CHICAGO (AP) — The beginning of the pandemic was devastating for the leader of the indie rock band Black Belt Eagle Scout, Katherine Paul. All of her tours, including a headline across North America, were canceled and she feared her rising music career might be over.
She got a day job at a nonprofit and returned to Swinomish Indian Tribal Community homelands in western Washington. But when Paul, or KP to her friends, spent time in the cedar forests and walked along the Skagit River, she turned to her guitar to deal with the isolation and stress. Those snippets, recorded on her phone, formed the basis of what would become songs on her powerful, grunge-drenched new record “The Land, The Water, The Sky.”
“I feel like if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have made this record,” said KP, who writes the songs, sings and plays guitar in the band that was the only Native American artist at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago this month .
“I spent a lot of time outside. I spent a lot more time than usual going on hikes and being part of the country,” she continued. “It’s not like I never do that, but it brought me back to a place , where this is who I am.”
The new record, which came out in February, helped launch what has probably been the most successful year yet for the Black Belt Eagle Scout. The band toured Europe and will head to Australia later this year. Two of her songs, “Soft Stud” from an earlier record and “Salmon Stinta” from her latest, appear this season on the television series “Reservation Dogs.”
Reservation Dogs Music Supervisor Tiffany Anders said she was introduced to the band’s music by the show’s creator, Sterlin Harjo, when they began working on the second season.
“It’s always been important to us in this show to include Native American artists, but beyond the representation, Black Belt Eagle Scout’s music is beautiful and emotional and fits these characters, their world and landscape — and the mood of the show,” said in a declaration.
Then there was Pitchfork, a three-day festival that is an important milestone for indie musicians. The festival is held every year in Chicago’s Union Park, and this year’s headliners included Bon Iver, Big Thief and The Smile, which features members of Radiohead.
She admitted that taking to the stage last weekend was nerve-wracking given her high hopes for the show, a feeling compounded by worries that storms could dampen their performance. But as she launched into the blistering set of mostly new songs in front of thousands of eager fans, KP found solace in her guitar. She launched several long jams that were punctuated by her twirling her jet-black hair around, obscuring her face.
“It was quite a moment,” she said with a laugh.
“I cried a little bit after we played because it felt so meaningful,” she added. “Like, I’ve always wanted to play this music festival. I remember trying to play one of the years before the pandemic when I was on tour and it didn’t happen. This year I was just so excited to play.”
Reaching Pitchfork has been a long journey for the 34-year-old artist, who is a member of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and left her home on the reservation in LaConner, Washington, when she was 17 to attend Lewis & Clark College in Oregon and play rock music.
Growing up on the reservation off the coast of Washington on islands in the Salish Sea, she played drums and sang cultural songs. As a teenager, she discovered local Pacific Northwest bands like Mount Eerie and the sound of the Riot Grrrl movement and played one of her first gigs at a small bar called the Department of Safety. She moved to Portland, Oregon due to her large role in the indie scene that featured bands like Sleater-Kinney and quickly immersed herself in the music scene playing drums and guitar.
She joined an all-female outfit she met at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland. She went on to play a lot of small basement shows with bands like Genders – whose wolf tattoo she still has on her left arm.
But she wanted to write her own songs and formed Black Belt Eagle Scout in 2013. Her early music was defined by her ethereal songs about love, friendship and healing – often accompanied only by minimal guitar strumming. But she rocked out on songs like “Soft Stud,” which featured searing solos.
“She’s a really authentic musician and she carries a lot of power on stage with her presence and sound,” Claire Glass, who plays guitar in the band and first saw KP seven years ago.
KP has said that her Native American identity has always been present on her records. But her latest music paints a more vivid picture of life on the Swinomish reservation. There are references to chinook salmon, which is traditionally fished, and a powwow dance.
“I started thinking about feeling grateful for the life I’ve been given; this place that I am from; how much the land, the water, the sky means to me — to be surrounded by it,” KP said of writing the song “Don’t Give Up.” “It has so much more meaning because the land, that’s where my people come from from.”
Her songs are not intended to directly confront issues such as the crisis of missing and murdered Native American women or the forced relocation of tribes. That’s not the way she writes songs. Instead, she envisions them connecting with people, drawing more Native Americans to indie rock shows in places like Minneapolis, which have a vibrant Native American community, and inspiring young Native Americans to connect with her after shows.
“Am I not like being here, existing with my music well enough? Can’t I just be who I am?” she asked, adding that she doesn’t need to speak out from the stage about these issues because being Native often means she already struggles with them. A judge ruled in March, for example, that BNSF Railway intentionally violated the terms of an easement deal with the tribe by running 100-car trains that transport crude oil across the reservation.
“As a native, you know someone who is missing. Your tribe is trying to get your land back. These are issues that are part of your everyday life,” she said. “I care deeply about those things, but there are certain ways where my music is, maybe not as direct, but it can be healing.”
KP also does not want to be seen only as a rock musician or as an indigenous artist. “I’m a musician who happens to be Native, but I’m also a Native musician … I think I’m always both,” she said.
That’s what her latest record aims to show.
“I kind of had it in the back of my mind, just kept thinking what Built to Spill would do,” KP said of the guitar-heavy, indie-rock band from the Pacific Northwest. “I’ve been on tour with them and seen their three guitars at one point playing together and how they overlap and all these other things.”
It is also more of a collaboration with several musicians playing on the record – a departure for KP, who is used to doing everything himself. A cellist who played with Nirvana, Lori Goldston, is featured on several songs, as are two violinists and a sax and mellotron player.
Takiaya Reed, a first-time producer who is also in a doom metal band, described the experience of working on the record as “beautiful and amazing” and said the two bonded over their love of punk. Reid also brought his classical training and love of “heavier sounds” to the studio.
“We approached it fearlessly. It was wonderful to be expansive in terms of sonic possibilities,” she said.
KP also wanted to find a place where her parents, who she had grown especially close to during the pandemic, could play the record. She chose the song “Spaces,” which she described as having a “healing vibe.” Her father, who is one of the lead singers at the tribe’s cultural events, embraced the idea of lending his powerful powwow chant to the song. Her mother sang harmonies.
KP said: “It meant the world to me to have my parents sing because it felt like it came full circle to who I am.”