Black Belt Eagle Scout Mother of My Children

[Saddle Creek; 2018]

Styles: “melodic and a little grungy,” an elegy but sturdy
Others: Geneviève Castrée, Angel Olsen, Vagabon

Mother of My Children begins with want and tips into waste. It ends with a waiting, like all lives do.

The first song is the best song, the expansive, throttling “Soft Stud,” something to hang from, something to love. “Need you want you/ Need you want you,” Katherine Paul sings. “I know you’re taken,” Katherine Paul sings. So I listen again. Wanting is waiting, just aggravated. You can hear that too, in the guitar solo that ends the song.

Katherine Paul plays the solo, clangy and spiky, like she plays every other instrument on Mother of My Children. Her identity — radical indigenous queer feminist — isn’t just a thing to trace out of the work; Katherine Paul and all her pieces are all we hear. Mother of My Children is like a headstone for a year in a life, something to return to, something to mark time by.

Like memory, it’s a structure that might crumble or seem transfigured by time. Like memory, it doesn’t abandon us. “Indians Never Die” doesn’t throb like “Soft Stud”; it aches instead. Paul’s alto, at once whispered and terse, circles, “wasting, wasting, wasting away.” We waste like bodies, like Geneviève Castrée, Paul’s former mentor, who died from pancreatic cancer two years ago. We waste time, like the time of every sister and brother who marched in solidarity at Standing Rock before we ignored them and told them they didn’t matter. “Do you ever notice what surrounds you?/ When it’s all bright and tucked under.” We can never notice, not every moment. We can’t help wasting.

All we have all the time is an identity. Mother of My Children, eight songs long, measures unknowable moments against a single identity. The crunch is intimate, the crux universal. Katherine Paul, Black Belt Eagle Scout, grew up in a small Indian reservation, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. Katherine Paul lost her mentor then felt her lover leave her then watched her country show her how little they cared for people like Katherine Paul.

Mother of My Children isn’t despondent. It’s not desperate enough to reconfigure loss into despairing elegy. Like a headstone, it marks and impresses upon us a great sadness while looking for eyes of the future. “Yard” reaches up toward something eternal and falls back on the grass we stand on, if shakily. And “I Don’t Have You in My Life,” a eulogy for the person you used to be to someone else: “I surround you/ But I don’t have you in my life/ I’m just what is around you.” We’re just what are around each other. “Just Lie Down,” my favorite song maybe, begins in cacophony and ends with a reminder. It’s what lives do, but it sounds like Paul reworking indie rock traditions and guitar-playing mythologies into something genuine, something Katherine Paul. These conventions aren’t backdrops for feelings. These songs are her days.

Maybe that’s what every piece of art is: an attempt to render a life in words or tones or messes or pictures. That process is wrenching, sometimes, usually. It might feel despondent, this life-rendering, if it weren’t for ears or eyes on the other end — us engaging with another human’s days is activated empathy. Mother of My Children is, generously and radically, an attempt to reconcile an identity with a universe. “It is the light inside of us/ That breathes the light in front of us.”

That line, from “Yard,” goes on: “It breathes until it goes/ And then it ends.” Days are us, and then they end. We have time for waiting on eternal things when we’re bones back in earth. Want while you’re here, and light and flame and storm and rage for all the ones you love, for all the loves you lost.

Most Read