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Karen Underwood

I use my mobile to set the alarm every night, but it doesn't really matter anymore because I'm menopausal right now. I used to need an alarm, but now the menopause is my alarm. Feel free to say that. My partner is up earlier than me. She's a nurse and she does shifts. I met her in 1998. We were both married at the time and we became friends. We have six children between the two of us. Now we live together in Douglas with two of her kids and two of mine. The rest are grown up.

For breakfast, I have toast with seeds and nuts and berries. I call it my bird-toast. Then a cup of coffee and a piece of fruit and I'm out the door. Do I watch what I eat? I think it watches me. I struggle up and down with weight. I don't know why I can't accept it. As my mother used to say to me: 'Karen, you have a big spirit and you need a big body house to hold it.' It's a beautiful way of looking at it, but it can be hard when you're in a world where size 10 is considered to be perfect.

Since I came to Ireland from Chicago, in 1997, I've been able to do everything I love to do. In the mornings, I do some voluntary work with autistic children and then, in the afternoons, I concentrate on my music.

The children I work with are all under five. It's early intervention. I visit them in their homes and try to bring on skills so that they can communicate better and make demands on the world. It's mainly about bringing on language skills and social skills. I play with children and they just happen to be autistic. My kids are absolutely gorgeous. We're talking lovely, big eyes. They're not disabled, they're very able. I don't like the word disability because everybody is able. They just need a bit of support and some services to bring them on to mainstream. I can't describe the kind of love I get from the kids and their families. It's great.

I go home and have some lunch. It might be soup and a sandwich, or a salad.

The afternoon is my time for music. It's my passion. Music has always been in my family. My daddy was a beautiful singer. Although he wasn't a professional singer, he used to sing Nat King Cole and Cole Porter songs. He sang a lot to me. We would go down to the basement and listen to music all the time. We had a lot of social gatherings in the house and everybody would sing. When I was a kid, my first party piece was What the World Needs Now is Love. I still remember the day that my teacher at school told me that I had a lovely voice. It was that feeling of being appreciated and the acknowledgement that I could sing. When I was older, I wanted to perform but I couldn't because the Church held me back. We went to a very fundamentalist Christian Church and they didn't encourage any secular music. You couldn't be singing I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl.

My girlfriend was the one who introduced me to the music of Nina Simone. Of course, I already knew her song, Young, Gifted and Black. Every black person in America knew that song. But Simone had a reputation for being anti-America and she didn't get a whole lot of airtime. In 1998, I was in my girlfriend's kitchen and Night Train was playing on the radio. I didn't recognise the singer. My girlfriend told me that it was Nina Simone. Then I became interested in her music. Shortly after that, we went to see her at The Point. I just thought that this woman had incredible stage presence. Even though she was physically feeble, she was amazing. People were stomping so much it sounded like thunder. My girlfriend gave me a copy of Nina's autobiography and I connected with her life.

She had this religious background that wouldn't allow her to be a performer, and I had the same thing with my Christian Church in Chicago. Nina lived in other countries but never really went back to the States. I suppose that's the way my life is set now. I've been here since 1997 and Ireland is my home. I've written a show called The Nina in Me. The play is 90 per cent my life and 10 per cent Nina Simone's life. I've punctuated my life story with the music of Nina Simone. There are 22 of Nina's songs in it. I sing Strange Fruit about the lynchings in America and I'm totally remembering the lynchings that I would have experienced throughout my life, being black and living in America. To me, an artist has the ability to say things other people wish they could say. If you have a chip on your shoulder, it interferes with you being able to actually meet people and greet people and build connections. People can see that a mile away. I can talk about being black and I can talk about the bad things that happened to me as a black person in America, but I don't live my life blaming the world for something that happened a long time ago.

When I go out on stage, it's not just me and a piano player, it's me and the classically trained pianist John O'Brien. Nina was classically trained too. I don't play the piano, but when the kids are gone I'm going to take up lessons. When I'm on stage performing, it feels like my blood has been taken out and that fresh blood has come in. It's sort of a letting go and the energy comes from the crowd. At the end, I take a bow. By the time I come off the stage, I'm like a bi-polar person -- I'm as manic as anything but in a good way, very hyper. There is gonna be no sleeping for hours because the adrenalin is pumping. I go home and my wonderful darling talks about the show with me and listens to me go over and over the same thing. She listens and she smiles.

My life is hugely stressful because I'm either thinking about the kids I see in the mornings or I'm thinking about the show and memorising lines. It's stressful, but I love it. I think stress is something that holds a building together. It's like our cornerstone.

'The Nina in Me': Karen Underwood sings Nina Simone at the Half Moon Theatre, Cork, August 14-16 and September 8-13. Tel: (021) 427-0022, or see www.halfmoontheatre.ie. Internet and telephone bookings are subject to a booking fee of €2.50 per ticket