hike up to a certain outlook area, you see all of the mountains, the river systems, all of the beautiful land. And then if you go down, there’s this beach cove where you can hang out on the beach. And there’s all these other smaller lookouts where you can look out to the other islands. It’s just a really beautiful place.

During the pandemic I was going there pretty much every day. I got to know it really well. I could walk there in like 30 minutes or so. I would just go there and be surrounded.

Why did you put “Don’t Give Up” at the end of the album?

I wanted that to be the last song on on the record because I wanted everyone to sort of realize that all the songs that I’ve written honor this connection to where I’m from. Some of it’s beautiful, some of it’s powerful, some of it’s heartbreaking, some of it maybe is romantic. But what matters in the album and as a whole is that it’s important to go back to the land, it’s important to go back to the water, the sky, and remember that all of these things, for me, are what helped me and are what heal me and are what lead me to keep going in my life. It’s important, it’s a reminder that all these things are here for me. As a Swinomish person and as an Iñupiaq person, all these things are here for me. 

The Land, The Water, The Sky is out now through Saddle Creek (listen/purchase). Catch Black Belt Eagle Scout on Bandcamp, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.