Katherine Paul explores identity, grief on stirring debut
When Katherine Paul, who records and performs under the banner Black Belt Eagle Scout, started work on the rock songs that would become her 2017 debut, Mother of My Children, she didn't anticipate it reaching a wide audience.
“It's been an interesting journey. … I definitely made it first and foremost for myself, just to have something to hold onto from that time in my life,” said Paul, who visits Ace of Cups for a concert on Tuesday, May 7. “But then also I wanted to share it. That's why I asked my friend, who has this small label, Good Cheer, in Portland, [Oregon], ‘Hey, would you want to put this out for me?'”
Eventually, the album found its way to Saddle Creek, an esteemed label based in Omaha, Nebraska, which reissued the LP to largely glowing reviews last year. With the intimate, oft-heartbreaking Mother of My Children, Paul navigates grief on multiple fronts, addressing the dissolution of a relationship, the death of a friend and mentor, and the weight the musician felt as family and friends protested at Standing Rock.
“At first I was playing music just to feel better, but then I realized I was actually creating songs, and that I wanted to create an album out of it,” Paul said. “It sort of made it feel like I would have this thing, this product, of all this work I was putting into getting through life.”
On the album's title track, Paul navigates romantic loss, repeating the words “without you” like a woman still learning how to move forward alone, while the hypnotic “Indians Never Die” finds the musician exploring and uncovering strength in her indigenous roots. (Paul was raised on a small reservation, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, on the Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest.)
“As somebody who is indigenous and playing music … you don't have to be like, ‘I'm an indigenous musician,'” she said. “You can just be you. You can just be a musician. But, for me, I'm passionate about exploring my identity and being able to share that. I want other people like me who are out there to feel validated, and feel like they can play music, too. I don't know if you've seen some of the music scene, but it's still pretty white.”
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Paul gravitated toward the riot grrrl scene, an underground feminist punk movement, which allowed her space to explore aspects of her identity. “I didn't really see anybody that looked like me … but as a queer woman trying to come out, and figuring out what life could be like, I saw that within the riot grrrl scene,” Paul said.
In high school, Paul enrolled in the Rock n' Roll Camp for Girls, where, even beyond music, she said she was able to “find aspects of humanity with people who were more like me.”
“Having that feminist energy around the beginnings of me making music in bands, that was really powerful, and put a lot of things in perspective for me,” Paul said. “The narrative around it was, ‘Let's take a political stance. Let's create music. And let's do it with just girls and women.' It was finding your own crowd and passion and doing it with a purpose. … That's why I do what I do, I think.”
In addition to the riot grrrl scene, Paul's music is also influenced, spiritually at least, by the indigenous sounds she absorbed growing up in a deeply musical family.
“All of them are singers, and they have a big drum group that would travel to pow wows all over Washington,” Paul said. “I was surrounded by music, but not rock 'n' roll. It was pow wow music. It's funny, this music video I did for [recent single] ‘Loss & Relax,' I showed it to my grandmother, and she was like, ‘I watched it on repeat … and I could feel the spiritual-ness in it.' And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. It never occurred to me that was even in there.' For me, that was a thing I kept within myself.”
While Paul came up in bands, the creation of Mother of My Children was an entirely solo pursuit. The musician returned to her childhood home to record at tiny studio Anacortes Unknown, and played every instrument on the album, working alongside a recording engineer who helped set up microphones and pressed record when it came time.
“Having that experience of schlepping in all the instruments and setting everything up and layering all the parts, that was really intense for me,” said Paul, who reveled in the physicality of the experience. “I always figured I would do the recordings myself, because it was my personal music.”
Though the songs are intensely personal, Paul said recording did bring a degree of closure, allowing a clean slate for future albums. “When I finished recording,” she said, “it was kind of like, ‘OK, I'm done with that part of my life now.'”