Katherine Paul’s story is more than a typical sales tool for marketing departments and journalists – it is fundamental to understanding the deeply personal music she makes as Black Belt Eagle Scout. Paul grew up on the Swinomish Indian Reservation in Washington state, surrounded by the music of her Native community. She later discovered the quintessential grunge and riot grrrl sounds of the Pacific Northwest, learning guitar and drums from bootleg VHS tapes. Trips to Portland for rock camp introduced her to the city’s queer community – she relocated there in 2007, immersing herself in its vibrant DIY scene.
Originally a side project, Black Belt Eagle Scout’s 2017 debut (later re-released by current label Saddle Creek in 2018), Mother of My Children, was a collection of songs exploring sorrow through her identity en total: in one journalist’s words, it is “a work of intersectional mourning—queer, indigenous, feminist.” Her latest, At the Party With My Brown Friends (out Aug. 30 via Saddle Creek), is equally personal but created, says Paul, with “no real intent” beyond wanting to write songs “around what was going on in my life.”
It’s a broad topic, sure, but Paul distills things down with remarkable clarity on At the Party With My Brown Friends. She discovers her life is given shape by love, desire, and friendship, which she expresses with a beautiful, dreamy melancholy that feels like coastal fog on an overcast day. There are echoes of Cat Power in the album’s minimalism; Duster’s intersection of emo and slowcore in its guitar lines; The Softies in its understated but impactful delivery. Paul gets a lot of mileage from just guitar, keys, drums, voice, and a keen understanding of space, using these tools to explore her world: what it looks like, who defines it, her place in it.
Opener and tone setter “At the Party” sees Paul question “the legitimacy of the world when you grow up on an Indian reservation.” She concludes that it’s the support of the people around her that give it meaning. “We are all at the party (the world), trying to navigate ourselves within a good or bad situation,” she says in a statement. “I happen to be at the party with my brown friends – Indigenous, Black, POC, who always have my back while we walk throughout this event called life.”
Those friends (and family, as on ode to motherly connection “You’re Me and I’m You”) give the record its grounding, contrasted against the music’s languid, soft, haziness. At the Party With My Brown Friends is marked by serenity and contentment – a quiet confidence that comes from loving and being loved, and through it locating a sense of purpose within the world. The moments where the music picks up steam – the fuzz guitar on “Going to the Beach with Haley,” the build on “Run It to Ya” – feel like that energy bubbling over. But it is mostly content to simmer, and at roughly 35 minutes long, it never overstays its welcome or feels stale.
At the Party With My Brown Friends’ sense of calm is its most striking feature. It wrings a surprising amount of emotion from a simple palette, eschewing grand gestures for modest pleasures that add up to a bigger statement. “Writing and playing guitar in my bedroom just makes everything feel better for me,” Paul explains in a press release – a snapshot of intimacy and contentment that is reflected in the material. At the Party With My Brown Friends’ lack of adornment should not be mistaken for lack of depth, however. This warm, uplifting collection of songs, born of “the reciprocal love [Paul] experienced within friendships [that keep her] going,” is instead a poised show of strength – and maybe even satisfaction – that comes from better understanding herself and her place in the world.
Black Belt Eagle Scout comes to Los Angeles on Thursday, November 14, stopping at the Bootleg Bar. Tickets are still available!
Words by Andrew Ledford
Photo courtesy of Sarah Cass