You can go home again

Katherine Paul of Black Belt Eagle Scout finds new sounds in her Swinomish homelands

Credit: Nate Lemuel / Darklisted Photography

Katherine “KP” Paul didn’t mean to write an album in the uncertain summer of 2020, but homecomings have a knack for surprise. Known by band moniker Black Belt Eagle Scout, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist spent 13 years embedded in Portland’s indie-rock scene before moving back to her ancestral homelands of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington’s Salish Sea, where her new full-length The Land, The Water, The Sky snuck up on her. 

Reconnecting to her people and her land in the small community — the reservation and nearby town of La Conner are only a few thousand strong collectively — yielded unexpected inspiration for Paul. The return came as she was reframing not only her life, moving with her partner and his children to be closer to her then-ailing parents, but also her relationship to music as a career during the height of the pandemic. 

Paul’s resulting third LP as Black Belt Eagle Scout, released last month on Saddle Creek, documents this turbulent time in her life: the heaviness of trauma and the lightness of healing, the melancholy of change and the comfort of community. It also chronicles a connection to the land and sea around her, and the generations of ancestors who walked those paths. 

Boulder Weekly spoke with Paul about uprooting, coming home again, and accidentally making a record about it. 

Editor’s note: The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.   

Black Belt Eagle Scout performs at the Larimer Lounge in Denver on Tuesday, April 4. Photo by Nate Lemuel / Darklisted Photography.

July of 2020 [when you returned to the Swinomish Reservation] was a really turbulent time. Did the pandemic and everything else terrifying going on in the world make a huge life change like that easier or harder for you?

I don’t know if it was easier or harder; it just seemed necessary to come back. It became very apparent I wasn’t going to be able to do my job as a touring musician for a while, so I had to think like, “What do I want to do now?” And luckily, I have experience working for nonprofits and event planning and things like that, so I sort of leaned on that and started searching for a job, and then I found a job, which also coincided with moving back. It was sort of just, like, “Let’s change our lives.” Which doesn’t necessarily seem that scary, because I feel like I’m the kind of person that can be very spontaneous. 

One thing that sort of triggered the move right away was that my parents were having health issues, and they really needed somebody to help them. They are thankfully better, but at that moment, it was sort of like, “Well, I need to go back home, and it’s gonna be a lot better than living in Portland.” It was a teeny-tiny apartment because we were on the road so much … the cheapest place we [could] afford. My partner [Camas Logue] plays in my band, and he also has two kids, so we [thought] maybe we should just move as a family and figure out what we’re going to do. 

How does it feel to live there now versus when you were a kid?

It feels the same, honestly. I remember when I moved home, it was kind of a sigh of relief — like, this is where I’m from, this is who I am. But I feel like it also comes with this awareness of all the things that are happening politically within my community, culturally, socially, that I didn’t necessarily understand the nuances of when I was a kid. It just brings more knowledge, living here as an adult. It’s aging, it’s growing, it’s becoming wiser. You’re on your track to becoming an elder. 

So through all of this, you’re writing songs but not writing an album. The title, though — The Land, The Water, The Sky — all of those are very pervasive throughout. 

I was, I think, trying to just work and figure out what music was to me. I didn’t really have a goal in mind because I was just like, I don’t know, trying to survive. The album was just going to be an EP that I was going to make with my friend Takiaya [Reed, album producer]. It sort of evolved into … a full-length album. We had to go back and think about it in a bigger-picture way. I had to look back and was like, well, you know, I have these other songs that I’ve written. And it actually kind of fits together. 

It’s just a moment in time in my life that I’m documenting, and it happens to be about this transitional time. One of the things that was really instrumental in making this album was very much feeling supported by Takiaya and feeling like she had my back in the recording process. And I’ve said this before, but I think it’s important to my growth as a musician. On previous albums, I did all the things myself: recording, instruments, producing. It was different this time because whenever I would have an idea, she would say, “Let’s go for it.” In the past, I feel like I’ve kind of fought myself on it, like, “No, maybe I shouldn’t do that.”

I was going to say that on this album, the credits are much more collaborative than previous records. 

I guess I’ve just always sort of been scared of working with other people, not sure that they would understand where I was coming from or what I wanted to do with music. But really, Takiaya helped bridge those gaps and brought me into feeling very OK and into the process of collaborating. There are other collaborators who joined and made it better and more beautiful.

On the production side, you had this task of conveying a sense of an actual physical location, like literal geographical formations, in instrumentation. I get the sense that you’re a little bit of a gearhead guitarist, so you have this toolbox at your disposal. How do you make a studio album feel large, like open space? 

There was one very instrumental pedal that we used pretty much throughout the entire record, I think on every song. That’s a Strymon Big Sky, a reverb pedal that has so many different types of reverb on it and creates this really just kind of lush and beautiful atmosphere, which was I think the thing that lifted up the songs and made them float and kind of come together in this way. Definitely has a very kind of nature and natural vibe to the pedal. For the louder parts, for the guitar solo parts, we used another Strymon pedal, the Sunset, a really awesome overdrive pedal.

It’s also just bringing myself into connecting, playing the guitar and having that feel of what the song’s energy should be. This is the place that it’s coming from. This is where I wrote it. A couple of the songs I wrote actually in nature. The gear is there definitely, and it helps a lot, but I also feel like you have to have a certain touch to how you play and the feel of how you play as well. I definitely think about [that] when I record music.

There’s a line specifically in the song “Nobody”: “Nobody sang it for me like I wanna sing it to you.” Can I ask about your intention for that line? 

I feel like I have a love-hate relationship with that line, to be honest. Some part of me feels bad for saying it, but other parts of me feel it’s necessary. And it maybe has two meanings, I guess. Like it has more of a public-facing meaning, like “nobody sang it for me” because I didn’t have very many figures within pop culture that were Native, and it’s not any [Native person’s] fault, it’s just the lack of opportunities for Native people and some other stuff. 

That’s the public-facing part. But the inward-facing part is: That statement is very not true, based on my community. Because within my own community, there are so many singers I could look to that sang it for me all the time. The meaning that I put in there is that it’s about the public-facing side, but it’s not the inward, you know, community-oriented side.

As someone who’s currently making a forever home in your real homeland, how does that change your feelings about touring? 

I just leave, and I go on tour, and then I come back, and that’s what I do. But I kind of had a hard time — maybe it’s a little bit of separation anxiety, and maybe it’s also just, like, living through the pandemic and having all that weird shit happen where you had to stay home and couldn’t be close with people as much. I got back from a European tour literally yesterday, and I remember being afraid of leaving. I remember telling my dad, “I’m kind of nervous to leave you and Mom,” and he was like, “You gotta do it.” 

I guess I’m still trying to figure that out. You’re gonna go do this thing toward this passion of yours. But also, you have to take self-care into consideration and make sure you are happy doing this, because if you’re not, then don’t do it. There’s a lot that goes into that knowledge of leaving and then coming back. 

ON THE BILL: Black Belt Eagle Scout with Claire Glass and Adobo. 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 4, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer St., Denver. Tickets here.