Belinda Underwood: Feeling the bass, belly dancing and activism

side from raising those chickens you see in the photo (she can go on and on about them), Belinda Underwood is a singer, a composer of songs, mostly about her concerns about the health of the planet. She’s a bassist, a dancer, a belly dancer, an Americana musician playing the bass ukulele, a practitioner of Middle Eastern music, and, she helps in the manufacturing of her father’s invention, the famed Underwood bass pickup. He designed it in the early seventies in order to prove his theories on the subject of electric bass pickups, and thirty-five years later it is a standard. Belinda’s mom is the former Portland singer Serena Wright. Her sister Melissa was part of “Beliss,” a duo with Belinda. The two made several albums before Melissa moved back to Los Angeles.

Belinda moves with a grace that belies her intensity. We spoke in the quiet living room of her SW Portland home at the end of a long, steep driveway.

Since you have a lot to say in your songs, the obvious question is what comes first to you, the music or what you’re writing about?

They go together for me. I feel like the words are definitely imparting a certain message, but then there’s an element that only the music can portray, a kind of communication that only can come across with music, something that you can feel inside that maybe words can’t explain. Words can’t always necessarily define how you feel.

And you write about chickens.

I consider myself a chicken activist as well as an environmental activist, a buy-local activist, a peace activist… When I’m writing music I’m thinking, hey, you know music is a powerful tool for social change. Commercial media is so devoid of anything important. They’re all songs about love and revenge and ‘I’m so hot and sexy.’

Take us through the list of your creative efforts. I think we have room for them, but I’m not sure. You’ve played with so many of Portland’s best jazz musicians. Let’s keep it current.

(we both laugh) As far as jazz goes, currently I play with singer Kelley Shannon and with Dan Gaynor and others on and off. I’ve been playing with Justin Franzino the jazz accordion player. Drummer Michael Beach from the Brothers of the Baladi sits in sometimes and brings a Middle Eastern flavor. Sometimes I do a belly dance at the end.

I’m playing in this awesome Middle Eastern fusion group called Negara. It’s Middle Easternish… Middle Eastern scales… like modal jazz. It’s very groovy, kind of funky. One of the drummers is African. I’m writing some songs for them.

I’m in Ritim Egzotik. We play traditional songs from Egypt, Turkey Lebanon… a few Greek and Persian. We have an oud player, an electric guitar player, a keyboard player, two drummers, and I’m playing the bass. We play a monthly show called “Raq the Casbah,” usually at the Hawthorne Theatre.

How long have you been belly dancing?

About eight years. I’ve been dancing my whole life. I did jazz, tap, ballet as a child and teenager, and danced on my own over the years and did a lot of yoga. The belly dance developed because it’s so beautiful. I’ve always been intrigued by the exotic East. I got into the dance before the music.

Is it a different feeling for you playing an instrument and singing than it is dancing?

It’s a different physical feeling, of course, but for me dancing is related to the music. Middle Eastern bands are dance bands. I’ve always felt sorrow in my heart that I’m living at a time when jazz is not dance music. When I’m hearing jazz I want to dance to it. The music moves me. So when I’m playing the bass, I’m dancing with the bass, and when I’m dancing I’m feeling that music. I like to think of my body as an instrument, a visual instrument.

And then there’s the whole singer/songwriter folk aspect of your career.

The other music is music that I’ve studied hard, but what’s easiest for me is to play on the ukulele.

Do you play only acoustic bass?

Yes, playing electric bass hurts my wrists. I have developed a lot of physical problems from playing the acoustic bass. I have to do yoga, and the belly dancing is therapeutic. I practice my drills every day to keep my strength up, because I’m already experiencing ligament laxity in the joints of my fingers and neck. I’ve had to retrain myself on how to stand with the bass. I can’t lean over it like a bass player anymore. I have to stand upright, bend my knees a little bit and hold the bass a little bit away from me. I can’t come to the bass; I have to bring it to me. I’ve been playing it for twenty years. I’m staying strong.

You’ve had some excellent teachers for the bass, David Friesen among others. Did you have any teachers for your lyric writing?

No, no, never. I wrote a lot as a child and at some point they just went together, the words and the music. So… it’s something I’ve always done as an outlet, you know. My parents actually got me into the bass because they had talked to the high school band director and asked him what instruments he needed and he said, “Oh, I need a bass player.” And my dad, you know, he has business that deals with basses, and so he got me a bass and said, “Here you go,” and my mom got me a book.

It’s not always inevitable that children of a musical family become musicians. Many times they fight it.

I did fight it for a while. I went to school for astrophysics actually, in college, and I did music on the side as a hobby. I was in the jazz band at Berkeley and at the Jazzschool in Berkeley. It was my hobby, it was my fun extra-curricular activity, but at some point I realized that it was the most fun, most important thing for me. Why not just go into that instead of working in a lab eight hours a day? For a couple of years I did some volunteer work and that kind of thing, and I got a real feel for the lab job and it didn’t seem like it suited me so…

So, having musical parents is a good thing?

Absolutely. Definitely, because… I mean, I was self-taught until my twenties, you know, on the bass at least. I had violin lessons as child, and a few piano lessons from my mom. She’s a piano teacher. And harp lessons from her. So, I was kind of really injected and infused with music already, and had a good sense of pitch and sound and able to pick tunes up by ear very easily and that kind of thing. We did a lot of church playing, my sister and I, because my mom was the organist and so we were always playing violin at church, or in the choir.

Do you use an Underwood pickup?

Yes, an Underwood pickup. I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course.

Most musicians, when they go to their gig, don’t have something that was made… invented by their father.

Yeah, that is a pretty special thing. My dad kind of encouraged me to play the bass when I was younger and then I taught myself to read the music, the bass clef. I knew treble clef from violin, but I learned the bass clef, and then I started getting lessons, I think, when I was twenty-two, in California. Just a few lessons, and then I came up here to have lessons with David Friesen.

But you play some other instruments. There must have been something you especially loved about the bass.

I did love the bass. I loved the way that it vibrated me, the way it feels so deep you can feel it in your bones. And, I really love hearing the bass when I’m listening to jazz, because I feel like it just lays down this foundation that is really missing if I don’t have that, if I don’t hear that. So, it was pretty exciting to be that bass and to feel like the music could then build on top of it. I just love that.

About The Author: Tom D'Antoni