Anyone with a guitar and YouTube channel can contribute to the rising tide of forgettable singer-songwriter projects. New artists need to immediately pull in listeners to have a lasting impact. Northwest Washington’s Katherine Paul certainly stands out as Black Belt Eagle Scout—exploring culture and personal struggle from a “radical indigenous queer feminist” angle. With only one EP under her belt, the jury’s out as to whether her music can match her persona. Paul’s debut LP, Mother of My Children, effectively navigates the rapids of her journey on a solid indie rock raft.
Mother of My Children doesn’t push the boundaries of indie rock, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in emotional resonance and arrangements. “Soft Stud” opens the record with a rusty bass riff and dynamic rock drumbeat, building to sparky synth leads and a grungy guitar solo. With few technical flourishes to fall back on, Black Belt Eagle Scout relies on intuitive melody and weighty lyrics. While her experiences with open relationships as a queer woman might seem niche, the words “Need you, Want you/ I know you’re taken” drive at the heart of hopeless romanticism.
The album’s two other singles elaborate on Paul’s less-is-more songwriting approach. The bouncy finger-picking and distant clave clicks of “Indians Never Die” couldn’t seem farther from the distorted blast that begins “Just Lie Down,” but they perfectly coincide with their respective themes of anti-colonization and angry despondence. These highs and lows remain coherent thanks to Paul’s haunting voice, and inventive percussion embellishments. Drawing from national tragedies like Standing Rock and internal turmoil, her work remains relevant, vulnerable and eye-opening.
A simplistic delayed drum machine loop ties together vibraphone modulations and dreary descending synth arpeggiations in the appropriately-titled “Keyboard.” Black Belt Eagle Scout doesn’t need fancy gear or inflated instrumentation to create an inexplicable amalgamation of 8-bit video game songs and minimalist psych-pop.
The title track exemplifies the evocative nature of her limited sonics. Her spectral singing commingles with an expansive soundscape of suspended cymbals and flutter-picked guitars. “Was in song/ I first sung/ When I discovered/ Love for you… You are my light/ In darkness and the brightest times,” Paul sings, carving her musical pathway to affection and ancestral connection.
Black Belt Eagle Scout built “Yard” and “I Don’t Have You In My Life” on straightforward, rudimentary electric guitar chords. But the songs progress into distinct and powerful auras. The former hardly has any lyrics past the refrain “keep ‘em in the yard,” but its aura melancholy isolation speaks volumes of Paul’s isolated upbringing in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community (about halfway between Seattle and the Canadian border along the coast). The latter supports her beautiful vocal melodies with a tom drum half-time beat, but its crescendo never fully climaxes. While not particularly striking from an instrumental perspective, her voice lingers on both these songs with quiet urgency.
Paul’s personal lyrics are palatable to listeners from all walks of life, allowing her perspective to shed new light on universal emotions. Words like, “Took a moment, You forgot me, I’m just waving around you,” could be taken romantically, culturally or even environmentally. Her open-ended lyricism allows for a multitude of metaphorical interpretations.
“I’d wait all night, just to see you, I’d wait my whole life, just to meet you.”
Black Belt Eagle Scout leaves her audience with one last anecdote, bringing the record to a close with sizzling cymbals, layers of muted guitar and a slacker rock jam with a delectable solo. It’s the work of a woman coming to terms with her identity while building bridges to others.