Black Belt Eagle Scout and Mali Obomsawin Have Day Jobs

The songwriters talk managing burnout on the road and finding balance at home.

During the pandemic, Black Belt Eagle Scout (a.k.a. Katherine Paul) returned to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community to create The Land, The Water, The Sky, an album that brilliantly reflects that journey. On the other side of the country, Mali Obomsawin was working on Sweet Tooth, an album that blends jazz, blues, and folk into stories and sounds of her own Native journey as a person of Wabanaki heritage. Since they had never met, getting these two artists together to chat seemed like a grand idea. 
– Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

Katherine Paul: I was listening to your music this morning, and it’s really beautiful. I’m excited to talk with you. Where are you calling from today?

Mali Obomsawin: I’m in Portland, Maine. I’m currently moving so it’s totally insane. I’m sitting on the floor because I don’t have a chair.

Katherine: You live in the other Portland.

Mali: Technically ours was first, I think, but that is not a hill I’m trying to die on.

Katherine: My bassist is from Maine, actually, but I’ve never been there. I’ve always wanted to go there because it kind of looks like where I’m from.

Mali: The trees and the mountains are smaller but the vibe is similar.

Katherine: I guess it would sort of make sense because it’s like a little bit on the same plane, and then there’s the coast vibes.

Mali: Your cedar trees out there are different than ours, which always really trips me up because so much is just the same and then the cedar is, like, weirdly not the same at all.

Katherine: I feel like I see a lot of red cedar where we are, but there used to be a lot more yellow cedar but it’s been logged a bunch. I’ve been on tour pretty much all this year and I was explaining to European people about where I live. Most people know Twin Peaks, and I think it’s mostly Doug fir referred to in that show, but my husband — who plays in the band — was like, “It’s Western red cedar.” I should refer to it as Western red cedar. But also I like referring to cedar as their traditional names. But anyway, I’m a little bit of a blabber sometimes when I’m really nervous. So I don’t know if we started off incorrectly.

Mali: I love that we just dove into cedar. That feels right.

Katherine: So you’re calling from Maine and you’re going to move?

Mali: So my partner is Penobscot, which is one of the tribes in Maine and we’re moving to his rez, basically, two hours north from here. If I had a manager, they would probably tell me not to move even further away from the music world. But I’m really happy.

Katherine: I feel like people can live wherever though. Remind me of where you’re from again?

Mali: So, I am a citizen of Odanak First Nations Abenaki. And the Wabanaki people are on both sides of the border. So there’s four Wabanaki tribes in Maine. I’m not a part of any of them, but I’m a part of the one in Quebec. It’s on the Saint Francis River. It’s called Odanak.

Katherine: I don’t think I’ve been that far north.

Mali: You were just in Montreal, which is like the closest city to us. On your recent tour out in the Northeast, I was, like, following you — I was in Montreal the day after you were there and then I went down to Boston the day before you got there, and then to New York. It was so sad because I wanted to see you guys so bad.

Katherine: Oh, were you on tour as yourself, or were you playing with other people?

Mali: I was actually playing with this really dope Anishinaabe experimental saxophonist and they put on a noise opera in a museum that was hosting a Kent Monkman exhibit. They had this new thing with their drag character on a horse and it was such an amazing exhibit. Anyway, so I was playing experimental music in that exhibit.

Katherine: That’s so cool. So, what instruments do you play?

Mali: I am primarily a bassist, upright and electric, and I also sing and I play guitar, acoustic and electric as well.

Katherine: When I was listening to your latest album, Sweet Tooth, are you playing guitar on that album, too, or just bass?

Mali: Just bass. I wrote the guitar parts though.

Katherine: The guitar parts are really pretty. Every once in a while I would hear them come in, like, weaving throughout, with all of the really cool horns and the saxophone. I wish that I played the bass guitar. Whenever someone plays bass — like, plays-plays bass — I’m really impressed, because it’s hard.

Mali: I feel like you’re so capable of learning to be really good at bass because your guitar playing is really bass-leady. I feel like if I was your bass player, I would be like, what do I even do, because the guitar parts are so interesting.

Katherine: My friend Grace played bass on my last album, and she is a really incredible bass player. I met her because we both at one point played in the band Y La Bamba. And so she was playing bass for that band and then we started playing together. When I think about her style of bass, I don’t even know how she realizes those melodies.

Mali: The bass has a lot of room to stretch, and I feel like it always should regardless of the genre. I feel like bass is an underutilized melodic force, as well as its obvious role as the glue that holds together the drums and the guitar. There’s so much room to do more tastefully.

Katherine: So besides moving this year, do you have other things that you’ve got going on?

Mali: I actually just recorded a shoegaze record I’m really excited about, but I have no idea how to put it out because I just put out this, like, jazz album. So now I’m figuring out how to share it. Maybe I should have a band name or something with the people that I recorded it with.

Katherine: Sometimes I feel boxed into this category of indie rock. But I like pop music and I like folk music. In the back of my mind, I’m like, You can make a record like that. But then it seems scary, too.

Mali: I love how you incorporated the Native folk songs in your latest album. They just felt so at home, even within indie rock arrangements. I thought that was so brilliantly done. I think a lot about being pigeonholed, too. So many of the questions that we get as Native artists have so much expectation behind them, like, “Tell me how your indie rock song relates to pow-wow music.”

Katherine: I think about that a lot because I’ve done a lot of interviews as this band. I feel like my thoughts are still expanding and I won’t totally have a fully formed thought until I’m really way older, but what I’ve noticed is that most people are really excited to learn things. And for the most part, people have been really genuine and really nice and I think are just excited to learn new things. But I think sometimes people don’t always understand what culture you’re from because there isn’t a lot of Native stories told by Native people within the media. And so, yeah, maybe the one thing that you know of is a pow wow.
Mali: Totally.

Katherine: I don’t really have a lot of people to look to to ask questions. It’s not like I can just call up Buffy Saint-Marie every day. I’ve talked with her before, but, you know…

Mali: Ot would take hours to get through. We are all kind of navigating it. I heard Sterlin Harjo on NPR having to field some facepalm questions from even this national media person, just like getting asked the classic questions that Native people get asked. Even a superstar media maker in our generation has to face those questions because the media is still learning.

Katherine: I feel like I’m kind of in a place where I’m still forming those thoughts. So maybe come back to me in a year after I’ve walked a bunch in the forest and gone on long road trips and had some space to think. I’ve been on a long journey this year and I’m continuing to be on a journey this year, and one of the things that has come up is figuring out how to handle burnout. Have you ever been in a situation like that, where you feel really burnt and tired and like you’re like, what am I doing?

Mali: Oh, my god, that’s my day today. Every day I wake up and I’m like, how do I handle burnout today? Like, what’s the strategy? It’s gotten to a point where I get ads on my phone of like, “How professional women handle burnout.” And I’m like, do I want to click that and do the free trial? And then you get the notification from your phone that you’ve been on your phone for nine hours today and you’re like, Oh, I don’t want to fucking click that ever again. I need to scale back on all the things that I do because they’re all making me burn out. But I think what I’m the most dissatisfied with is capitalism. I have to remind myself that it’s not music that’s making me tired, it’s capitalism. It’s not that I’m burnt out because I’m doing too many musical projects. If I didn’t have to hustle for rent, I don’t think that I would be as burnt out by the things that I love.

Katherine: Totally. Yeah, that is a true fact.
Mali: I like touring and I love performing but I also feel like we are expected to do it more than maybe is healthy sometimes.

Katherine: I just came back from a really, really long tour where I had extreme burnout. And I got back maybe a week or two weeks ago and today I’m just starting to feel normal. I really love playing shows. When I’m on the stage and there’s a lot of people I’m really shy and so I have this moment of trying to dance with your vulnerability. Let’s go, let’s grow as a person doing this thing. And I really like it even though it’s scary sometimes. I love to be around people and be social, but where I live right now — I live on my reservation. It’s really quiet and so it’s hard for me after a tour being around tons of people going and then all of a sudden you drop off and you’re around no one. I have a hard time with that.

Mali: I’m surprised that you don’t like that shift. You said you’re shy and that’s so interesting to me.

Katherine: Yeah, I’m very shy. I think my shyness comes also in part because I have a lot of anxiety, and so sometimes my anxiety can be high-functioning and I can have a cool conversation like we are right now. But then other times I don’t know what to say to people. I don’t know how to act, I don’t know how to respond. It’s an interesting thing to have to do that as a job and also as a creative hobby to open yourself up in that way. 

Mali: I am excited to be in the place that you’re at where I come home and there’s just nothing happening at all. I’m extroverted, and I like getting energy from people but because of tour and burnout, if I were coming home to, like, New York City, it wouldn’t replenish me. I’d just want to be alone in the woods at least a week. And I book my own tours, I do everything myself — not by choice but because no one has said yes yet to me. So when I get home from tour, or even when I’m on tour, I’m chained to the email trying to make it possible to do what I do.

Katherine: I think about that because I have a lot of people that I work with and I got these people to help me, but it’s still a lot of work. I also have a day job.

Mali: Oh, me too. What do you do? You used to work at a venue, right?

Katherine: I used to be a talent buyer and I did a bunch of things in the music industry at a venue. So talent buyer, production manager, ticketing manager, stuff like that. But I stopped doing that to do my band full time. And then the pandemic happened and then I was like, I can’t do my band full time. So I have a day job and I really like it. It’s at a nonprofit and I’m their communications manager. I do things like write the newsletter, do the social media posts, kind of plan out the year of communications. I’ve been doing that for the past almost three years. It’s called the Potlatch Fund — can I do a plug? It’s a Native nonprofit that does grant making and capacity building leadership training stuff for Native communities in the Pacific Northwest. And so I’ve been working for them for a bit and worked from the road on this last tour. Which I is why I had really, really tremendous burnout because I was gone for close to six weeks, like working nonstop.

Mali: How do you balance music industry responsibilities against your responsibility or relationships in your community? Sometimes I feel really guilty for being in a job that requires me to travel all the time, because there are community events and family events that come up. At a certain point you’re like, it’s actually my responsibility as part of the community to show up.

Katherine: Yeah. Because I was gone so long on this last tour, I missed a bunch of things I really wanted to attend. I’m learning still how to balance things. Especially because I’ve never really been on a long tour living within my community. Like all the times I’ve been on long tours, I’ve been away because I lived in Portland. So I’m learning still and I’m realizing that I don’t want to go on really long tours anymore. maybe like two weeks. I’m lucky because even though I missed out on a bunch of things, my community is very events-focused. We do a lot. 

Mali: In my community, we’re trying to be more events-focused, but it’s just so much work. 

Katherine: I think that I might do one long tour again this year, but next year, I’m focusing on just smaller tours so that I can come back and be here.

(Photo Credit: left, Nate Lemuel

Katherine Paul is Black Belt Eagle Scout, and after releasing an EP in 2014, Paul has wrapped up the band’s first full-length. Recorded in the middle of winter near her hometown in Northwest Washington, the landscape’s eerie beauty and Paul’s connection to it are palpable on Mother of My Children. Stemming from this place, the album traces the full spectrum of confronting buried feelings and the loss of what life was supposed to look like.

Paul grew up in a small Indian reservation, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, surrounded by family focused on native drumming, singing, and arts. “Indigenous music is the foundation for all of my music,” Paul explains. From an early age, Paul was singing and dancing at powwows with one of her strongest memories at her family’s own powwow, called the All My Relations Powwow. Paul reminisces, “When I was younger, my only form of music was through the songs my ancestors taught the generations of my family. Singing in our language is a spiritual process and it carries on through me in how I create music today.”

Mother of My Children is a life chapter gently preserved, and the access listeners have to such vulnerability feels special and generous. We are left wanting more, and all signs point to Black Belt Eagle Scout just getting started.

(Photo Credit: Jason Quigley)