Black Belt Eagle Scout- The Land, The Water, The Sky

by | Feb 10, 2023 | Reviews

Black Belt Eagle Scout The Land, The Water, The Sky 


“When the land calls, you listen.”


During the tumult of 2020, Swinomish musician Katherine Paul returned to the Skagit River from Portland, and her newest album under the name Black Belt Eagle Scout, The Land, The Water, The Sky, reflects that journey. She shares: “I created The Land, The Water, The Sky to record and reflect upon my journey back to my homelands and the challenges and the happiness it brought.” There is a spaciousness to the music, open like the sky, and an ebb and flow of loud and quiet moments like the tides, which narrate—along with Paul’s lyrics—a story of her connection to the land and her community. Paul grew up in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community surrounded by the music of her culture, and was later inspired by the rock music that emerged from the Pacific Northwest. Now Paul is making her own mark on the musical landscape.


On The Land, The Water, The Sky (the follow-up to 2018’s Mother of My Children and 2019’s At the Party With My Brown Friends) we find the sensibilities of a singer-songwriter style wedded perfectly to grunge and shoegaze sound. Paul handles the guitar, drums, and vocals on the album, as well as occasional omnichord and vibraphone, with bass mostly provided by Grace Bugbee. Numerous other musicians appear, including Nicholas Wilbur on Mellotron, Swil Kanim on violin, Gibrana Cervantes on violin, Takiaya Reed (of Divide and Dissolve, who also co-produced the album with Paul) on soprano saxophone, and Lori Goldston on cello. (Goldston famously played with Nirvana during the In Utero tour and for their iconic MTV Unplugged set in 1993.) Paul’s multi-instrumental talent is considerable: never does her work on the guitar or drums feel like an afterthought to her voice. She is a skillful percussionist— “Fancy Dance” is a particular highlight—and both her cleaner, plucked parts and wall of sound distortion work on the guitar is exquisite.


Black Belt Eagle Scout

Black Belt Eagle Scout (photo by Nate Lemuel)


The record starts off with a bang, Paul’s vocals soaring over the gritty, gutsy guitars of “My Blood Runs Through This Land.” “I know you speak through me / I feel it in the sound of water touching all the rocks / I feel no one can take this moment away cos my blood runs through this land.” It’s a fitting statement to lead off the record, and a gorgeous slice of pure rock. 



The album is also punctuated by quieter tracks like “Salmon Stinta,” which features guest vocals from Phil Elverum (of The Microphones and Mount Eerie). Paul makes wonderful use of her emotive and narrative lyrical skill here, while the song’s musical qualities flow along as the salmon in the river: “In the Stinta / gray and white salmon swim upstream / yellow underneath the stream / through the window / all I see is driving me away / screaming in the distant sea.”


On the very catchy “Nobody,” Paul tackles Native representation in media, or the lack of it, saying “When I was growing up, I didn’t have very many Native role models to look to on TV or the radio. It was within my own community that I found inspiring role models through our elders and our community leaders. With Native representation in music and television slowly growing, I often ask myself where I stand within representation in music and how I want to be seen. This song is about the relationship I have with my own representation in music.” As she croons “Nobody sang it for me like I wanna sing it to you” we are reminded of the importance of her perspective—that of a queer Indigenous feminist—and the joyousness of elevating voices like hers.



The closing track on The Land, The Water, The Sky is the lead single “Don’t Give Up,” which according to Paul is “about mental health awareness and the importance that my connection to the land plays within my own mental health journey,” adding “I wrote this song for me but also for my community and anyone who deals with challenging mental health issues to remind us just how much of a role our connection to the environment plays within our healing process. At the end of the song when I sing ‘the land, the water, the sky,’ I wanted to sing it like my late grandfather Alexander Paul Sr. sang in our family’s big drum group—from the heart.”


For me, two other highlights on the album are the tenderly-constructed “Sčičudz (a narrow place)” with its sweeping guitar lines, and the darker sounding “Treeline.” For all the epic feel of some tracks, none clock in over five and a half minutes, and even the shorter songs (such as “On The River,” coming in at under two minutes) make an impact over their duration. Always front and center is Paul’s connection to the land and her heritage. This is not an album only looking to the past, to Paul’s ancestors, but the very present here and now. Fittingly, Paul’s parents Kevin and Pat accompany her voice on “Spaces,” whose video features the Coast Salish style carving work of Paul and her artist father. The line running from then to now to the future is quite evident.



The Land, The Water, The Sky truly is an album from the heart, and through her voice and music Katherine Paul has written a vibrant and impactful record, one she calls a “love letter to Indigenous strength and healing, and a story of hope.” It’s early in the year, but I have a feeling this will make some “best of” lists (likely mine.) 


The album is out today on Saddle Creek Records, and you can catch Black Belt Eagle Scout on tour right now, including here in Brooklyn at Baby’s All Right with Claire Glass and Adobo on April 15th.







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