Ageing has graced the singer with a positive attitude, along with music and performing, which provided salvation during a difficult time, writes Margaret Jennings
Cork-based singer Karen Underwood has long given up worrying about what other people think. “That’s the privilege of being in a 56-year-old body with a few rolls, as opposed to a skinny one that’s absolute perfection, but not being able to walk the walk, or talk the talk,” she says, in reference to the younger, insecure version of herself.
Now, the Chicago-born performer and grandmother of two stands firmly in her own power, one of the benefits of having reached a certain age, but also feeling much loved at this stage of her life.
“I compare it [life] to a garden. You get a brand new garden and it’s a blank canvas and it takes years and years and years to cultivate it, make the most of it. There’s a lot of navel-gazing, some of it being selfish, some of it making mistakes, some of it loss, love, and ageing has this bite on the ass for us all you know.
It’s a fantastic attitude, but a hard-earned one too. Not long after Karen came to Cork from Chicago 22 years ago, she and her husband separated, with he returning to the US and she remaining with her daughter Christiana and son Erbie. She also found love with her now wife, Mary, who brought four more children to their family unit, over 15 years ago.
“I’m in a very stable, very happy, very supportive loving relationship, something I had never experienced before,” says Karen, adding that Mary has “propelled” her forward and encouraged her, particularly as a musical performer.
However, seven years ago, Karen’s son Erbie took a fatal overdose at the age of 18, rocking her world.
“I took a dip back in 2012 when Erbie died. I took a downward turn and kinda went underground for a while, but when I came back, I brought all the pain with me to the painful songs, and that relief when I don’t feel that pain, a lot of that comes into the music too. If you’re a performer and not just a singer, you pick the music that you have a relationship with, to perform.”
The music, her writing, her performing has been a salvation and she has also felt much loved and accepted within the “little capsule” of fantastic musicians in Cork.
However, she also checks in with Erbie: “Something that I just ask myself when I have those moments when I feel stifled, because the grief can be stifling, is: ‘What would he really want for me?’ and that has given me permission to live my life. Yes, this is his anniversary date, or yes, this is his birthday, or yes, this is the day they all went to the grads and I had no one to bring, would he want me to be defeated by it, or would he want me to live and do something about it?”
She believes also in “giving service, when I can” to the more vulnerable in society.
Karen has written and produced numerous shows, including Soul in the City for the past four years. She is also planning to write a book of her life, with the hope of knuckling down to it this autumn.
Another of her great loves is gardening at their home in Douglas. “Gardening is huge in my life and has provided me with a lot of exercise, resilience, fresh food, fresh flowers, fresh air, meditation and just me-time. I could be out there for six or eight hours on a good day, and I love it.
That insecure younger woman has certainly evolved: “Well you know, I like now that at this hour of my life I can sing a classical piece of music as quickly as I would sing a soul piece, or a gospel piece. I love that my life is not about being in boxes — spirituality, sexuality, music.
“Those boxes are what confined me for the first third of my life and now that I’m in this part, I don’t want limitations – no thank you.”
And the future? “I see myself as having a ball — right now — and that is it. You need to live. It’s not a dress rehearsal.”
Karen will be performing in Cork on June 2, as part of Soul in the City, with Aretha Queen of Soul, at the Everyman Theatre, and, as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival she will feature as Lilith on June 15 and 16 in Dali, and also in The Cork Proms at Cork Opera House, in Divas, on June 23.