Black Belt Eagle Scout is the project of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Katherine Paul, who grew up in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington. From an early age, KP was inspired by her family’s native traditions of singing and drumming, and taught herself how to play guitar by watching bootleg Hole and Nirvana VHS tapes. In 2007, they moved to Portland to attend Lewis & Clark College and stayed for 13 years, becoming involved with the Rock & Roll Camp for Girls and playing in several bands before forming Black Belt Eagle Scout. Following the release of 2019’s At the Party With My Brown Friends, their sophomore LP under the moniker, KP moved back to her homeland, an experience that has largely informed her arresting new album for Saddle Creek, The Land the Water, the Sky.
While continuing to meditate on themes of grief, loneliness, and identity that have permeated their previous releases, the album moves further in the direction of hope and healing, rooting itself in KP’s connection with the natural world to conjure a beauty that can feel hazy, mystical, and utterly breathtaking. It’s both empowering on a spiritual level and an ambitious expansion of the typically ethereal Black Belt Eagle Scout sound, which KP allows herself to get lost and revel in, sometimes reducing her voice to a gentle, worldless hum while inviting others into their process. The statements she does make, whether directly or implicitly, are deeply resonant: “When the end is near/ I will hold you dear,” she sings on ‘Sedna’, “In the dawn of all my layers.”
We caught up with Katherine Paul for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about The Land, the Water, the Sky artwork, the album’s guitar tones, her journey of returning home, and more.
Because the music on The Land, the Water, the Sky is so visually evocative, I wanted to ask you about the artwork for the advance singles: ‘Don’t Give Up’, ‘My Blood Runs Through This Land’, ‘Nobody’, and ‘Spaces’. They’re all paintings by your partner, Camas Logue, who also did the ‘Loss & Relax’ single in 2019. Is there a thread that you feel like runs through them?
I think it was just a natural request of mine to ask Camas to be a part of the process, just because he was there alongside me – in my writing of the album, moving with me. A lot of the album is about reinstalling what it feels like to be home, so it just made sense to include him in this way. I do all the songwriting myself, but he plays the drums in my band, so he plays the parts that I write. He’s this incredible visual artist and painter, he’s learning to carve with my dad, because my dad is a wood carver and he makes story poles and wall hangings and all this stuff. Those paintings in particular are from the land, because he used elements of the earth from his homelands to create them. I also wanted to uplift his art alongside my art, because what we do is in partnership. I think it’s really awesome that I write the drum parts and then he learns them and plays them on tour, so I want to respect his artistry like he does with his paintings, and I want to combine them all.
As for the album cover, it’s kind of a shift from your previous albums in terms of the framing and the palette. When you look at them side by side, how do you feel like they capture your progression as an artist?
It’s funny, because when I did the second album, I didn’t realize that it matched the first album. The colours are kind of similar, and I was like, “Is that just the colour that I like?” And then I realized I actually do really like that colour. This last album, I wanted to do it during this time when the sun is setting and there’s that pink that happens, it’s kind of like cotton candy. I wanted to try and do that, but it didn’t happen, so the album could have potentially also been the same color. [laughs] But then it just ended up being blue, and there are some aspects of that pinkish color in some of the other elements. With the album title, I wanted to be able to show in a visual way what that was, what I was singing about and singing to. And so, I just kept seeing myself in water. Water is really important to my culture and to my people, and to the specific region of where I’m from. We spend a lot of time on the water – there’s this thing called canoe journeys, it’s a really big part of our culture and way of life. So I was like, “I need to be in the water.”
I knew I wanted to be photographed in some way on the cover, but I didn’t realize that you’re going to see the behind shot, from my perspective of looking out. That was when I started working with my friend Evan Atwood, who is really creative and an incredible photographer. They did all of my music videos for this album campaign, and they’ve done two other music videos for previous albums. We just worked really well together, and Evan took what I was thinking and brought their own creativity to the shoot. The thing that I love the most about working with Evan is it’s very spontaneous. We have this idea, and what feels good is it tends to happen naturally. It wasn’t one of those things where a month beforehand, the schedule is set, the time is set. It was like, “Let’s just go here.” And Camas helped, too – there’s this red string that connects to the back of the album, and it’s also me, but you can see my face and I’m looking this other way. The red string was Camas’ input and suggestion, because it was used in our wedding. Within his culture, you tie this red rope around each other’s arms. Evan was like, “I feel like you should be holding something.” And Camas was like, “We have this red string still.” So it just ended up coming together in this very spontaneous, beautiful, natural way.
The album centers around your journey of returning home. In that process, did you find new meaning in the idea of home, or was it more about remembering and reconnecting with the places and stories that were already tied to it?
I always knew that I was going to return home and come back to live with my people full-time. I just didn’t know it would happen this soon, and it would happen in this way, the way it happened with the pandemic and needing to come back to take care of my parents. Wanting, also, to get out of Portland and wanting to go back to this beautiful place where I’m from and having that joy back into my life of connecting with the land and the water. The time in which I moved home was very interesting, because had I moved home in any other time, I would have had a different experience. You couldn’t hang out with people as much, you couldn’t go to large gatherings, you couldn’t socialize – it pushed me to go out into the land, and to get back to my roots and what’s important to the foundation of my people. I probably would have done that like if it had been a different time, but it wouldn’t have been so abundant and so needed.
There’s something about the guitar sound on this album that has a kind of unwavering quality to it, almost like it’s an extension of yourself while also mirroring the natural forces that you’re singing about. Could you talk about your connection to the guitar as an instrument and the role it played on this album?
A lot of the guitar tones in the album and the feel of the guitar was because I worked with a really incredible producer. Her name is Takiaya Reed, and she plays in this metal band called Divide and Dissolve. She brought these particular pedals that I think matched what I was trying to have the songs be about. We used a Stryman Big Sky – that was really foundational in the sound of the album, a lot of those reverb sounds I feel like matched how you look at the land. You can see it in the music video for ‘My Blood Runs Through This Land’ and ‘Nobody’, it’s really foggy at times. And ‘Spaces’, if you look at the water, it’s really sparkly. I think it was also really helpful that we were recording it in my homelands, too. We recorded it at a studio that was 20 minutes away from where I lived. Being in the place where the songs were written, that the songs are written about, helped immensely with crafting that foundational sound of the guitars. I felt really supported to be able to use that kind of mystical, magical essence of the sound and really lean in and tune into what I wanted to channel out into the recording.
Did a lot of the songs also start with just you and the guitar? What was it like to see them evolve in this way?
Yeah, I write all of my sounds starting off with guitar and vocals. Guitar is very central to my songwriting. I sing within my songs, but I also try and put this same sort of singing energy into the instrumentation, and definitely into the guitar playing. I think that’s why some of my songs don’t have a lot of lyrics, and some of the songs have more melodies, is because I want to be able to have these moments with guitar or with the keyboard or with the drums, where those instruments can sing as well. It just comes down to what my dad said to me, which his dad said to him, which is: when we sing in our culture, you sing from your heart. You have to be in a good place to do it, you have to sing in a meaningful way. So that also goes into creating the guitar lines in particular, is coming from a good place.
‘Treeline’ is one of my favorite tracks on the album for that reason, how all the subtle textures unfold and match the pensive delivery of the lyrics. What went into the making of that song?
I think ‘Treeline’ is probably one of the most artistic and dark songs on the album – maybe even the only darker song. The guitar line came from this time when I was doing a cover of a Geneviève Castrée song. I was asked to do a cover of one of her songs and I chose my favorite song of hers, it’s called ‘Masks’. In that song, she does this kind of loop [sings vocal], so I was in that mindset at that time. I remember playing a show at a record shop in Boise, Idaho, and I was checking my guitar and went to this different key that I really love playing in. And I just put down something that had the same feel of her vocals in that song. That’s sort of where it originated.
The reason why the song is so dark – with this album, I decided that I don’t really want to talk very much about the darkness, because I feel like sometimes people will take tragic stories and boost up the tragedy, when really it’s just one song on the album, and the album itself is a lot about healing and hope. But that song, a big part of moving back home in the pandemic – yes, I was able to be a part of nature and have that connection to nature, but it was also very lonely. I struggle with depression and anxiety, so a lot of that song was talking about what those feelings that come up from depression and anxiety mean for me. I was learning about how, when you think about depression and anxiety in your life, you can sort of other it from you and create this separation, like it’s a person, it’s this thing. So that song is about is about depression and about anxiety being its own person. And then it goes into, like, I wish that I would have told on this anxiety and this depression, I wish I would have said something about it, because maybe I wouldn’t be feeling this way, and maybe the song wouldn’t be in existence.
The closing track, ‘Don’t Give Up’, begins by recognizing “slow, important love.” How did you settle on those two adjectives?
When I was thinking about those lyrics, I was trying to think about what love means to me in the long run of things, and that sometimes, it doesn’t always have to be this fast, romantic thing. Really, if you think about loving something or someone, there’s beauty in it being a slow process, because you get to enjoy it more. And there’s beauty in it having importance in your life. I was thinking about loving my family, loving my partner, loving my community, and how I want that love to be extended – I want it to last almost forever, or continue on. And how that aspect of love in general is a reason to live, a reason to continue. I think sometimes, because I struggle with mental health issues, I think about, like, what are the rates of suicide within native communities – I was learning about a lot of suicides within native communities during the pandemic, a time when you just could not be around people and it was really hard. And so, I just was trying to think about, what is something that keeps me going? And it’s love, but in this very slow way, in this way that’s really meaningful, and this way that I know it will always be there.
With the album being out in the world, do you feel a new appreciation for the things that make you feel grounded?
A big thing that has been a part of my life lately is meditation and taking time for myself. That’s one of the reasons why I feel like I have the tools to know when I need a moment, when I need to just sit and be quiet, when I need to breathe; knowing the importance of breathing and how that affects my nervous system. Knowing, if I do yoga or if I stretch today, I’ll feel a lot better than if I’m stiff and dehydrated. The fact that I know that grounding is something that I need, it just helps in the long run of things. When my nervous system is calm, there’s a lot more capacity and space to appreciate things. Even if they suck, you know. Like, for instance, if you’re traveling and your flight’s delayed, even those inconveniences – having the tools to ground yourself makes those things a lot easier to deal with, and makes having appreciation just for life in general, for me, a lot more visible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.