Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.
Identity serves as a tool of principle for all of us, but for those of us who come from a marginalized sector of people, the importance of identity becomes paramount. In the face of belittlement, erasure, and persecution, it’s crucial that specific groups of us have something to hold onto as a show of our resilience, our history, our pride as people. Lately there's been a rightful and long overdue emphasis on a premium called “telling our own stories” as a reminder to folks with the privilege of having their perspective emboldened and canonized through art that a fascinating story, a heartbreaking song, a painting that makes you cry can be crafted by any person, regardless of their background.
The Swinomish Tribal Reservation overlooks the northernmost reaches of Skagit Bay, a little past the halfway point between Everett and Bellingham, a few miles southwest of Burlington. Katherine Paul, better known as Black Belt Eagle Scout, grew up there, her early life heavily enriched by the music and art of her community; dancing and singing at powwows and learning music passed down through multiple generations. A self-taught guitarist and drummer whose inspiration to learn the instruments came from Nirvana and Hole bootlegs on VHS, Paul – a Portland resident for over a decade now – attributes being exposed to music through being exposed to the music of her ancestors from childhood.
Mother of My Children single “Indians Never Die” alludes to her heritage but also delivers a necessary critique of the very idea of colonization. Musically, it feels like a bird soaring over the Cascade Mountains, taking in the beauty and majesty of our region from high in the sky, past the sounds of airplane engines, over the bustle of cars and trucks running through the roads below.
Over the sparsity of a downcast guitar line and graceful touches of percussion (including the swelling cymbal rising through the back end of the chorus), Paul sings to the scores and scores of people watching the earth deteriorate and still taking it for granted. It’s a powerful allegory, evoking the principles of native inhabitants of this land long before so-called frontierism and the brutalist prospect of Manifest Destiny ravaged what is now called America – a time where people lived off of the land instead of lived on it, where they used only what they needed and left the rest.
It makes me think a lot about the notion of property, about the concept of living on land that is now regularly bought, sold, turned into condos and strip malls and yet another Jamba Juice franchise. When Paul softly croons, “Do you notice what’s around you/When it’s all right under our skin,” I see in my mind the stretches of trees near my house having recently been bulldozed to build yet another housing community. (“Starting in the upper $300s!”, a sign in front cheerily reads.)
The echoing snares of a drum machine, a spate of whooshing effects, and a mournful keyboard lead are elements which shepherd in the aptly-titled “Keyboard” and the guitar line of the album’s title track moving like a piece of fruit being peeled, both slowly unfolding as companion pieces. Deploying the room’s empty space as effectively as the guitars and percussion, Paul’s diaphanous voice singing of the titular mother, of Mother Nature as an inescapable entity, of the first song she sang being the discovery point for her love for her.
“Soft Stud” explores another facet of Paul’s identity, as her self-described queer anthem explores the delicate and confusing nature of the open relationship. It’s the closest thing Mother of My Children comes to a nakedly upbeat song musically; all crunchy, pulsating guitars, a bright, poppy keyboard line, and the kind of guitar solo introverts love to throw their hair back to (or throw their heads back and pretend they have hair).
Her voice like a flower blooming through rocks, Paul alludes to “open, overcrowded love” while lamenting the desire for someone who she knows is already in a relationship. Polyamory requires a great deal of communication, and its ideal result is the happiness and satisfaction of all parties involved. But what if you’re the one on the outside of the relationship, craving the affection of one specific person and knowing that, best case scenario, the affection you receive is rationed out between two or more people? “Soft Stud” provides no resolution for this quandary, but the feeling of losing yourself in the music is a pretty cathartic way to get through it.
Nightfall is an image, a feeling which seeps into many of the songs on the album, and its impression is felt strongly on “I Don’t Have You in My Life,” heavy drums underscoring a deteriorating relationship making way for the twilit guitar line, surrounding a distant lover but never really felt. “Just Lie Down” opens with a roar and delves into the intuitive feeling you get when you know something is wrong with someone who is reluctant or unwilling to tell you.
Grief is a big theme on Mother of My Children, whether it’s for disappearing nature, the slow crumbling of a relationship, or the loss of a friend. The album, originally released last year on Good Cheer Records, was written in 2016 in the wake of the death of Geneviève Castrée, Paul’s mentor and the guiding light in many of the lives she touched during her life.
Songs like “Yard” and closer “Sam, A Dream” could be taken on the surface as heartrending breakup salvos, but express a sense of loss that runs deep, deep enough to question whether that loss is merely about heartbreak. The former touches on a light that breathes through us “until it ends,” while the latter conveys a sense that time is running out on a tangible expression of a deeper love than mere romance. Mother of My Children deals with loss in a stunning variety of ways, as the notion of losing something important to you is never as simple as just one something.
When you lose something important to you, it makes you very cognizant of all the things you stand to lose.
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